Science: Retrovirus Detected In Patients With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome-But Does It Cause the Disease?
As many as two-thirds of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome carry an infectious retrovirus in their blood cells, according to new research published in Science. But the study’s authors say it’s not clear whether the virus is the main cause or a co-conspirator in the disorder.
First, the interesting aspect of this story to me, since it illustrates how making connections can result in innovative science. This work discusses the correlation of a specific virus to CFS. This virus was first isolated in humans just a few years ago as a possible cause for a particularly virulent form of prostate cancer. How did these researchers make the connection between a virus from prostate cancer and CFS?
It turns out the virus-positive prostate cancers demonstrate an alteration in an anti-viral protein, RNase L. The CFS researchers happened to know that a similar defect was seen in CFS patients, so they just decided to see if the virus was present in their patients also. They had no reason to expect this to be the case but it was one of those connections that makes scientists go ‘Hummm.’
The data sure are exciting. The virus is Xenotrophic Murine Leukemia Virus-related Virus (XMLV). It is a retrovirus that can incorporate itself into the cellular DNA of infected people. Two-thirds of the people in the CFS cohort had detectible virus while less than 4% of the control group did. In addition, an even higher percentage of the CFS cohort had antibodies to the virus, demonstrating that they had been infected with the virus. They also showed that the virus in the plasma of infected people could continue to be infectious.
There is still a lot of work to be done to demonstrate that this virus is the cause of the disease. But we have made some real progress simply because of a seemingly random fact presented in a piece of research that ostensibly had no connection at all to CFS.
Some of the best work comes from making a connection to a bit of data that may appear to be inconsequential. Good social networks permit these bits of data to get to people that can actually do something with them.