Steve Elledge

Dr. Stephen J. Elledge
Department of Genetics
Harvard Medical School

The underlying cause of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is still unknown. We suspect that it is caused by a viral or bacterial infection, since the onset of CFS is often accompanied by a flu-like illness. We are studying this possibility by examining people’s antibodies.

Antibodies are substances that our body normally makes in response to an infection. Each antibody is capable of specifically recognizing a target. Antibodies can target a wide range of things, including viruses and bacteria. Once an antibody sees its target pathogen, it can activate a variety of mechanisms to kill and eliminate the pathogen. When we get an infection, we often generate antibodies that specifically target the virus or bacteria that caused the infection. After the infection is dealt with, our body keeps these antibodies around to protect us from future infections by the same pathogen.

We have developed a technology that reveals all the viruses targeted by the antibodies in a blood sample. This data allows us to determine what viruses people have been exposed to. We plan to use this technology to examine the blood from people with and without CFS in order to find viruses that are associated with CFS. We hope this study will identify a pathogen as a likely causative agent of the disease in order to focus future study.

We also have a related technology that reveals all the targets of autoantibodies in a blood sample. Occasionally, the immune system makes mistakes and generates autoantibodies, which are antibodies that recognize the body’s own cells. Autoantibodies can cause damage to the body’s own organs and are a sign of immune dysfunction. We also plan to apply this technology to the sample blood samples to look for evidence of immune dysfunction in people with CFS.