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Inflammatory biomarkers may help diagnose chronic fatigue syndrome

By Sally Robertson, BScAugust 1, 2017

Researchers have discovered inflammation biomarkers that could help scientists to research, diagnose and even treat chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

Also referred to as myalgic encephomyelitis, CFS is a poorly-understood condition characterized by profound, long-term tiredness. Researchers have previously reported observing some signs of inflammation in CFS patients, but literature on the topic has been limited and inconsistent.

IMAGE: 3D illustration of a cytokine.

However, the development of high-throughput methods has meant screening of the immune system for inflammation biomarkers is now possible on a scale that has not previously been achievable.

For the current study, Stanford University researchers José Montoya and colleagues screened the blood of 192 people with CFS and 392 healthy controls to see whether a signature of serum cytokines could be associated with the condition. Cytokines are chemical messengers used by the immune system to modulate immunity and inflammation.

Fifty-one different cytokines were compared between the two groups after adjustment for covariates including age, gender and race.

On average, only one cytokine was consistently elevated among CFS cases compared with controls. However, when CFS severity was factored in, significant increases in 16 other cytokines were found to correlate with CFS severity.

As reported in PNAS, of the 17 cytokines that correlated with severity, 13 were promoters of inflammation. The authors say this is “likely contributing to many of the symptoms experienced by patients and establishing a strong immune system component of the disease.”

It is not yet clear whether the increased markers are a cause or a result of having CFS. However, the findings do support an emerging body of evidence pointing towards the condition as a physiological rather than a psychosomatic one.

“There’s no question this is something that’s biologically based. This is a disease that does not get cured with psychological treatments, counselling or anti-depression drugs,” states Montoya.

Next, the researchers want to investigate how the biomarkers may be used to diagnose CFS and to monitor the condition’s severity. It is also possible the cytokines could be used to identify new therapies that could reduce inflammation in CFS.

Chris Armstrong from the University of Melbourne, who is also involved in CFS research, referred to the study results and the methods used as encouraging: “Finding markers for subsets and categorisations within the illness is much needed for future research and treatments.”

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