Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has been stigmatized as a yuppie disease, women’s disease or psychological disorder — in part because its cause was unknown and its inconsistent symptoms made it difficult to diagnose.
But a discovery by the fledgling Whittemore Peterson Institute, a medical research center based at the University of Nevada, Reno, may change the world’s view of the disease.
Scientists there, drawing international attention, have discovered a link between a blood-borne virus and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. For the first time, scientists can point to a possible cause of the disease, which could blaze a trail for its treatment.
“It’s definitely a milestone in this disease,” said Giuseppe Pizzorno, vice president of translational science at the Nevada Cancer Institute, who said the discovery might have applications in addressing cancer.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a debilitating neuroimmune disease that afflicts more than 1 million Americans, causing them to suffer symptoms including chronic pain and exhaustion, muscle and joint pain and a loss of memory or concentration.
Finding a cure for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was a goal of casino lobbyist and real estate developer Harvey Whittemore and his wife, Annette, when they created the Whittemore Peterson Institute in 2006. Their daughter, now 31, has suffered from the disease since she was 12 and they were not satisfied with the scientific community’s lack of action to combat it, said Annette Whittemore, the institute’s founder and president. Doctors told the couple their daughter needed to better manage stress, she said.
“We knew there would be no answers (from the medical community) and waiting around for someone else to do it wasn’t an option,” Whittemore said.
The institute, with four researchers operating on a $1.5 million budget, opened its first lab in 2007.
The discovery came just after Christmas and with its publication in the journal Science this week, the Whittemore Peterson Institute name has resounded in the media worldwide.
On Friday, GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant, called to discuss possible drug development.
The discovery came after institute researchers found that a recently identified retrovirus — a type of virus that can be transmitted through DNA — is linked to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. They tested 101 samples of tissue from people affected by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and found that 67 percent of them contained the particular sequence of retrovirus, called XMRV. In contrast, XMRV was detected in about 4 percent of DNA specimens from healthy individuals.
The project was a collaboration between the Whittemore Peterson Institute, the National Cancer Institute and the Cleveland Clinic.
Judy Mikovits, director of research at Whittemore Peterson Institute, said the discovery is broader than its application to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome because the scientists identified a new human retrovirus that could be causing other neurological diseases or cancers.
XMRV was originally discovered in prostate cancer tissue of certain men by a scientist at the Cleveland Clinic. Other retroviruses, such as HIV, attack the immune system. Identifying the presence of a retrovirus that causes Chronic Fatigue Symptom can give scientists new strategies to attack a variety of diseases, Mikovits said.
Mikovits said Science was interested in the discovery because 3.7 percent of the study’s control sample was infected with XMRV. Translated nationwide this means there could be 10 million Americans who are infected with a virus that has unknown potential to cause disease, she said.
Whittemore called it a “world-changing” discovery that “could uncover the cause of a great number of diseases that today have no known cause.”
Identifying and addressing the underlying causes of diseases before they manifest generates huge benefits for patients and tremendous savings for the health care system, Whittemore said.
The Whittemores are close friends of Larry and Camille Ruvo, founders of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. The couples, along with Jim and Heather Murren, who are among the founders of Nevada Cancer Institute, are examples of grass-roots philanthropy elevating research and science in Nevada.
“Everyone jokes about the poor quality of science and research here in Nevada,” Pizzorno said.
“With the right people and instruments and support, we can do world-class research.”