Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) first entered the medical lexicon in 1988 to describe a cluster of symptoms without an obvious cause that doctors were seeing in the Lake Tahoe area of Nevada. The principal symptom was debilitating tiredness, but people also complained of sore throats, headaches, muscle pain and various other manifestations of general malaise.
The lack of a clear biological cause, the fuzziness of the symptoms and the fact that many of the people diagnosed were young professionals opened the door to a smear campaign. The media were quick to dub CFS "yuppie flu".
Now an anti-white blood cell drug treats two of three people with CFS and shows the cause antibodies after an infection disrupted blood flow.
Researchers in Norway have been trialling a drug normally used to knock out white blood cells in people with lymphoma and rheumatoid arthritis. Two thirds of the people who took it experienced major remission of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) symptoms, essentially returning to normal life, with bursts of vitality unthinkable while they were ill.
The discovery – which sprang from a serendipitous observation – offers more than just the promise of a much-needed treatment. It also suggests that the symptoms are somehow caused by antibodies originally produced to fight off an infection. The researchers speculate that they might disrupt blood flow, leaving muscles drained of energy.
If correct, this brings the scientific story full circle. CFS was initially suspected to be a "post-viral" syndrome – the lingering after-effects of an infection with Epstein-Barr. More importantly, it could offer people diagnosed with CFS both physical relief and psychological closure.
There are wider implications too. Pain and fatigue without an obvious cause account for a large percentage of visits to the doctor, and usually have an unsatisfactory outcome. On top of that, there are many other conditions – Morgellons, for example – that struggle for credibility. If the CFS mystery is finally solved, that offers hope to countless others struggling with unexplained symptoms. It may take another serendipitous discovery, but science is good at those.