Scientists find chronic fatigue, virus link

October 9, 2009

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In what may prove to be the first major breakthrough in the fight against the mysterious disorder known as chronic fatigue syndrome, researchers reported yesterday that they have found traces of a virus in the majority of patients with the disease.

The same virus has previously been identified in at least a quarter of prostate tumors, particularly those that are very aggressive, and has also been linked to certain types of cancers of the blood.

It remains possible that the virus, known as xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus, infects patients whose immune systems have been suppressed by other causes.

But the new findings were sufficiently alarming that the National Cancer Institute called together a group of specialists in August to consider its potential effect on public health.

“We are in the very early days,’’ said Stuart LeGrice, director of the National Cancer Institute’s Center of Excellence in HIV/AIDS and Cancer Virology, who organized the meeting but was not involved in the new study. “The data need to be confirmed and repeated. . . . We need to know that it is a cause and not just a passenger [virus]. In a sense, we are at the same stage as we were when HIV was first discovered. Hopefully, we can take advantage of what we learned from working with it.’’

LeGrice emphasized, however, that traces of the virus have been found in blood samples preserved for 25 years: “This is not associated with a new and spreading disease. We are not on the verge of an epidemic.’’

The syndrome affects at least 1 million Americans.