Scottish scientists find 'key to curing ME'

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A REMEDY for the debilitating condition ME, once derided as "yuppie flu", could be available in as little as a year after groundbreaking Scottish research.

A Glasgow University team has discovered a malfunction in sufferers' genes which appears to prompt their immune system to "work overtime", making patients extremely tired.

The lead scientist, Dr John Gow, said a cocktail of drugs could be used to "turn off" the genes, allowing patients to live "a fairly normal" life.

The university has already patented the genes involved as a means of diagnosing the condition, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), quickly and cheaply.

The disease has gradually gained acceptance and in 2002, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer for England and Wales, said that "CFS/ME should be classed alongside other diseases such as multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease".

Dr Gow, a senior lecturer in clinical neuroscience at the university, mapped all 33,000 genes in CFS sufferers and then compared them with the genes of healthy people.

Dr Gow, who works at Glasgow's Southern General Hospital, said they found CFS sufferers had a particular kind of "unusual gene expression".

"This means the genes are switched on or off at an inappropriate time. We have identified a number of genes that are wrongly switched on," he said. "It looks like the immune system is working overtime when it shouldn't be, making the patient tired."

Every cell in the body contains the same 33,000 genes, but only about 10 per cent are actually doing anything at any one time. There are genes related to the production of liver proteins in brain cells, for example, but these should be "switched off" because liver protein is not required in the brain.

Drugs can be used to control chemical pathways that act on the genes and Dr Gow said he had identified ones that could be used to regulate the over-active genes in CFS.

These drugs are already on the market for other conditions and could be given to CFS sufferers within a year if tests prove positive.

Dr Gow stressed that the drugs had to be tested in practice. "This is not a major breakthrough yet, but it is a big step forward," he said.

A prototype diagnostic testing kit has already been developed

which would give doctors "a yes or no answer" about whether someone had the condition. Currently it takes about six months to make a diagnosis.

However, Dr Gow said he was currently "going nowhere" because his funding had run out.

Dr Neil Abbot, of medical research charity Merge, which works on ME, said: "This is very exciting work. The analysis of genes is one of the most interesting modern areas of research which has the potential to come up with a cure, but this may be in the long term."

John Breward, 51, of Bruntsfield in Edinburgh, contracted ME after a severe case of viral pneumonia 20 years ago.

The former research scientist is now housebound and on bad days bedridden, suffering from extreme exhaustion, pain in his muscles and joints and migraine-like headaches.

"The possibility of a cure... that would be absolutely wonderful," Dr Breward said.

"We have had false dawns before with people saying they've diagnostic tests and treatments which haven't panned out - so I'm cautiously optimistic."

TAKING ACTION

LYNNE Mackay loved swimming and skiing and never missed a day at school. But at 13 she changed: she languished in bed, missed entire weeks of school and was prone to sudden tantrums.

The reason for this transformation was unclear - she was close to being expelled - until she was finally diagnosed as suffering from ME. Lynne, now 16, who lives in Penicuik near Edinburgh, said the prospect of a diagnostic test and even a cure for ME was exciting.

"I was ill all the time, but people thought I was making it up to get attention or get off school, so to get the diagnosis was just amazing, really. Then you know it's not just in your brain and you're not going mad," she said.

She has learned not to exert herself too much and this enabled her to continue her schoolwork. She is studying for eight Standard Grade exams.

"My symptoms are very mild now. I used to get lots of headaches, earache, sore throat, feel very tired, aching muscles and flu-like symptoms," Lynne said.

"It just drains you. I didn't want to do anything, couldn't do anything. But I've learned to pace myself. I have had to not sleep during the day and keep my sleep patterns regular.

"If I feel a wee bit tired to do something, I don't do it. If I did, I know it will push me back.

"I'd been a really active kid. I don't really want to sit around and do nothing. I don't want to watch a DVD on my bed - I want to go out and muck around with my friends. You have to learn to take a step back, but there's always a chance of a wee infection that will knock you back."

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