Comment by Ronald W. Davis, PhD
The publication, “Metabolic Features of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” by Naviaux RK, et al. is a landmark in ME/CFS research. It is the most important and groundbreaking study of ME/CFS to date. Extending recent indications of metabolic alterations in ME/CFS, this study provides the first comprehensive, quantitative demonstration of the metabolomic deficiencies that characterize the disease. They define a clear metabolic ‘signature’ that accurately distinguishes patients from healthy individuals. This signature was consistent even among patients with different symptoms or disease-initiating events. These findings are exciting news for both patients and researchers.
Not only do they substantiate the biological reality of this stigmatized disease, but they also point to the most promising ME/CFS biomarker candidate the field has seen. An ME/CFS biomarker – long awaited by scientists – would allow the precise and objective diagnostics that have never been possible for this disease. In addition, it would accelerate the search for treatments. Dr. Naviaux’s study suggests that both of these endeavors could be designed in a way that will benefit all patients, regardless of their symptoms and initiating events (which are not always known).
In addition to a common metabolomic response, patients show a variety of individual responses. These individual responses may contribute to the symptomatic differences, and may be caused in part by genetic differences. Similarly, effectively treating ME/CFS might require two components: a common treatment for all patients and a personalized treatment. Interestingly, this might explain the plethora of treatments that have helped individual patients but only rarely work on other patients.
Another important finding from this study is that the metabolomic response observed in ME/CFS is opposite to the pattern seen in acute infection and metabolic syndrome. This result supports the controversial idea that while infection is often the initiating event for ME/CFS, it does not contribute to the ongoing illness. What is important to note is that in the absence of evidence of an active infection, it is plausible that the long-term antimicrobial treatments often used for ME/CFS patients are doing more harm than good.
This breakthrough study thus presents several new findings of great importance to the ME/CFS patient, medical, and research communities – and perhaps most importantly, to the search for treatments. For these findings to have an impact on patient care, further investigation and validation via independent studies are crucial. Because of this, the Open Medicine Foundation has funded the next study of a larger patient cohort, in which Dr. Naviaux will validate the ME/CFS metabolomic signature in a larger, geographically diverse sample, and I will explore the role of genetics in the individual responses. These studies are already underway. We appointed Dr. Naviaux to the Scientific Advisory Board of OMF earlier this year, and we are grateful for his expertise in helping to unravel the metabolic mysteries of this debilitating disease. We are finally on the right path to understanding ME/CFS. We and many of our collaborators are working hard to translate this new understanding into general and personalized treatments. The more support our research gets, the faster that will happen. Find out how you can support ME/CFS research here.
Ronald W. Davis, Ph.D.
Professor of Biochemistry and Genetics, Stanford University
Director, Stanford Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Research Center and Stanford Genome Technology Center
Director, Scientific Advisory Board, Open Medicine Foundation