Queensland scientists have linked Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), to a dysfunctional immune system -- proving for the first time that the condition does stem from the body rather than the mind.
Researchers from Griffith University's National Centre for Neuroimmunology and Emerging Diseases (NCNED) told the Huffington Post Australia the breakthrough came through findings that showed abnormalities in immune cell receptors.
NCNED Co-Director, Professor Don Staines, said: "We have discovered and reported for the first time abnormalities of a certain receptor in immune cells of the body and hence it's likely to be in every cell in the body.
"What this is, is a defect in the receptor, which is a change in the gene transcription of these receptors, meaning they no longer function the way they should. What the receptors should do is to be able to transfer calcium from outside the cell to the inside."
According to Staines, the discovery of abnormal calcium immune system cells affects CFS sufferers in three main areas of the body where CFS-related pain usually occurs -- the brain and spinal cord, the pancreas and the stomach.
CFS is a debilitating, flu-like medical condition characterised not only by long-term fatigue but a whole host of other symptoms that limit a person's ability to carry out daily life.
There is no cure or effective treatment for chronic fatigue and a lack of understanding of the disease within the medical community has led to many sufferers being misdiagnosed.
"This is huge because for the first time we have documented the pathology in this illness. Up until now people have not really understood the illness," Staines said.
"This illness is very much under-diagnosed. We think about 1-2% of the population have this illness but it could be higher than that. This is a much more debilitating illness than people have realised."
Queensland Science Minister Leeanne Enoch said the findings are an important breakthrough in understanding CFS and helping those who suffer from it, in a statement released on Tuesday.
"This discovery is great news for all people living with [CFS] and the related [ME], as it confirms what people with these conditions have long known - that it is a 'real' illness - not a psychological issue," she said.
"The Griffith University breakthrough now means we have a target for therapeutic intervention, which is welcome news to the 250,000 Australians believed to be affected by CFS and ME."
Staines told HuffPost Australia researchers have now turned their sights towards creating a test that could identify dysfunctional cells in sufferers and developing future laboratory drug trials that could limit the cost of the condition on families.
"People can go for years of getting different tests and these are very substantial costs to the Australian economy, and also there are big costs for families who have to stay home or be a carer," he said.
"Now there's a lot of scope to develop, design and use different drugs. We can use different samples of drugs in what we call in-vitro, and then we can test them based on predictions that they would be a benefit in this condition."
The costs of CFS and ME diagnosis, treatment and management in Australia is estimated to be around $700 million annually, according to the Queensland Government's statement.
The findings come after NCNED received $1.6 million in research funding from the Queensland Government and a $4 million grant from the Stafford Fox Medical Research Foundation.
Staines believes this breakthrough is now a step forward for sufferers.
"We now know that this is a pronounced dysfunction of a very critical receptor and the critical role that this has, which causes severe problems to cells in the body." he said.
"We don't know that we can necessarily cure the illness but we can help people lead a normal life."
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