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Potential M.E. biomarkers: research round-up

March 31, 2016

Each month, Action for M.E. Volunteer Pharmacist Emily Beardall explains some of the recently published research studies on M.E.

Please note this is not an exhaustive list – we have selected to highlight the studies that we think are most likely to resonate with the daily lives of those affected by the condition. We will also report separately on further studies of significance, as and when they are published.

You can search online directory PubMed for most studies about M.E. published in peer-reviewed journals.

The following studies were published online between 22 February 2016 and 21 March 2016. In each case, we have used the same name for the illness as the researchers publishing the paper.

Early study into possible blood test for CFS/M.E.

In this UK study published in PLoS ONE, the production of natural killer cells was found to be abnormal in a group of CFS/M.E. patients compared with healthy controls. This is due to differences in microRNA, which are molecules that play a part in producing proteins from DNA.

Using this finding as a potential diagnostic test on a different group of people, it was found to successfully identify which of them had CFS/M.E. and which of them didn’t. This potential test needs to be validated on a larger scale before it can be used as a reliable blood test for the illness. This process can take some considerable time.

Biomarkers may change as M.E./CFS progresses

The authors of a study published in BMC Immunology suggest that a definitive M.E./CFS biomarker is difficult to find because abnormalities in the immune system change depending on how long a patient has had the illness. This means that using participants who have had M.E./CFS for different lengths of time can skew the results of biomarker research.

The study found that three types of cytokines (chemical messengers in the immune system), known to be affected in M.E./CFS, had differing levels in patients that have had M.E./CFS for more than two years compared with those who had become ill more recently. The authors conclude that these three cytokines might be a reliable test for M.E./CFS if the results could be adjusted for illness duration.

How might scientists select people to take part in CFS research?

A number of diagnostic criteria can be used when selecting people with specific conditions, including M.E. and CFS, to take part in research. A study in Population Health Metrics compared two different methods of applying the 1994 CDC diagnostic criteria for CFS to see whether these resulted in different sets of patients being selected for studies.

One method employs a set of questions about symptoms and functional impairment (eg. Does rest improve your fatigue?) while the other uses questionnaires that employ scaling (eg. On a scale of 1 to ten, how bad is your fatigue?). The second method has previously been thought to incorrectly identify patients with depression as having CFS, affecting research results.

In this study, the method which used questionnaire scores was found to identify a larger number of patients with CFS than the other method, but no evidence emerged that it was incorrectly identifying patients with depression as having CFS.

The authors conclude that a single standardised selection method for all CFS research would be helpful for identifying sub-groups of CFS patients and for comparing CFS with other illnesses.