A new study looks at the potential for a single blood test to detect chronic fatigue syndrome by measuring how immune cells respond to stress. Up to 250,000 Australians are affected by the debilitating but poorly understood neurological conditions known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). The symptoms vary in severity, from headaches and pain in muscles and joints, to fatigue to a disabling inability to tolerate light, sound and movement. As a result, sufferers can be bedridden for months or even years. According to ME Australia, people with severe symptoms can have a quality of life similar to patients with cancer or late-stage AIDS.
A commercially available standard diagnostic test for ME/CFS has yet to be developed. And because there is limited knowledge about its causes and a wide range of symptoms, it can be difficult for people with ME/CFS to gain a definitive diagnosis. Treatment options are also limited.
Professor Ron Davis, a biochemist and geneticist at Stanford University, has recently published a paper describing a new tool that could help diagnose ME/CFS. Davis also said the test provides scientific evidence the condition is not psychological in nature.
The study, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), compared blood samples from 40 people: 20 with ME/CFS and 20 without.
The samples from both groups were stressed by adding salt, and the researchers used a nanoelectronic assay to measure the change in energy as an electrical current flowed through immune cells and plasma for each patient.
The researchers found there was a clear spike in the change in the current after it passed through the cells and plasma of patients with ME/CFS, while there was not a great deal of change after the current passed through samples from healthy patients.
According to the researchers, this indicated that cells and plasma from the ME/CFS samples were failing on a cellular level after stress.
“We don’t know exactly why the cells and plasma are acting this way, or even what they’re doing. But there is scientific evidence that this disease is not a fabrication of a patient’s mind,” Davis said.
“We clearly see the difference in the way healthy and chronic fatigue syndrome cells process stress.”
For Davis, the research has a personal driver. His son has been confined to bed with severe CFS for several years. This new diagnostic tool is based on a biological clue that Davis noticed in his son, according to the university.
Davis’ team will perform further experiments with larger sample sizes to understand the mechanisms behind their results, and test how their diagnostic tool performs for similar conditions. There is also potential for it to test the effectiveness of potential new treatments.
“We are working on adapting the technology to a platform capable of preclinical testing of drugs and therapies on cells from ME/CFS patients, leading toward development of a portable, handheld and easy-to-use platform that can be operated by researchers and clinicians at any skill level,” the paper states.
In Australia, researchers are also working to understand and diagnose the conditions. In 2019, Griffith University patented a blood test for new biomarkers on white blood cells that could indicate ME/CFS.
The 2020/21 Federal Budget also allocates $3 million for research into the cause and nature of the condition. The Federal Greens have also pledged $15 million for biomedical studies, improved NDIS access, advocacy and support for those with the conditions.