Has science found the cause of ME?

Breakthrough offers hope to millions of sufferers around the world

Scientists say they have made a dramatic breakthrough in understanding the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome – a debilitating condition affecting 250,000 people in Britain which for decades has defied a rational medical explanation.

The researchers have discovered a strong link between chronic fatigue syndrome, which is sometimes known as ME or myalgic encephalomyelitis, and an obscure retrovirus related to a group of viruses found to infect mice.

Although the published data falls short of proving a definitive cause-and-effect, one of the scientists behind the study said last night that she was confident that further unpublished data she had gathered over the past few weeks implicated the retrovirus as an important and perhaps sole cause of the condition.

Chronic fatigue syndrome has blighted the lives of an estimated 17 million people worldwide because its symptoms, long-term tiredness and aching limbs, do not go away with sleep or rest. Famous sufferers have included the author and yachtswoman Clare Francis, the film director Lord Puttnam, the pop singer Suzanne Shaw and the Labour politician Yvette Cooper, who has made a full recovery.

The condition initially generated much controversy in the 1980s, when it was known as "yuppie flu", because some medical authorities even doubted whether it was a genuine physical illness. In the absence of a proven cause, many scientists have questioned whether there could ever be one reason behind so many different symptoms, so the latest research showing a strong link to a single virus has generated intense excitement among experts.

The study, published in the journal Science, shows that the virus, called murine leukaemia virus-related virus (XMRV), was found in 68 of 101 patients from around the US with chronic fatigue syndrome. This compared with just eight of 218 healthy "controls" drawn at random from the same parts of the US, the scientists said.

But the senior author of the study, Judy Mikovits, director of research at the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nevada, said further blood tests have revealed that more than 95 per cent of patients with the syndrome have antibodies to the virus – indicating they have been infected with XMRV, which can lie dormant within a patient's DNA. "With those numbers, I would say, yes we've found the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome. We also have data showing that the virus attacks the human immune system," said Dr Mikovits. She is testing a further 500 blood samples gathered from chronic fatigue patients diagnosed in London. "The same percentages are holding up," she said.

If the findings are replicated by other groups and the XMRV virus is accepted as a cause of chronic fatigue syndrome then it could be possible to treat patients with antivirals, just like treating HIV, or to develop a vaccine against the virus to protect people from developing the condition, said Dr Mikovits.

"We now have compelling proof that a retrovirus named XMRV is present in more than two-thirds of patient samples with chronic fatigue syndrome. This finding could be a major step in the discovery of vital treatment options for millions of patients," she said.

The genetic structure of the XMRV virus indicates that it has evolved from a similar virus found in wild field mice. Dr Mikovits suggested it could have jumped the "species barrier" from mouse to man like many other human viruses, such as HIV, another retrovirus, which is thought to have infected humans from monkeys or apes.

XMRV was originally found in men suffering from prostate cancer and it was this discovery that led Dr Mikovits and her collaborators at the US National Institutes of Health to test blood samples stored from patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. "The discovery of XMRV in two major diseases, prostate cancer and now chronic fatigue syndrome, is very exciting. If cause-and-effect is established, there would be a new opportunity for prevention and treatment of these diseases," said Professor Robert Silverman, of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, who worked on the fatigue syndrome study.

However, other researchers emphasised that the numbers published so far are too small to conclude anything about the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome. "It's spectacular but needs replication. And I hope that no one is thinking of prescribing anti-retrovirals on the basis of this," said Simon Wessely, professor of psychological medicine at King's College London. "It's very preliminary and there no evidence to say this is relevant to the vast majority of people in the UK with the condition."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference