Have you heard of the condition Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) or Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease (SEID)? In medical science, the condition has been considered a mysterious illness that has baffled scientists for more than three decades. But Stanford University researchers have found that some blood proteins are associated with the disorder.

CFS reportedly affected at least a million people in the United States. The condition is often characterized by profound exhaustion or fatigue, flu-like symptoms, mental impairment called “brain fog,” muscle pain and other physical symptoms.

According to Bruce Goldman of Stanford Medicine’s Scope, chronic fatigue syndrome is typically seen in two age groups — among teens with ages between 15 and 20, and among adults between 30 and 35. This condition also lingers for decades.

Mysterious illness

Patients with CFS often feel severely sick, tired or depressed but doctors can’t find anything wrong with them. That is why it has long been deemed as a mysterious illness for so many reasons.

It is difficult to diagnose. The causes of this condition are also not well-understood since no single cause has been identified and several other illnesses manifest similar symptoms. There are also no diagnostic laboratory tests for CFS and no current cure.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has suggested that the condition may be the end stage of multiple and various illnesses. Doctors, however, have not yet concluded anything.

The study

Luckily, Stanford researchers seemed to have found something important that could shed some insights about the enigmatic disorder.

Discuss this news on Eunomia

In the findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, Stanford CFS expert and lead study author Jose Montoya has found a link between the condition and the variations in 17 immune system-signaling proteins or cytokines.

Montoya, along with immunologist Mark Davis, PhD., found that the concentrations of the 17 cytokines (out of the 51) in the bloodstream are associated with the severity of the disease.

The study also emphasized the role of inflammation in the condition.

Moreover, they found that some cytokine levels were lower in patients with mild CFS but higher levels were seen in those with the severe condition. Experts also noticed that the protein tumor growth factor beta (TGF-beta) was also higher in patients with CSF, while resistin was found lower. Thirteen out of the 17 cytokines are also found pro-inflammatory.

Why routine lab tests are not informative

One of the things that doctors are left baffled when it comes to ME/CFS is the fact that oftentimes, routine laboratory tests come back negative.

The reason? Montoya explained that those tests might not be measuring the right substances needed to determine the condition.

Fortunately, a team of experts from Stanford is currently working on the development of a panel that would test around five of the 17 cytokines. The scientists aim to create this test panel to be used for commercial purposes.

Diagnostic test and potential cure

In the past, CFS was not widely accepted as a real medical condition. But due to the recent findings, Montoya revealed CFS is no longer a “psychological condition” or a “figment of the imagination.”

According to California University of Science and Medicine neurology researcher Dr. Shaheen Lakhan, the recent study could pave the way for the development of a "biomarker" or a diagnostic laboratory test that could help doctors in understanding, diagnosing and treating the condition better.

Lakhan added it could also help in monitoring “disease activity and responsiveness to treatments.”

The study could also help in the potential development of a new drug to cure the debilitating disorder. In fact, it suggests the possibility of treatments with immune-modifying or anti-inflammatory therapy. Meanwhile, experts said that there’s still so much to learn about CFS but they are optimistic that in the next decade, they will know what to test and be able to finally find a cure for the condition.