Virus Tied To Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Researchers have found a virus that might be at the root of chronic fatigue syndrome. More than a million Americans suffer from the disease, which can leave them exhausted even after a good night's sleep, cause debilitating pain in muscles and joints, and make concentrating difficult. Renee Montagne talks with Dr. Daniel Peterson, one of the first to recognize chronic fatigue syndrome.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We have news, now, of a scientific breakthrough about a disease that affects over a million people in the U.S. - Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Chronic Fatigue affects the immune system, leaving its victims exhausted all the time. It can cause debilitating muscle and joint pain and cognitive problems.

According to a new study in the journal Science Express, two-thirds of a group suffering from Chronic Fatigue were infected with the retro virus called XMRV. Researchers can't yet say whether XMRV actually causes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but there is a strong association.

Dr. Daniel Peterson was one of the first to recognize Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as a disease. He's medical director of a neuro-disease institute in Nevada.

Thank you for joining us.

Dr. DANIEL PETERSON (Medical Director, Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease): Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Now, you've been in this field from the beginning and would have paid attention to how patients have often been ridiculed - as to somehow they don't really have a disease. Why did people think that?

Dr. PETERSON: I think the reason for that is the abnormalities of the immune system are initially very subtle. And if a physician does just routine testing - CBCs, chemistry panels, urinalysis, things like that - you find they're normal. And it isn't until you look at the immune system that you realize there's substantial dis-regulation of the immune system.

So, it's very similar to asymptomatic carriers of HIV. They look just fine until time passes and their illness evolves and more symptoms are found. But I never felt this was predominantly a psychiatric disease or malingering. There was never any evidence to support that theory.

MONTAGNE: Was your work, though, in the early stages, in a sense, you know, looked down upon. Like you're working on something that everyone knows isn't really a disease.

Dr. PETERSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. It was a problem in the early '80s, particularly, and this federal agencies never showed particular interest in this disease as well.

MONTAGNE: So, what was the path to this discovery?

Dr. PETERSON: Yeah, it's an interesting story. Because once it was demonstrated that the patients had impairment of their natural killer cell function, regardless of what country they were in, we knew that there was an immune impairment.

And back in the 1990s, I was associated with Temple University and the researchers there that looked at the antiviral pathway - the natural defense against viruses - and they found very substantial abnormalities in the patients who had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. And the illness is totally compatible with a viral illness that just doesn't go away.

So, back then we didn't really have the tools to really look for the inciting agent. So, we began the search probably about three years ago with the new technology and looking for a possible agent that could explain all these things. And lo and behold, through arduous scientific rigor, they located XMRV.

MONTAGNE: And does new study suggest any new treatments?

Dr. PETERSON: The real excitement of this kind of translational research is that with an agent we can target therapies specifically for that group of patients that is infected. There are antiretroviral drugs that should be potentially effective. And we know now, a target that we can go after in terms of immune stimulation and in terms of antiviral therapy, and that's really the first time in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that this has been possible.

MONTAGNE: So, that's really good news.

Dr. PETERSON: It's super good news.

MONTAGNE: You now know what is associated with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Does it tell you how someone gets it?

Dr. PETERSON: It's an excellent question, because I think it's required probably to be a genetic predisposition like there are for most diseases. And then there has to be the infectious agent and then a combination of host factors, probably immune factors, et cetera, that propagate the disease.

And there's many other questions, of course, that arise: should the blood supply be screened; what does this virus lead to in patients who have it 20 or 30 years; can it be prevented; can there be a vaccine? All the questions that come up in retrovirology.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Peterson, thank you very much.

Dr. PETERSON: My pleasure. Thank you for the courtesy.

MONTAGNE: Daniel Peterson is the medical director of the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease in Reno, Nevada.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: