The researchers do a nice job of summarizing the literature on the various viruses associated with CFS. But what interested me most was their summary of research showing that viruses can alter cell function without killing a cell. Normally we think of a virus attaching to a cell wall, penetrating it and taking over its DNA to make new viruses.
Eventually the cell bursts and the new viruses spread throughout the body infecting more cells. While they are taking over a cell, they’re hidden from the immune system. So it stands to reason that it takes a while for the immune system to search out and destroy all of them. And in many cases, the viruses go latent--that is, they are contained by the immune system so they don’t invade and replicate. But during periods of stress, cortisol, the main stress hormone, rises and the immune system is suppressed (which is why we get prednisone, a synthetic cortisol, to calm a horrendous case of poison ivy). The latent viruses can become reactivated at those times, as measured in the blood by increased antibodies. This is what happened to me in May 2010 when Coxsackie virus antibodies quadrupled.
Here’s what the researchers had to say about the way viruses can cause a change in cell function, even though they are no longer active in the body.
Another mechanism by which persistent virus infection produced disease was uncovered after the discovery that some viruses could alter cell differentiation (i.e. the “luxury“ function of cells), without causing cell destruction, and thereby altering homeostasis. For example, whilst examining the effects of persistent lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (an RNA virus which infects mice) infection on differentiated neuroblastoma cells, Oldstone (Oldstone et al., 1982) noted abnormalities in the synthesis and degradation of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine caused by decreased production of the appropriate acetylase or esterase enzyme. Nevertheless, these neuroblastoma cells were of normal morphology, growth rate, cloning efficiency and in levels of total RNA, DNA, protein and vital enzyme synthesis. Infected cells were indistinguishable from infected ones by both light and high resolution electromicroscopy. In man, after infection with influenza virus, peripheral blood lymphocytes no longer performed their expected specialized functions, including antibody synthesis and they no longer had the capacity to act as killer cells (Oldstone, 2002). Hence, this human RNA virus altered the different cell functions without lysing or destroying them. Viruses act very subtly on a cell and disorder its function, but not so severely as to kill the infected cell. Yet, for the host, the end result is perturbed homeostasis and disease.
This theory fits in nicely with William Rea’s study of hypersensitivity and chronic disease as conditions in which homeostasis is altered in the intracellular matrix. When I read this book, I thought about a webinar Metametrix offered last year on chronic illness resulting from the BP spill in the Gulf. These people started out with symptoms of toxicity from the solvents they were breathing and absorbing through their skin and eventually started to show evidence of multiple chronic viral infections.
Viruses and other pathogens more easily invade a body when the tissues are damaged. They also invade more easily when stress has suppressed the immune system. The presence of persistent toxins creates chronic physiological stress, so even when a person is not feeling emotional, he or she can still be experiencing stress. Ditto with inflammation, which rises during infections, from biotoxins and other noxious substances (pesticides, herbicides, solvents, toluene, etc). In sum, once the body degenerates into chronic illness, it becomes more and more likely that a new insult will create further damage. Thus, chronic illness becomes chronic degenerative illness.
Rea’s work also syncs nicely (from a layperson/non-scientist POV) with Ritchie Shoemaker’s work on biotoxin illness. The circulating biotoxins, whether from Lyme, dinoflagellates, ciguatera, or mold, create a chronic inflammatory condition which suppresses regulatory hormones and neuropeptides while elevating markers of general inflammation and immune function. Shoemaker doesn’t talk about permanent changes to the cell. Indeed, his goal is to reverse the illness by clearing out the toxins with binders, reducing inflammation, and raising the depressed endocrine molecules. For this purpose he uses cholestyramine, fish oil, Actos, and supplementary ADH and VIP.
We need more CFS researchers to look at altered cell functions in CFS (as Light and Light are doing), and more virologists to understand how viruses can leave cells alive but not fully functional.
We also need innovative healers to work on discovering ways to normalize dysfunctional cells. Are stem cells the answer? Or can we clear out the toxins and restore the body to a high nutritional status to see people fully recover from this illness. Thus far, I know many improved patients, but only one person who claims to have fully recovered and gone back to an active life. Others who are improved continue to work and exercise, but restrict their life in other ways.