Virus Is Found in Many With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Many people with chronic fatigue syndrome are infected with a little known
virus similar to AIDS VIRUS, that may cause or at least contribute to their
illness, researchers are reporting.

The syndrome, which causes prolonged and severe fatigue, body aches and
other symptoms, has long been a mystery ailment, and patients have
sometimes been suspected of malingering or having psychiatric problems
rather than genuine physical ones. Worldwide, 17 million people have the
syndrome, including at least one million Americans.

An article published online Thursday in the journal Science reports that 68
of 101 patients with the syndrome, or 67 percent, were infected with an
infectious virus, xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus, or XMRV.
By contrast, only 3.7 percent of 218 healthy people were infected.
Continuing work after the paper was published has found the virus in nearly
98 percent of about 300 patients with the syndrome, said Dr. Judy A.
Mikovits, the lead author of the paper.

XMRV is a retrovirus, a member of the same family of viruses as the AIDS
virus. These viruses carry their genetic information in RNA rather than
DNA, and they insert themselves into their hosts’ genetic material and stay
for life. (anti-virals may nail them, see url at end.)

Dr. Mikovits and other scientists cautioned that they had not yet proved
that the virus causes the syndrome. In theory, people with the syndrome may
have some other, underlying health problem that makes them prone to being
infected by the virus, which could be just a bystander. More studies are
needed to explain the connection.

But Dr. Mikovits said she thought the virus would turn out to be the cause,
not just of chronic fatigue, but of other illnesses as well. Previous
studies have found it in cells taken from prostate cancers.

“I think this establishes what had always been considered a psychiatric
disease as an infectious disease,” said Dr. Mikovits, who is research
director at the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, a nonprofit center
created by the parents of a woman who has a severe case of the syndrome.
Her co-authors include scientists from the National Cancer Institute and
the Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Mikovits said she and her colleagues were drawing up plans to test
anti-retroviral drugs — some of the same ones used to treat HIV infection —
to see whether they could help patients with chronic fatigue. If the drugs
work, that will help prove that the virus is causing the illness. She said
patients and doctors should wait for the studies to be finished before
trying the drugs.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt
University, said the discovery was exciting and made sense.

“My first reaction is, ‘At last,’ ” Dr. Schaffner said. “In interacting
with patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, you get the distinct
impression that there’s got to be something there.”

He said the illness is intensely frustrating to doctors because it is not
understood, there is no effective treatment and many patients are sick for
a long time.

He added, “This is going to create an avalanche of subsequent studies.”