Robert J. Suhadolnik, Ph.D., a biochemist at Temple’s School of Medicine is developing a blood test that shows the presence or absence of a key enzyme that reacts to the presence of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), a debilitating illness that has puzzled researchers for years.
CFS features diverse, multi-systemic symptoms including muscle aches and joint pain, crushing fatigue, severe headaches, poor memory, swollen lymph glands and fevers. No one knows how it’s transmitted or exactly how to treat or cure it. Even the criteria for who has it keeps on changing. Derided as the “yuppie flu,” its sufferers have often been told it’s all in their heads.
But Suhadolnik’s blood test could change all that.
His research project just received $270,000 in bridge funding from the National Institutes of Health. Although this money only temporarily supports his ongoing efforts, when Suhadolnik heard he’d been given bridge funds he was “ecstatic.”
Working with blood samples from two of the nation’s foremost CFS researchers, Nevada’s Dr. Daniel L. Peterson and North Carolina’s Dr. Paul R. Cheney, Suhadolnik’s study is measuring the protein levels and activity of the antiviral defense system of patients with CFS and comparing them to healthy control subjects.
If clinical testing continues to show that the blood test reveals evidence of an up-regulated viral defense system in patients with CFS, and normal levels in those without it, his test could be objective evidence of specific immune system dysfunction. Diagnosing the illness definitively may help end speculation by insurance carriers, long-term disability carriers and the general public that CFS sufferers are malingerers or hypochondriacs.
“For years, people with CFS have been ridiculed and told their symptoms are all in their heads,” says Suhadolnik. “We believe this isn’t true.”
Suhadolnik believes that CFS patients’ bodies are responding to a central nervous system virus that interferes with their viral pathways’ ability to fight off infection.
“In most cases, the human body is able to resist infection thanks to a cascade of biochemical events triggered in the body’s immune system,” says Suhadolnik. “If these antiviral defense pathways are functioning correctly, the spread of the virus is prevented.”
Suhadolnik thinks that with CFS, the antiviral pathways appear to be overly active.
“When this happens, the effect on the body is destructive,” says Suhadolnik. “Many of the symptoms CFS patients experience may be the result of this overreaction that follows a viral infection.”
There’s a lot of scientific evidence to back his theory up. In studies published recently in two leading medical journals, key components of the antiviral pathways have been measured in blood samples obtained from CFS patients who were severely disabled by their disease. They also had antiviral defense pathways that were significantly more active than normal.
Currently, doctors use exclusionary diagnosis—ruling out everything else—before they decide it must be CFS. For the patient, this often means going from doctor to doctor over a period of months or years searching for a diagnosis.
“I went from doctor to doctor for 12 years,” said one local CFS patient who wished to remain anonymous. “They didn’t know what I had, just what I didn’t have. No one really believed I was sick. Meanwhile, there were days when I could not even get out of bed. Something was wrong with me.”
H. James Day, M.D., a professor of medicine at Temple’s School of Medicine and chief of hematology at Abington Memorial Hospital, treats many local CFS patients. Day says the symptoms vary from patient to patient, and can be anything from a hindrance to completely debilitating.
“With a mild case, tiredness and difficulty concentration may be the only symptoms,” he says. “With a severe case, a patient may not even be able to get out of bed,” he says.
If the blood test is conclusively proven to confirm a CFS diagnosis, researchers can instead focus on the etiology—finding the cause or origin of the disease.
That would be the first real breakthrough in CFS research since Petersen and Cheney first began treating CFS patients in Lake Tahoe in 1984.
Suhadolnik’s work was acknowledged in November at the First World Congress on CFS. During his keynote address, Harvard Medical School professor Anthony Komaroff, M.D. singled out Suhadolnik’s work as “the most impressive evidence for viral involvement in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.” His work again received notice at this year’s AACFS conference in San Francisco, Oct. 13-16.