Major study to unravel secrets of chronic fatigue syndrome

Media release

08 October 2020

A Deakin University research team will begin a world-first study into the causes and possible treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome, a little understood condition that affects many thousands of Australians.

The five-year project, funded with support from the National Health and Medical Research Council and conducted primarily through University Hospital, Geelong, will investigate the cell profile in people living with the debilitating condition, known medically as myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).

Study lead Professor Ken Walder, Deakin's Chair of Metabolic Diseases in the School of Medicine and Co-Director of Deakin's Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation (IMPACT) estimates around one in 100 Australians have ME/CFS but diagnosis is difficult and there are currently no approved treatments available.

"Awareness of ME/CFS has increased over the past 15 years but the complexity of the illness means some medical practitioners still don't believe it is a real disease," Professor Walder said.

"Symptoms include a deep and lasting fatigue after exertion that isn't relieved by sleep or rest. For many people, these symptoms can persist for years and have a significant effect on those with the condition and the people around them.

"ME/CFS impacts physical and mental health, employment, finances, relationships and many other areas of life.

"The causes of ME/CFS are not well understood and, while many hypotheses exist, we don't have a biomedical test to confirm diagnosis.

"Our research will have a big focus on mitochondria, the energy source in the cell. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is characterised by feelings of low energy, which suggests that the mitochondrial function is abnormal, but there has been very little research on this.

"By the five-year mark we hope to have identified potential drug therapies and proceed to clinical testing in participants with ME/CFS, hopefully bringing benefit to those suffering from this disorder within a decade."

Associate Professor Heidi Nicholl, CEO of Emerge Australia, the national ME/CFS patient organisation and a project collaborator, said about 25 per cent of people with the condition are housebound or bedbound.

"Currently there are no effective evidence-based treatments for ME/CFS," said Associate Professor Nicholl.

"As well as extending our knowledge of the biomedical basis of the condition, this new research offers the real possibility of providing treatments for the symptoms.

"Most people are surprised to hear of the severity of symptoms for many patients with ME/CFS. In the most severe cases, patients are sensitive to light and sound, and unable to take part in any form of meaningful life."

"Cutting edge technologies will allow us to better understand the mechanisms that contribute to the symptoms," said Professor Walder. "We will then use a proven methodological approach to repurpose existing drugs for treating symptoms."

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