Validation in a Virus?

By Kalb, Claudia | Newsweek, December 6, 2010 | Go to article overview

Validation in a Virus?


Kalb, Claudia, Newsweek


Byline: Claudia Kalb

For years, chronic-fatigue syndrome has been dismissed by the medical establishment. Now researchers may be closing in on a culprit.

It's hard, even years later, to read Laura Hillenbrand's wrenching description of her pain. Hillenbrand, 43, is the author of Seabiscuit and the new and widely acclaimed book Unbroken, an account of the World War II bombardier Louis Zamperini. But she is also the most articulate spokesperson for chronic-fatigue syndrome, the mysterious disorder that has plagued her since college. In an essay she wrote for The New Yorker in 2003, Hillenbrand described her aching joints, swollen glands, nausea, and exhaustion. The debilitating and unproductive trek from doctor to doctor. The disregard, the shame, and the elusive quest for relief. Chronic-fatigue syndrome plunged Hillenbrand into a state of disorientation; words looked like meaningless shapes; thoughts disappeared. "I was at a sensory distance from the world," she wrote, "as if I were wrapped in clear plastic."

It is a metaphor for the illness itself. For decades, chronic-fatigue syndrome has been mired in layers of medical and scientific uncertainty. Since Hillenbrand's symptoms emerged in 1987, doctors' awareness has grown and researchers have come up with tantalizing hypotheses about how the disorder has made as many as 4 million Americans sick. But every advance seems to come with a caveat, including a recent series of dramatic and confounding discoveries. In August a team of researchers led by the National Institutes of Health and the FDA announced that they'd found evidence of a family of retroviruses in the blood of patients with chronic-fatigue syndrome. The study mirrored an earlier report, published last year, which was celebrated by patients because it raised the possibility of pinpointing a cause and a treatment. But a third major study published this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found no such link. The big hope now is that a new nationwide investigation, directed by a leading virologist at Columbia University, will bring greater urgency and find some clarity within the next 12 to 18 months. "Cutting-edge science is often not definitive," says Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-disease expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "Keep your seat belts tight."

It's been a long ride. Since the illness first surfaced in the U.S. in the '80s, chronic-fatigue patients have endured skepticism from doctors, who have not known what to make of a constellation of symptoms that has no known cause, no diagnostic test, and no specific treatment. Many patients, including Hillenbrand, have been referred to psychiatrists. For years the disorder was not a priority at the highest levels; in 1999 a government audit found that the CDC had diverted millions of chronic-fatigue research dollars to other programs. The complex disorder continues to baffle the medical community because symptoms can vary dramatically over time and the spectrum of patients is vast. Some hold it together during the week but collapse on weekends; the most severely affected are bedridden. "Even though chronic-fatigue syndrome isn't a death sentence, it's a life sentence," says Kim McCleary, president of the Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome Association of America, a leading funding and advocacy organization. "People lead diminished lives because of the illness."

What patients want is scientific validation. In the study published last year, researchers led by Judy Mikovits, of the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI) in Reno, Nev., identified XMRV, an infectious retrovirus in the same family as the AIDS virus, in the blood of 67 percent of patients suffering from chronic-fatigue syndrome. …

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