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The long, fruitless search for the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome has taken a curious turn. Scientists report online October 8 in Science that an obscure retrovirus shows up in two-thirds of people diagnosed with the condition. The researchers also show the retrovirus can infect human immune cells.
These findings don’t establish that the pathogen, called gammaretrovirus XMRV, causes chronic fatigue, cautions study coauthor Robert Silverman, a molecular biologist at the Lerner Research Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. “Nevertheless, it’s exciting because it is a viable candidate for a cause.”
Roughly 1 to 4 million people in the United States have chronic fatigue syndrome, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition shows up as mental and physical exhaustion, memory lapses, muscle pain, insomnia, digestive distress and other health problems. Doctors often diagnose chronic fatigue only after ruling out everything else. Its cause is unknown.
In the new study, the researchers tested blood from 101 people with chronic fatigue syndrome and found that 68 were infected with XMRV. When the scientists analyzed blood from 218 healthy people as a control group, only eight had the virus — 4 percent. The study participants lived in various parts of the United States.
Gammaretroviruses, a subset of retroviruses, also cause disease in gibbons, cats and koalas, Silverman says. “XMRV is the first member of this genus of retrovirus to be found in humans,” he notes.
In the new study, the researchers also found hints that the retrovirus is transmitted by blood, as are some other viruses, including HIV. But it’s probably not spreading very fast, because people with chronic fatigue “are too sick to do anything,” Mikovits says.
Xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV), sometimes shortened to Xenotropic MuLV-related virus, is a recently identified and provisionally named gammaretrovirus which may be involved in the pathology of familial prostate cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome. Its name refers to its similarity to xenotropic murine leukemia viruses, although it does show some substantial differences. It is thought to be linked to both prostate cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome by ribonuclease L (RNase L), part of the cell’s natural defense against viruses. When activated, RNase L destroys RNA in an effort to halt viral gene expression.