Breaking Research Reveals Common Bacterium Chlamydia Pneumoniae may be Culprit in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFIDS), Fibromyalgia (FMS) and Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

You may not have heard much about the common bacterium Chlamydia pneumoniae, pronounced “Kluh-MID-ee-uh New-MOAN-eye-A.” Compared to its notorious sexually transmitted relative, Chlamydia trachomatis, it is an obscure pathogen. But some of the world’s leading infectious disease specialists and microbiologists suspect that C. pneumoniae may be involved in some of the most baffling chronic diseases of our time.

In fact, mounting evidence suggests that C. pneumonia may be a major villain in heart disease. Spread through coughs and sneezes, the bacterium causes a flu-like respiratory condition that sometimes progresses to pneumonia… and perhaps other illnesses.

“The question is,” says Charles Stratton, M.D., director of the microbiology laboratory at Vanderbilt University In Nashville, Tennessee, “has Chlamydia pneumoniae caused just a respiratory tract infection, or has it also contributed to other problems such as atherosclerosis, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS), or even Gulf War syndrome?”

Regarding CFIDS patients, investigators at Vanderbilt have treated a handful of them and discovered anomalies in their immunoglobulin, indicating low levels or absence of immunoglobulin G to C. pneumoniae. “The current interpretation is immune tolerance secondary to antigen overload,” says Dr. Stratton. While Dr. Stratton says that some CFIDS patients have improved and even reversed symptoms by taking standard anti-chlamydial antibiotic therapy over a nine-month period, he stresses that, “We do not know if antibiotic therapies will help all CFIDS patients because we do not know if all CFIDS patients are infected with C. pneumoniae.

“Until recognized experts such as Dr. Nancy Klimas at the University of Miami, or Dr. Bell at Harvard University Medical School or Dr. Peterson in Incline Village, Nevada, look at a large group of people with Chronic fatigue, such as a few thousand, medicine cannot begin to understand whether and how this bug is causing problems.”

At this point in time, Dr. Stratton’s antibiotic therapies for CFIDS constitute proprietary, confidential information. He has published articles in the medical literature, however, such as in February,1998 Issue of NEUROLOGY, which describes a successful course of treatment for MS associated with C. pneumoniae. This involved intravenous methylprednisone and Beta interferon lb with 8 million units (Betaseron 1B) subcutaneously. The immunosuppressive regimen also included plasmapheresis and azathloprine, plus cyclophosphamide. In addition, anti-chlamydial agents ofloxacin, rifampin, metronidazole and co-trimoxazole were used.

Although CFIDS is recognized by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Centers For Disease Control as a complex disorder, Dr. Stratton notes that, “The true incidence is probably grossly underestimated by governmental agencies.” The hallmarks of CFIDS include the following symptoms: persistent, disabling fatigue that causes a substantial reduction in activity level and recurrent infections and sleep disturbances. In addition, significant neurocognitive dysfunction or “brain fog,” flu-like episodes, muscle pain and weakness and low-grade fever plague the CFIDS patient.

Those with CFIDS who wish to investigate their C. pneumoniae status should ask their physicians for a serologic blood test for the bacteria, which measures the presence of antibodies against the bug. There are many laboratories in the U.S. that test for this pathogen, Dr. Stratton notes, including Vanderbilt University’s molecular Pathology laboratory. To obtain a Request for Research Blood Tests form for C. pneumoniae from Vanderbilt, along with instructions on how to send a blood sample there, telephone (615) 343-9144 or (615) 343-4739. You may also fax the Vanderbilt Clinical Labs Office at (615) 343- 8420. Another laboratory specializing in C. pneumoniae testing is ImmunoSciences Inc. in Beverly Hills, Ca. at 1-800-950- 4686 or (310) 667-1077.

Everyone, Dr. Stratton notes, probably gets C. pneumoniae once in their lifetime. “You can get this bacterial infection as early as age four,” he says. “By the age of twenty, half the people in the population have had it, and by the age of eighty, almost everyone has had it.”

Although Stratton and his Vanderbilt colleagues, such as Charles Mitchell, M.D., have been investigating C. pneumoniae for a few years and have published in medical journals like NEUROLOGY, “…the research journey is just beginning,” says Dr. Stratton.

The bacterial bug first came to international attention in 1988, when Finnish doctors at Helsinki Center Hospital published a pair of studies in which C. pneumoniae played a starring role. The first reported that two thousand people with coronary artery disease were more likely than healthy control subjects to have antibodies to C. pneumoniae in their blood.

The second study discovered remarkably high antibody levels in the blood of two thousand heart attack victims. Most physicians and researchers figured the Finnish reports were due to coincidence. But Dr. Thomas Grayston, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, believing otherwise, launched his own study. Grayston documented a coronary artery disease pattern in Seattle patients that matched the one described in the Finnish report. Eight research teams in five countries have since confirmed it.

Many in the medical community still view the correlation between cardiovascular disease and C. pneumoniae with equal parts interest and skepticism. But Dr. Stratton notes that a similar situation prevailed in the early 1980s, when evidence suggesting that bacteria caused peptic ulcers started appearing in medical journals. “Critics maintained that certain ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, too much alcohol or excess stomach acid,” says Peter Wolfe, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and chief of the division of medicine at Century City Hospital in Los Angeles, Ca. That is until Australian scientist Barry Marshall played guinea pig for his bacterial theory and downed a shot containing the bacteria Helicobacter Pylori. Days later, Marshall developed a full-blown ulcer which he soon cured with antibiotics and an antacid, thereby upgrading ulcer treatment for millions and earning his place in medical history.

According to Dr. Stratton, “We’re looking at Chlamydia pneumoniae for many reasons, including the fact that research suggests that it can enter the walls of various blood vessels and linger for years, fueling the inflammation that causes heart attacks and strokes. Many people have found it in coronary artery disease. But is it just an innocent bystander at the scene of the crime, or does it play an active role? That’s what our research is exploring.”

In addition, although there are four villas of Chlamydia currently recognized (the aforementioned Chlamydia trachomatis and Chlamydia pneumoniae as well as Chlamydia psittaci, and Chlamydia pecorum), researchers may very well discover more. “It’s likely that there are going to be more species,” Dr. Stratton ventures. “Remember that 50% of the species were discovered in the last ten years, so it seems likely that we’ll be learning a lot about new pathogens in the near future.”

To appreciate the challenges that researchers face in culturing C. pneumoniae and/or creating cocktail therapies to eradicate this pathogen, it should be noted that, “Chlamydia pneumoniae is very devious and uses other cells to multiply,” says Dr. Wolfe. “It is notoriously difficult to culture in the laboratory… culturing it may take several weeks.”

The good news is that Dr. Stratton and other researchers have developed sophisticated testing and culturing methods for this bacterium. Along with his colleague, Dr. Mitchell, Dr. Stratton happens to be an equity holder in Marlin Technologies, Inc., which is researching and developing anti-chlamydial cocktail therapies in pre-clinical treatment experiments. (Although these cocktails are not yet commercially available, Healthwatch will provide updates on the formulation and clinical trial results of these preparations and their FDA approval processes.)

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