A Dummies’ Guide to ME/CFS: Part V, Research & Conclusion

Warning: contains GIFs

Each week, I am publishing a part in a series about ME/CFS. This is Part V, in which I discuss current research into ME/CFS, and conclude the series. You can find links to the other posts in the series at the bottom of this post. Thanks for reading!

Last week, I discussed the negative attitudes held towards ME/CFS by many healthcare professionals, and the implications of the name “chronic fatigue syndrome.” This week, I’m wrapping it up with research and suggestions for the newly diagnosed. Thanks for sticking with me, folks!

Edit: I have updated this section as of 28/01/19 to better reflect current ME/CFS research (changes were relatively minor).



As you will have learned by now, this disease, though debilitating, is not one that is well-respected by the medical profession, and consequently has very little research funding. While there is exciting potential to ME/CFS research, the studies being conducted now are largely in the preliminary stages. Without the support of more research funding and large-scale institutional backing, progress towards aetiology and treatment will remain agonisingly slow.

While there are very clever ME/CFS patients and advocates keeping abreast of the most recent research (Phoenix Rising and Health Rising being two such resources), I find it too disheartening to see dead end after dead end, too many failed hopes; and as such, I am not as knowledgable about current research. Consequently, this section is relatively short.

NCNED building at night, illuminated in blue light
The NCNED lights it up blue for International ME/CFS & FM Awareness Day

As for what research is being conducted: the Griffith University National Centre for Neuroimmunology and Emerging Diseases is conducting groundbreaking research into the biological markers of this illness, and are close to developing a screening tool – though that is a long way off a cure. They have found genetic changes in receptors associated with immunological and cellular function, which gives some indication the illness may be an autoimmune disease. Their research was bolstered with a generous $2.2m donation in 2018. Other research is revealing biological and metabolic alterations in those who suffer from the illness.

When I originally wrote this guide, there was a phase 3 clinical trial under way in Norway, studying the effects of chemotherapy drug Rituximab on mild-moderate ME/CFS patients. Initial trials were very encouraging,  with 64% of patients responding positively to treatment, including several who seem to have made a full recovery. However, this was merely an open-label trial (ie, not blinded) to determine dosage, with a very small sample size. Much to my dismay, this trial failed. We will know more when the research is published, but the null result of what remains the only phase 3 clinical trial ever for ME/CFS treatment was utterly crushing for the ME/CFS community. (Please don’t comment that a null result is still a result unless you suffer from a debilitating disease with literally no phase 3 trials published on its treatment.)

A wealth of data will be extracted from blood and the microbiome.
From the Open Medicine Foundation

As mentioned above, Whitney Dafoe’s father works with the Open Medicine Foundation, to find a diagnosis, treatment and a cure for CFS. He has raised over $2 million in donations, and launched the Stanford Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Research Center with some of the biggest names in biomedical research in the hopes of helping his son and others like him. Their first study will conduct a comprehensive analysis of the blood, saliva, sweat, urine and faeces of patients, including those who are house- and bed-bound, to determine a potential diagnostic biomarker. Initial research has suggested the presence of common metabolomic response in ME/CFS patients.

Dr Ian Lipkin, of the Columbia Centre for Infection and Immunity, is studying immune molecules and the human microbiome to determine how the immune system of those with ME/CFS respond to bacteria, fungi, viruses and toxins. In collaboration with Dr Mady Hornig, he founded The Microbe Discovery Project to investigate these areas. Their groundbreaking research has already uncovered immune biomarkers, unequivocally proving a biological basis for ME/CFS. Drs Hornig and Lipkin suggest that after an initial infection, a sufferer’s immune system is unable to repair itself, and operates in a dysfunctional state of hyperactivity. Unfortunately, their current research only received funding for one year, rather than the five years requested, and the doctors were reduced to filming themselves eating chillies in an attempt to raise funds. This research seems have stalled due to ongoing litigation.

Homer Simpson leans over a pot containing chilli.
No word as to whether they ate Guatemalan insanity peppers.

There was some hype a few years back about XMRV: it was thought the retrovirus could be the cause of ME/CFS. Unfortunately, these results were not replicated, and the original study retracted. (In fact, Dr Lipkin conducted a study which definitively ruled out XMRV, and a another retrovirus once implicated in ME/CFS.) There are still some researchers interested in viral causes of this illness – Dr John Chia, an infectious disease specialist, believes enteroviral infections play a role in ME/CFS. His research has found that ME/CFS patients are significantly more likely to test positive for enteroviral infections in both the stomach and gut, compared to healthy controls.

A cartoon of a retrovirus.
Not kidding you, The Simpsons even have an image of a retrovirus. Is there anything they can’t do?

Brian Vastag, a former science reporter with the Washington Post, wrote an open letter to the National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, begging him for more research funding. He spoke for all patients when he wrote:

“I’ve been felled by the most forlorn of orphan illnesses…I don’t enjoy being a drain on society, and neither do any of the other ME patients I know. And with the ever-growing research interest in ME, I have hope that someday I’ll be able to stand for more than a few minutes, walk for more than a block or two, maybe even resume my career. (It took me four days, with frequent breaks, to write this letter — that’s a bit slow for newspaper work.)

The causes of ME will eventually be discovered, treatments will be found and patients will enjoy long-term remissions. As the leader of our nation’s medical research enterprise, you have a decision to make: Do you want the NIH to be part of these solutions, or will the nation’s medical research agency continue to be part of the problem?”

That is a question all research institutes must answer.

Hope, help & suggestions

If you are struggling with a ME/CFS diagnosis, there is help available. I have listed several organisations in my resources section – mostly Australian-based. But there are many ME associations and patient advocacy groups around the world who are willing to assist sufferers in any way possible. Emerge Victoria in particular was incredibly helpful when I was in hospital – their director (now gone) rang mum every day to check up on us, and tried in vain to educate the ward about my illness. (I believe they are less active in patient advocacy after a change of leadership).

Again in Victoria, Maurice Blackburn has restated their commitment to offering legal aid to those with a disability. Please contact them if you feel you have been discriminated against due to having ME/CFS, in the workplace, study, or *shudders* at Centrelink.

Barry Zuckerkorn from Arrested Development leans across a table and cries, take to the sea!
I can only imagine Maurice Blackburn are slightly more competent than Barry Zuckerkorn.

There is very little government-funded aid available for sufferers in Australia. I was only able to secure a council cleaner due to my mother’s disability, not my own (and that was not an easy task). I have been advised that as ME/CFS sufferers are classified as having a “medical condition,” rather than a disability, we are ineligible for any support from Disability Support Services and other organisations, who may have otherwise provided carers and financial support (this information came from DSS themselves, but as they are a government body, it could be hopelessly incorrect). I hope the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) changes this. [EDIT 28/01/19: Lol, I was wrong. The NDIS is a clusterfuck.]

Julia Gillard, Rihanna, and some guy.
Julia Gillard, who introduced the NDIS, is bae. Just look at her chillin’ with Rihanna. I don’t know WTF is going on with the guy at the left, but he sure seems excited about something.

For those reading who do not have ME/CFS, you will (hopefully) be more aware of the suffering of those who do. There are so many suggestions I could make for how to deal with your friends with ME/CFS, that it should be a topic for another post! (Others have already written great posts on this topic.)

For now, I will say, support your friends with ME/CFS, and indeed any chronic illness. Don’t assume you can understand their suffering, or compare it to the general fatigue that an able-bodied person experiences. Those with long-term illnesses will tell you that, eventually, most of their friends desert them, so by sticking around you are doing more than most.

Fran from The Nanny holds her hands to her heart and smiles
Friends who stay with you through chronic illness are the best

Don’t tell your disabled friend how to feel, how well they look, or otherwise suggest that their illness is less than it is. In other words, don’t deny your friend’s lived experiences. Acknowledge their pain and ride it with them. Reject society’s ableist assumptions, and give a fuck about the disabled people in your life.

Things to say to your chronically ill friend. From Buzzfeed.
Things to say to your chronically ill friend. From Buzzfeed.

Like I said at the beginning of this series, I am no expert, merely someone who has lived with ME/CFS for all of my adult life. It has been my constant companion, shaping every aspect of my life, from the moment I wake in the morning to when I shut my eyes at night. I have no idea of what it means to live as a healthy adult, any more than an able-bodied person could truly understand my life. Through this series, I hope I have brought you closer to the understanding of what ME/CFS is, and how it affects not only myself, but so many other sufferers across the world.

If you’ve enjoyed this series, please consider donating to the vital work done by ME/CFS researchers. Their research is the only way people like myself will ever have a hope of recovery. You can support the National Centre for Neuroimmunology and Emerging Diseases and the Microbe Discovery Project through their websites. And spread the word! It is only ignorance that causes prejudice, and thus discrimination. The more light is shone on this terrible disease, the less likely sufferers will be discriminated against for the “crime” of being unwell.

Spongebob Squarepants kisses his arm muscles which spell out thank you.
Thank you for reading, and to those who donate!

Further reading

Bloggers with ME/CFS etc

Mishka of Crafts, Chronic Illness & Adulting writes beautifully about her experiences with various chronic illnesses, including ME/CFS

Toni Bernhard has written several books about chronic illness, and blogs at Turning Straw Into Gold

Hannah of Super Pooped

My beautiful friend Merete blogs from bed at https://kroniskverdifull.wordpress.com/

Sue of Living with ME/CFS writes about her experience with the disease. Her older son also suffers from a mild case.

Emma of Blonde Voyage is undergoing experimental treatment at Breakspear Hospital in the UK

Michelle at Living with Bob writes about her life with dysautonomia, with a healthy dose of disability politics

ChronicBabe is a website for women with chronic illness

Managing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia by Bruce Campbell is a good guide to pacing and self-management.

Living with M.E. is one of my main sources for this series. It is written by a doctor, Charles Shepherd, who also suffers from this illness. It is one of the more balanced books I have read on the topic, and covers everything from symptoms, diagnosis, and management, to working and starting a family with this condition.

The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder by Carol Stock Kranowitz, M.A. is the bible for sensory processing disorder. It is aimed at parents who have children with SPD, so is written in third-person with examples of children’s behaviour. However, it is the most comprehensive book I’ve ever read on the topic, and helped me to understand what was going on on in my head. Most of the therapies in the book are unsuitable for those with ME/CFS.

Doing Harm by Maya Dusenbery is the most succinct yet comprehensive overview of the systemic sexism within the medical system I have ever read. Highly recommend.

Sources (general – for specific sources, please click the associated link)

Living with M.E. – Charles Shepherd

Beyond Myalgic Encephalomyelitis / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – Redefining An Illness – Report Guide for Clinicians, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome / Myalgic Encephalomyelitis: A Primer for Clinical Practitioners – International Association for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

The National M.E. Centre and Centre for Fatigue Studies

The CDC page on CFS

Collatz, A. (2016). A Systematic Review of Drug Therapies for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Clinical Therapeutics, Vol 1, Number 1.

Reynolds, K. (2004). The Economic Impact of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Cost Effectiveness and Resource Allocation. Volume 2, No. 4. Available at: http://resource-allocation.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1478-7547-2-4

Pheby, D (2009). Risk factors for severe ME/CFS. Biology and Medicine, Vol 1, Number 4: 50-74.

Thanks for reading my Dummies’ Guide to ME/CFS! You can find the other posts here:

Part I, Intro

Part II, Prognosis, Severity and Scales

Part III, “Treatment”

Part IV, Prejudice & What’s in a Name

Part V, Research & Conclusion

Author: Siobhan S

20 something, living in country Australia. Spoonie profile: ME/CFS, dysautonomia, anxiety. All about sewing, knitting and food. Unapologetic feminist and disability advocate.

9 thoughts on “A Dummies’ Guide to ME/CFS: Part V, Research & Conclusion”

  1. Thank you so much for the time and effort you’ve spent writing these. I’ve learned so much about ME/CFS that I didn’t know previously. Prior to reading about your experiences, I knew it was a serious disability, but I didn’t know much else. I had no idea that “fatigue” didn’t really sum up all the symptoms and that so many bodily systems were affected. I knew that people could be homebound and even bedbound as a result of ME/CFS, but I had no idea that things as simple as eating could become so difficult. It’s depressing that there’s not better education about this. I can only imagine how difficult it is for people who become ill with MC/CFS without knowing any of this and then end up with a doctor who knows even less and only makes things worse. I’m grateful for the opportunity to remedy a bit of my ignorance through reading your series.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading along! I’m glad you found the posts educational. I agree, the lack of knowledge about the disease is shameful (not talking about you personally, just in society in general). I think a name change would be the best move to address this issue.


  2. Hi. I agree that there is a real lack of research happening in this area but as a psychologist who works with people with chronic health conditions, I think that the work being done by psychologists is important and raises the profile of the condition which can only be a good thing, particularly to encourage others to take up the necessary research.


    1. There are certainly many excellent psychologists out there who help ME and other chronic illness sufferers deal with their conditions. I have had some very helpful psycs in the past including one now who is working with my parents to help get me on the NDIS. However, the attempts by the psychiatric profession to paint ME as a psychiatric condition have irreparably damaged both ME sufferers who are labelled as “crazy” and locked up in mental wards (myself included), and the reputation of reputable psychologists such as yourself who have respect for ME patients and aren’t ignorant enough to paint people with a real physical illness as deconditioned and lazy.


  3. Hey , Siobhan 😀 I’m a doctor (not in your country, mind you and not a specialist in pain) but it really seems that CFS/ME might have a biologic liink like you qouted “Drs Hornig and Lipkin suggest that after an initial infection, a sufferer’s immune system is unable to repair itself, and operates in a dysfunctional state of hyperactivity.” because there is a disease that can lead to chronic pain after its resolution , chikungunya (one of the Aedes Aegypti viruses) – in that case the link is fairly obvious, but there are no explanations yet on how it happens – maybe decoding that would lead a breakthrough on CFS etiopathogeny and maybe finding a way to treat it better than what’s done now


  4. I think the guide is very good. However, the word “idiot” can be very off-putting to my friends and family along with others to have them read this. I know it’s parallel to the books for “Dummies”. I’m an ME/CFSer for 16 years, mostly bed/couch bound. I posted your guide on my FB page, but I don’t think I’ll have anyone reading it for the word “Idiot”. It’s a shame, as it’s a well done article.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nancy, I am just commenting to say you were right, I was wrong, and I should have been more respectful towards your comment in the first place. I apologise both for my use of that particular term and my comment asking for more resources when I should have done the work myself. Thank you for bringing this to my attention; I changed the title of the series some time ago, but should have done it much sooner.


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