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A Diagnostic Marker For Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)? The Poker Game Going On In Our Genes

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By Dr. Paul Cheney • • May 1, 1999

(The information in this article is based a taped conversation with Dr. Paul Cheney, renowned CFS doctor and researcher, and is shared with his permission.)

Dr. Cheney read a newly published study this summer and glimpsed a possible diagnostic marker for CFS. Test subjects included three Gulf War Veterans, seven healthy control subjects, and two people with active polio-virus. Researchers probed their blood for both RNA and DNA. They found thousands of different sized RNA segments floating around in the serum of veterans, a small amount in the polio subjects, and none in the healthy controls. The researchers called this voyager RNA since it travels around in the blood outside of the cells.

This finding in the veterans is highly unusual on four counts. They had RNA segments in their blood, they had a lot of RNA segments in their blood, they had a lot of aberrant RNA segments in their blood, and they all the same aberrant RNA segments in their blood. (The segments from the three veterans varied by less than 1%.)

The researchers isolated the aberrant sequence and examined it in detail. They began recognizing certain pieces, which they realized all came from part of chromosome 22. It appeared that a section of chromosome 22 had been sliced up, rearranged, pieces from somewhere else inserted, and the whole thing reconnected. Amazingly, a section of chromosome 22 appears to be altered, and it’s altered the same way in all three veterans!

Since these veterans had symptoms identical to CFS, Dr. Cheney began testing CFS patients and almost all had this same aberrant RNA segment. This strongly suggests that the veterans and the CFS patients have the same illness, and that the aberrant segment of RNA is very likely a diagnostic marker. Dr. Cheney suspects that this marker only appears well into the illness, and will not be found close to onset. He also believes that the amount of aberrant RNA in the blood serum may correlate with illness severity.

Why would patients with CFS and GWS have an aberrant piece of RNA, and why would they all happen to have the same one? Dr. Cheney uses a wonderful analogy to explain it - a poker game. When we’re faced with an extreme threat to our health, our body plays poker with its DNA in order to find something that will help. Our body is breaking some of our DNA up into cards and shuffling them to see if it can deal a winning hand.

There are three possibilities when dealing out poker hands. You can deal a winning hand. That’s possibly what this RNA segment found in both CFS and GWS is – a winning hand. The body shuffles its way to something that it senses might help, so it remembers it and makes a lot of copies. These segments float around in the blood on their way to other cells to make more copies, and they show up on the test more easily because there are so many of them. The potential diagnostic marker is actually a winning hand, or as close as the body can come to one. And it’s a marker because everyone with the same illness will eventually shuffle to the same solution. Same problem – same helpful answer.

A second possibility is a bust hand. You don’t win or lose - the new segment doesn’t help, but it doesn’t hurt either. The third possibility is bad news. Every so often you deal a hand with the joker in it. The body shuffles and deals out a segment that is a metabolic toxin. If it is extremely poisonous it will destroy the cell in which it was created, thus destroying itself. The real problem is the minor toxins, the ones that make you sick but won’t kill you. You shuffle out enough of these bad hands and it can keep you from getting well. The hope is that the new treatment Dr. Cheney is testing, fetal bovine growth factor, will be able to destroy some or all of these aberrant segments of RNA.

More research is needed to confirm that this segment of RNA is a diagnostic marker, but Dr. Cheney believes this is by far the best candidate yet. He also notes that while it would be a genetic marker, it is not one we are born with. It is one our body creates in response to this illness.


This article was compiled by Carol Sieverling, with full permission from Dr. Cheney. The study mentioned is entitled “RNAs in the Sera of Persian Gulf War Veterans Have Segments Homologous to Chromosome 22q11.2”, written by Urnovitz, Tuite, Higashida, and Murphy, and was published in Clinical and Diagnostic Laboratory Immunology in May 1999, p. 330-335.

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