Always tired? Your immune system may be overactive.

A new study provides strong evidence that chronic fatigue syndrome is linked to abnormal reactions in the immune system.

Always tired? Your immune system may be overactive.
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  • Chronic fatigue syndrome affects millions of people worldwide, but scientists still aren't quite sure what causes it.
  • A new study tracked people suffering from Hepatitis C (HCV) as they underwent a treatment course.
  • The results showed that people with overactive immune responses developed chronic fatigue months following the treatment, and that the fatigue persisted even after their immune responses returned to normal.

A new study builds upon previous research showing that an overactive immune system might be a key cause of chronic fatigue syndrome.

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), is a debilitating condition that leaves people feeling always tired and mentally foggy. Worse, sleep doesn't really help to alleviate the symptoms of CFS, which affects some 17 million people worldwide.

The causes of CFS remain unknown. In recent years, however, research has suggested that an overactive immune system might be to blame. But that hypothesis has been difficult to study because it's impossible to tell who's going to contract a virus, and researchers need to examine physiological conditions before, during and after an immune response occurs.

A recent study — it was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology on December 17 — used a novel approach to get around that problem. Researchers at King's College London recruited 55 patients with chronic Hepatitis C (HCV) and gave them a six- to 12-month course of a drug called Interferon alpha, a common treatment for HCV. Then, the team tracked the participants as they recovered.

Six months after the treatment ended, 18 participants were more fatigued than before the course began. Before treatment, these participants showed relatively high levels of a protein linked to inflammation, called IL10, in their blood. These levels, including levels of another protein linked to inflammation, only increased after four weeks of treatment, reaching levels twice as high as people who recovered without chronic fatigue.

However, six months after the treatment, the 18 fatigued participants also showed immune-response levels that were no different from participants who hadn't developed post-treatment fatigue. What's more, the researchers took samples of these inflammation proteins from all the participants and compared them to those of 57 separate healthy participants who didn't have HCV or undergo the treatment. The results showed no difference between the two sets.

A possible cause

One theory is that a hyperactive immune response triggers CFS. Still, that doesn't explain exactly what role the immune system plays in the later stages of the condition, considering there appear to be no abnormal immune responses once symptoms emerge.

"In conclusion, findings from this study support the hypothesis that abnormal immune mechanisms are important in CFS, but only early in the course of the illness, around the time of the trigger, rather than when the syndrome is established," the authors wrote. "Moreover, our study confirms the importance of the acute fatigue response to the trigger, rather than of the recovery period preceding the illness."

The findings could give researchers "some clue down the line" as to the exact causes and possible treatments for CFS, Michael Sharpe, a professor of psychological medicine at the University of Oxford, told The Guardian.

"If the thing is triggered by an abnormal or excessive immune response, if we could find a way to reduce that immune response, we might stop incident cases," Sharpe said.

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
  • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
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Why so gassy? Mysterious methane detected on Saturn’s moon

Scientists do not know what is causing the overabundance of the gas.

An impression of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through a water plume on the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • A new study looked to understand the source of methane on Saturn's moon Enceladus.
  • The scientists used computer models with data from the Cassini spacecraft.
  • The explanation could lie in alien organisms or non-biological processes.
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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