Ron Davis, PhD, calls chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME/CFS) the “last major disease about which we know almost nothing.” That’s because at least a million Americans are debilitated by ME/CFS, and yet no clear cause is known, no treatments are approved; funding, understanding, and awareness are disproportionately limited. Yet thanks in part to a boost in advocacy and fundraising efforts, there is increasing cause for hope, many researchers and patients believe.
Earlier this month, several hundred researchers, doctors, patients and caregivers joined forces for the Open Medicine Foundation's Community Symposium on the Molecular Basis of ME/CFS chaired by Davis at Stanford, with another 2,700 worldwide joining online. Known for his contributions in biotechnology and genomics, Davis has rerouted his career to tackle this disease and save his critically ill son. He’s brought together an interdisciplinary team of collaborators, many of whom spoke at the symposium. “The Human Genome Project taught us that we can take on a large project like this and succeed,” Davis said.
The event focused on a new understanding of ME/CFS as a molecular disease. Davis’ team has taken this perspective in an omics and big data study of severely ill patients. Wenzhong Xiao, PhD, Davis’ collaborator at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, presented a preliminary analysis of this dataset, including efforts to use it to define biomarkers and predict causative factors.
Davis presented his technology-driven approach to unraveling ME/CFS, noting that if sequencing technologies had been available at the time, “we would have figured out AIDS in a couple of weeks.” He presented a nanotechnology developed at the Stanford Genome Technology Center that can successfully distinguish patient blood samples from healthy ones, based on their response to stress in the form of increased salt concentration. This presents the potential for a blood-based diagnostic – a transformative prospect for a field reliant on lengthy, subjective diagnoses.
A core issue in ME/CFS is massive energy depletion, so much research is focused on the mitochondria, the organelles inside cells that are responsible for energy generation. Keynote speaker and mitochondrial physiologist Robert Naviaux, MD, PhD, from the University of California, San Diego, suggested that the 'cell danger response' to stressors, which prevents cells from returning to baseline function until healing is complete, is prolonged in ME/CFS, which is consistent with observations of reduced metabolism in patients.
Naviaux's theory also syncs with reports of common infections triggering the development of ME/CFS. In fact, Davis' cell-free DNA sequencing revealed no exceptional types or levels of pathogens in patients. “It’s not the stressors themselves, but an inability to resolve them and heal afterwards,” Naviaux said.
Stanford immunologist Mark Davis, PhD, presented evidence suggesting that ME/CFS could be an autoimmune disease: using single-cell sequencing, his lab has observed an increase in patient T cells that share a particular target, a signature of an immune response. He said he is investigating what these T cells are targeting.
Nobel Laureate Mario Capecchi, PhD, from the University of Utah, presented a study in mice that shows a connection between the immune system and the brain in a genetic condition that shares some traits with ME/CFS. He also noted how important patient participation is in studying any disease, and how impressed he was with the ME/CFS patient community.
With so much patient engagement, collaboration, and community spirit – not to mention the many theories and new datasets, researchers say it is an exciting time for the field. Many attendees said they were amazed at how much has been accomplished with such scant resources. The event closed with a standing ovation.
For more about the symposium, check out a video of the event, a Storify summary, or read coverage in The Mercury News. The researchers are also accepting donations to support their work.
Previously: Blood test: Scientists crack code of chronic fatigue syndrome's inflammatory underpinnings, Stanford researcher develops tools to understand chronic fatigue syndrome and Unbroken: A chronic fatigue syndrome patient's long road to recovery
Photos by Ashley Haugen