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Quantum Leap in Viral Detection Could Impact ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia

June 7, 2015

“I firmly believe that new technology drives science and generally has a much larger impact than individual basic science discoveries.” Stephen Elledge

Breakthrough findings in an individual disorder are special, but developing new technology that expands our ability to understand many diseases is something else entirely. It provides the potential to make a difference on a truly vast scale. Those types of breakthroughs are coming with increasing frequency.

research lab tests

Technological advances in medicine are appearing at a stunning rate.

  • Last month Mark Davis and his huge immune machine determined that exposures to herpesviruses, in particular, vastly altered the states of our immune system.
  • Just last week researchers uncovered a lymphatic network in the brain that provides a new window on neuro-immune disorders.
  • This week the journal Science published a breakthrough study that has major implications for understanding the role pathogens play in illness.

Each one could shed light on diseases like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromaylgia

The astonishing thing for us in the ME/CFS community is that two of the three researchers mentioned are also working on ME/CFS.

Pathogen Detection on Steroids

“Now that we can look at all viruses, it’s a complete game-changer.”

Steven Elledge, a Harvard researcher, is one of them. He pioneered a technique that quickly and thoroughly determines both the antibodies present in the blood and the strength of that response. Antibodies are produced by B-cells in response to pathogens. Because they continue to be produced for decades after an infection antibodies provide a library of past infective events. Until now, though, the search for antibodies has been a plodding, arduous one.

Viruscan test

Elledge’s new test presents a quantum leap in screening for pathogens.

Pre-Elledge –  researchers and doctors determined whether antibodies to a pathogen are present one antibody at a time. Post-Elledge – they’ll be able to look for all known antibodies to all 216 viruses known to infect humans a person – in a single blood sample – for about $25. This isn’t just a major leap in efficiency – it’s a quantum leap.

It doesn’t get much better than creating breakthrough results cheaply. Ian Lipkin called the feat “a technological tour de force and stated “This is a powerful new research tool.”

The Study

Comprehensive serological profiling of human populations using a synthetic human virome George J. Xu, Tomasz Kula, Qikai Xu, Mamie Z. Li,  Suzanne D. Vernon, Thumbi Ndung’u, Kiat Ruxrungtham,  Jorge Sanchez, Christian Brander, Raymond T. Chung,  Kevin C. O’Connor, Bruce Walker,  H. Benjamin Larman,  and Stephen J. Elledge Science 5 June 2015: aaa0698 [DOI:10.1126/science.aaa0698]

The new technology was used to screen for antibody reactions to more than 1,000 strains of 206 viruses in over 500 people across the globe. It found that the average person had been exposed to about ten viruses but that some had been exposed to as many as 25.

Not surprisingly, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) lead the list. Almost 90% of the people tested had been exposed to this ubiquitous virus. Herpesviruses, rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, influenza viruses, respiratory syncytial virus, and enteroviruses were most commonly found viruses. Not surprisingly, the older you get, the more viruses you’ve been exposed to.

The test is not perfect – it misses some very low-level antibodies and may not pick up antibodies in people with depleted immune systems (such as some ME/CFS patients). Antibody responses that decline over time also make it more difficult to find antibodies to very early infections.  While the test was completely accurate for people exposed to HIV or hepatitis C, it uncovered evidence of chicken-pox exposure in only about 25-30% of those who’d had it.

Elledge said, however, that improvements to the test will enable it to pick up those antibodies.

He’s not stopping at viral antibodies. He’s working on similar tests to assess autoantibodies and antibodies to bacteria and fungi.

The Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) Connection

“That’s what happens when you invent technology — you can’t imagine what people will do with it. They’re so clever.” Steven Elledge

Autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis – long believed to have a pathogen connection – and cancer were the first diseases mentioned in connection with this technology. The test is so cheap, though – a mere $25 –  there’s no reason it can’t be run in many diseases – including those for which pathogens are not suspected. A virology professor at University of Nottingham, Dr. Will Irving, noted it could be valuable in any disease of “unknown etiology “.

“Indeed in any other disease of unknown aetiology – identifying specific virome reactivity could give a major clue as to a causative agent.” Dr. Will Irving


Antibodies to over 200 viruses scanned – in a drop of blood

Irving noted the test may be helpful in determining the cause of primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC), for instance. PBC is a liver disease that produces extreme fatigue, autonomic dysfunction and a symptom profile very much like ME/CFS. It’s one of the fatiguing disorders Dr. Julia Newton has been studying alongside ME/CFS.  Irving suggested the new test could help determine if PBC is triggered by viruses.

The recent antibody findings in postural tachycardia syndrome – and the infectious triggers commonly found in that disorder – make it another obvious choice. Fibromyalgia – which is often triggered by a virus – is another possibility.

As to ME/CFS – Elledge is already studying it. He’s one of the new researchers, Suzanne Vernon, a co-author of the new study, enticed into the ME/CFS field as Research Director of the Solve ME/CFS Initiative. Vernon got Elledge to study ME/CFS simply for the cost of shipping samples to him. (ME/CFS patients were in the Science study.)

The Solve ME/CFS Initiative announced Elledge was trolling ME/CFS patients blood for antibodies using his new technique last year. ME/CFS is obviously on the Harvard team’s minds. Tomasz Kula, a co-author of the study, highlighted chronic fatigue (syndrome) as a prime candidate for this technology.

Earlier Elledge talked about the ME/CFS research he’s been doing with the Solve ME/CFS Biobank samples

“We have developed a technology that reveals all the viruses targeted by the antibodies in a blood sample. We plan to use this technology to examine the blood from people with and without CFS in order to find viruses that are associated with CFS. We hope this study will identify a pathogen as a likely causative agent of the disease in order to focus future study.

We also have a related technology that reveals all the targets of autoantibodies in a blood sample.  We also plan to apply this technology to the sample blood samples to look for evidence of immune dysfunction in people with CFS.

In a recent Facebook post Suzanne Vernon talked about ME/CFS and the Science study.

“It was so fun to work with this remarkable team on this really cool approach to test for more than 200 viruses (and more than 1,000 virus strains!) in a drop of blood. Blood from ME/CFS patients was included along with blood samples from around the world. George Xu, Steve Elledge and I will continue to dive into the data to see if there are virus patterns unique to ME/CFS.”

In response to a query whether the technology would allow research to discern ME/CFS clusters based on enteroviral, herpesvirus, or mixed patterns of infection, Suzanne replied “Exactly”.

Stephen Elledge


“I have always wanted to make an impact on the world, to have my life on earth count for something,” he said. “By contributing to basic research, I hope my work can accelerate discoveries to improve the lives and health of people.” Steven Elledge

Stephen Elledge Ph.D., a geneticist, runs the almost 30-person Elledge Lab at Harvard Medical School. He’s co-authored almost 300 papers over the past thirty years.  He was drawn to biology and genetics early by the promise the work had to transform biology. ”

“The potential for transforming biology was very clear, even stunning. And I decided I wanted to be a part of that.” Steven Elledge

In 2012 he (and another ME/CFS researcher, Dr. Michael Houghton) were awarded the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Science.

Not Ready for Prime Time – Yet

The test has not been commercialized yet.  The study, published in one of the most prestigious science journals in the world, has gotten enormous publicity which will surely help develop the technology into a commercial product.

Cutting Edge Work From Within the ME/CFS Community

From Unutmaz to Elledge to Mark and Ron Davis the ME/CFS community is getting access to top researchers and their cutting-edge technology. It’s also in some cases getting access to technology  being developed specifically to understand this disorder.

Gordon Broderick’s modeling efforts at the Institute for Neuro-immune Medicine, Ron Davis’s development of ways to analyze the HLA regions of our genome, and the methods Julia Newton developed to analyze muscle cell activity were all developed in-house to better understand ME/CFS.

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  • Gaynor Hughes

    June 7, 2015 at 11:40 pm - Reply

    I’m so glad to see more research interest and focus on ME/CFS and fibromyalgia along with other illnesses and am grateful to everyone involved. I’m also wondering if a correlational link is found between a virus or bacteria and any of the above, how that would pinpoint cause? Even with my very basic understanding of science, I know that two things that are correlated could have something else in common other than the factor being studied. For example, people found to have been exposed to a particular virus in high numbers who also have ME/CFS may have a genetic abnormality in common which led them to be more vulnerable to being triggered by that virus in the first place. Just saying……..and welcome helpful feedback.

    • Cort Johnson

      June 7, 2015 at 11:44 pm - Reply

      I don’t think it would necessarily pinpoint cause although it might. I think it would do what you suggested – it would provide focus on certain areas. Say a subset of patients with enterovirus antibodies showed up. It would make sense to separate them out and see how they’re different in other ways from other patients. You would also, of course, look deeper for enteroviruses. Just because several infections can trigger ME/CFS or FM doesn’t mean they do it in the same way…

      Verifying subsets like this could provide the impetus for a lot of research.

  • Sarah L

    June 8, 2015 at 12:03 am - Reply

    The test for so many viruses at once, that fascinates me. When I was in the multi-year diagnostic process, I was tested for so many viruses, one at a time. And when a lab goofed, I had to give another large blood sample for the new test. I had good health insurance at the time, so I have no notion of how much all that testing cost. But $25! I had not heard about the chicken pox virus, not finding it in everyone who had chicken pox in their past. I wonder it that opens new knowledge on that virus, and how long immunity does linger in the body, or means that that the defenses to that virus need some sort of different sort of test. Is there any notion how long until the Vir Scan will be available for use by us ordinary folks, not just research studies on what is being learned by the test and how reliable it is?

    It is good to know that Suzanne Vernon made sure blood samples from SEID/M.E. were in the samples used in the samples for developing the test.

    Thanks so much.

  • Anne Bishop

    June 8, 2015 at 12:50 am - Reply

    How will a doctor be able to use this information? If the test shows that a person has been exposed to a particular virus, does the doctor then need to research whether this could be the cause of a particular illness, like small fiber neuropathy?

    • Cort Johnson

      June 8, 2015 at 3:09 pm - Reply

      I think this will eventually reach the doctors office but it will be used for research purposes first in studies. The test simply shows if someone has been exposed to a virus. The strength of the antibody response apparently can be measured but it doesn’t show whether that virus is active I don’t think. I think the test will probably be best used in large studies to determine if people with a disease are more likely to have been exposed to a virus or perhaps several viruses. We could see high cytomegalovirus or enterovirus exposure rates in ME/CFS for example. Or ME/CFS patients could have been exposed to more viruses than normal or their viral exposure could be similar to healthy controls. Or.. if finding LOWER evidence of viral exposure could suggest their antibodies are pooping out. That would be a very important finding.

      Many more uses will probably pop up over time. One researcher suggested using it to assess why immunomodulating drugs are working or not. Another suggested using it in people undergoing chemotherapy.

      This approach is also being developed to measure autoantibodies and antibodies to bacteria and fungi and I suppose anything else antibodies are produced in reaction to.

  • Christine Knott

    June 8, 2015 at 9:58 am - Reply

    Thank you, Cort, for keeping us updated on these amazing new technologies and studies that give me and the ME community hope! I live in England and still feel very isolated but your blog lifts my spirits.

  • Donna

    June 8, 2015 at 10:17 am - Reply

    Wow, this is fantastic news!! It sounds so promising, and not to far off from being a tangible test, It certainly would explain why all of us have similar but varying degrees of symptoms. Which also explains why some people can still work while others are house bound. I wonder if the test patients received any information back from the research. I’m relocating later this year to CT so I wouldn’t be far from the Boston area. I’d love to participate in one of their test screenings if they anticipate more to come. I’m so grateful for the research that is happening today, it’s been so long over due. Thanks to all involved. Any thank you Cort for your dedication, it’s so nice to be able to come to one place to stay informed.

  • EC

    June 8, 2015 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    Kudos to Dr. Elledge and his team! Imagine what researchers could do if they had a database of 500,000 – 1,000,000 CFS/ME patients’ viral antibodies to compare. I’m also intrigued by the possible development of a similar test for fungal infections. That’s one we don’t hear too much about.

  • Nancy

    June 8, 2015 at 7:50 pm - Reply

    Once the viruses are identified, then what? Are they working on an ant-viral drug to eradicate these viruses?

    • marcie myers

      June 9, 2015 at 9:41 pm - Reply

      Dear Nancy, there is no “one fits all” antiviral available currently. Valtrex is generally used for herpes viruses while Valcyte is used for CMV and some other viruses. If a specific virus is found to be the culprit, then a specific antiviral can be used or developed for it. This speaks back to the concept of “subsets” that we’ve heard so much about. Generally, the higher the antibody titer, the more it indicates a current or recent illness. It’s the test for antigens on the outside of the cell that ascertains whether the virus is currently active or not. I’m excited about the movement forward. By the way, Dr. Michael Houghton, a co-researcher is the gentleman who discovered Hepatitis C. When I was in nursing school it was referred to simply as Non-A, Non-B until Dr. Houghton was able to isolate it. So we really do have some top players working for our cause. marcie

  • MK Gilbert

    June 8, 2015 at 8:34 pm - Reply

    I hope I can convince my CNP to order the test for me! But what then? How is it treated? I was sick for a month recently with a stomach virus then had cold sores for a few wks after that…Makes me suspect that this cursed illness is indeed virus related, or is it just that my immune system is affected and I catch things more easilly when I’m run down and stressed?

  • Yalwayssic

    June 8, 2015 at 10:18 pm - Reply

    Karen Fanjoy Personal Coach for Fibromyalgia Sufferers
    May 6, 2014
    The Chicken Or The Egg?
    Have you ever noticed that your fibro pain goes up just after a stressful or upsetting situation?
    And, then the increase of pain creates more upset, but then you just accept it all as a normal reaction of being a fibromyalgia sufferer.?

    I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Bruce Lipton, PhD. back in 2002 at a San Francisco seminar. He’s a cell biologist that realized there is not only a connection between the mind and body, but it’s actually one mechanism that interacts with itself. (See The Biology of Belief, by Dr. Bruce Lipton, PhD., and/or The Molecules of Emotion by Dr. Candace Pert, PhD.)

    When we have a really happy experience, our emotions are a chemical mixture of endorphins, which create an energetic, positive and happy self. When our experience is traumatic or highly stressful, the emotional chemical mixture fills our cells with toxic ‘soup’. It’s not hard to imagine that cells, filled with toxic material, cannot keep us healthy, so we naturally start to break down.

    Due to the fact that the clients I see are very sensitive and caring people, the experiences these fibro fighters have had are really emotionally charged. The male population of fibro sufferers are no different, in that their kind nature makes them more susceptible to fibromyalgia.

    This is not a character flaw, but is a wonderful trait, and it would be wonderful if more people were like that. All of these beautiful souls ‘feel’ on a deeper level than most, and because the body is physiologically wired to respond to our feelings, it will break down from this toxic soup mix created from unwanted experiences.

    The only problem that exists, is that the emotions have not been processed out of the body at a cellular level. When you cut your finger, your body knows exactly what to do to heal it and immediately goes into action. When the body is relieved of its emotional/toxic mixture, it will also go into the same, immediate healing mode.

    Even though you aren’t stressed out about the past anymore, those old emotions are locked into place and your body just can’t heal with the flooded cells in place. It’s like being stuck in the mud, and you can’t get going. Fortunately, old, stuck emotions aren’t difficult to reverse.

    We haven’t been given this information because the medical professionals aren’t taught this in medical school. And, they can only pass on the information they know.

    Michele Renee Renaud
    Questioning the primary sources of Fibromyalgia, CFS, Me, other Autoimmune deficencies or diseases. (what came first the chicken or the egg) when it comes to DNA and RNA cellular structuring…

    Whereas the Body can and often does Heal itself upon the removal of toxins, biochemicals, or extraneous elements…When the RNA goes under Cellular Destruction (especially in those who are by nature Highly Sensitive from birth regardless of ‘chronic’ stress or traumatic experiences real or perceived) Is it not known that Once the RNA is damaged, that unfortunately cannot or to some degree, cannot be re-established?

    What exactly is the element to then Heal what science or the medical profession claims in the information they learned or are hopefully researching regarding the Immune System, CNS, Blood Brain Barrier Thresholds that are impacted by such damages????
    May 8, 2014

    Hey Michele…somehow I did not receive your reply to my post…so I’m sorry for the delay.

    The medical system as we know it only knows what it knows…and there is so much more available than what the medical schools are teaching. As far as what’s being uncovered in the labs, only info which is lucrative will be funded and researched.

    Cellular destruction is often created by an emotionally toxic environment, which makes sense as the sensitive individuals create more emotional toxins than the tougher individual. Fibromyalgia sufferers are known for being sensitive and kind, caring people. Being sensitive is not a character flaw, and in fact, is a beautiful trait. However, if you’re sensitive, and have lived a life that’s traumatic or you’re easily triggered by life’s events, that can create more illnesses and physical issues, as the mind and body are connected.

    The best part of all of this is that everything is reversible when you relieve the triggers and core issues. Then the body goes into healing mode, as it was designed to do. :O)

    Of course, there are a lot of variables in any situation, but most can be readily improved or completed corrected with mind/body techniques.
    9 months ago

    Karen Fanjoy
    Michele Renee Renaud
    Hi Karen,
    Information which is “lucrative” will be funded & researched. those very sentiments are that which keeps people unwell. Are not lives worthy of research in order to provide the quality of life with adequate treatment options? Investing in people not $$$ is more-soever what is contained in the Hippocratic oath of all doctors who take on the role of physician in order to aide, assist, guide &provide to patients ‘healing’ measures that attempt to secure well being.

    For many CFS/Me/Fibro conditions the exact opposite occurs. Instead the medical system as we know it, dismissively purports an element of elusiveness magnified in proportion to the unknown or even more elusive symptoms of these type of sufferers. What often is experienced by these patients are non-answers, or a plethora of unknowns. The medical journey to healing is lengthy, costly, and a course of which as you’ve aptly quoted, a matter of figuring out what came first the chicken or the egg.

    CFS has existed for well over 25 years or more. The many ‘researchers’ & medical professionals that have been on to it for perhaps even longer, had been considered quacks from within the very medical fields or from their own peers. Naturalists, Homeopathic, Chiropractic or other non main stream methods of healing in the not so distance past, were in effect ignored. Now we see that alternative medicine is working based on evidence. So now the question is re-asked, re-considered, and hopefully re-measured.

    Perhaps the scope of that brings forth another question: what are the toxic methods being used? Telling a patient its all in your head, or is due to stress keeps the cycle going.

    Surely, any patient falling into the category of these syndromes, which I beg to differ upon as they can now be considered disease, albeit chronic illnesses. The need for finding cures does not include a huge question mark, for the answers are already in existence. The cells themselves.The DNA/RNA bio-markers can effectively be the very hints required to identify the causal factors, find & cure these conditions. Yet there are no regularly done blood tests based on DNA responses to the bodies fighting its own cells? Surely that must be in formulation as those with CFS are not allowed to donate blood, what if Fibro is its manifestation?
    9 months ago

    Michele Renee Renaud
    Auto-immunity/autoimmune deficiencies that stem from the cell, travel throughout the whole patient., from the blood, into every course of functioning. The brain is impacted then, by relatively obvious interactions; not only on the cellular level but on the human level of emotional impact.

    Based on a cumulative overall expenditure towards obtaining health is the sum and equivalent relative to the patient investing in themselves by going to doctor after doctor after doctor. Triggers then become a part of life with what the medical professionals were not taught in school. Let us then delve into the ‘core’ issues at hand stemming from that side shall we? For the sensitive or non sensitive- the patient is the patient.

    How does wellness get promoted? Prescribed medications that further hinder the cellular reconstruction within their already compromised body system.Years of medications taken to relieve the pain or inflammation secure the increase of decreased health or well being.
    For Fibromyalgia patients who have multitudes of symptoms, the band-aid of prescription medications (that have been researched and funded) concludes the unanswered connections that become hidden, overshadowed by a flow of temporary solutions.

    Emotions. The mind is a powerful organ. It connects to every function of the human body. Those who are more sensitive in nature physiologically, biochemically or otherwise will spend thousands of dollars put into the health-care systems in order to obtain overall well being,suggesting that CFS/Me/Fibro patients have been being ‘studied’ for years, and still suffer at the core of cellular damages or destruction of body system functionality.
    tipped by trauma’s relative to health condition, journey, sans recovery.

    Balancing that tipped scale is the essence of a well patient, where recovery does begin within starting with a healthy mind, emotional response, and positive outlook.
    9 months ago

    Amen Michele!

    Michele Renee Renaud
    Positive thoughts, become positive words, become positive actions. Re-train the mind and all that’s within the body, is directed towards and followed by healing little by little; whatever it may be that ails us.

  • Perry

    June 9, 2015 at 4:17 am - Reply

    Could this finally be the year? So much has changed in the 26 years I’ve been sick, but the last year or two have been amazing. Hope exists again.

    Thanks to Cort and Suzanne for keeping us informed of efforts made on our behalf. You two have made a difference in MY life.

  • Carol Olsen

    June 11, 2015 at 2:55 am - Reply

    This is a very heartening article. Thank you so much for your professional coverage of this terrible illness.

    • Cort Johnson

      June 12, 2015 at 12:01 am - Reply

      Thanks Carol

  • Lisa-sick of being sick!

    June 11, 2015 at 11:59 pm - Reply

    Great job again Cort! I frequently read, almost never reply but wanted to show my appreciation and support for the job you are doing!

    • Cort Johnson

      June 12, 2015 at 12:01 am - Reply

      Thanks Lisa-sick of being sick!

  • Bruce Stewart

    January 30, 2016 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    How can my doctor order this test?