Differences So Clear

by | Feb 28, 2017 | ME/CFS, Research News | 8 comments

differences so clear
Suzanne D Vernon

Suzanne D. Vernon, PhD


New Research Brings Clear Differences to Light in ME/CFS
by Suzanne D. Vernon, PhD  |  BHC Research Liaison

There is a great song in the musical RENT titled “Seasons of Love” in which they sing about the number of minutes in a year. As I am reviewing and writing this summary of the recent paper, Epigenetic modifications and glucocorticoid sensitivity in Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)”, I can’t help but sing it…

 “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

How do you measure, measure a year?


This song has impact. Maybe because it’s a big number, or because it’s precise, or because we don’t normally think of a year in minutes.  Whatever the reason, it is an enduring anthem that I have stuck in my head. Here’s my rendition related to this research

“Twelve thousand six hundred and eight methylated sites

Twelve thousand six hundred and eight differences oh dear

Twelve thousand six hundred and eight methylated sites

How do you measure, differences so clear?”


That’s right … 12,608 differences on the DNA between ME/CFS patients compared to matched healthy people.  That’s a big biological difference.  That’s what Wilfred de Vega, a PhD student in Dr. Patrick McGowan’s laboratory, detected in a paper published in the open access journal BMC Medical Genomics titled, “Epigenetic modifications and glucocorticoid sensitivity in Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)”.  These differences on the DNA also affect immune cell function.

You can read the paper HERE, but let me break down this important research.

“Epi” means above and epigenetics implies “above the DNA” of our genes.  These are the chemical changes that occur to our DNA – such as the addition of sticky methyl groups – that change how our genes are expressed.  In other words, the function of the gene is changed without changing the underlying DNA sequence. Lots of methylation can silence gene expression and no methylation means gene expression is turned on.  This team found that almost half of the 12,608 methylation sites were located in protein coding genes.  There was more hypermethylation of the DNA in ME/CFS patients (71.6% versus 28.4% hypomethylated) compared to controls. A full 1,600 differentially methylated genes were associated with physical impairment in ME/CFS. Notably many of these genes are involved in cell energy production, metabolism and immune signaling.

de Vega tested to see whether these differences could affect immune function. He took blood cells from ME/CFS patients and healthy controls and used a specific assay to activate the immune cells (to simulate an immune response) and then turn off the response using a synthetic cortisol.  (Remember, cortisol calms the immune response). The blood cells from a subgroup of ME/CFS patients were hypersensitive to the cortisol meaning that the amount needed to calm healthy immune cells caused the ME/CFS immune cells to shut down. There were 13 differentially methylated genes associated with this hypersensitivity to cortisol in the ME/CFS subgroup.

These are big numbers of differences precisely mapped to genes in ME/CFS patients that clearly affect immune cell function and physical function. We don’t yet know is what causes these epigenetic differences. Innovative research being conducted by young investigators like Dr. Patrick McGowan and his team puts us hot on the trail to track that down.

If anyone still doubts the biological basis of ME/CFS, I would ask them to read this paper, then ask… How could it be more clear?

By SDVernon



  1. Dan Ceraldi

    Thank you so much!I have suffered with CFS for 29 yrs I’m 51 it has ruined my life
    Finally it appears research in my Fantastic documentary country IS taking place.
    I’ve battled this disease 29 years. Many many others have been ignored by medical community. thanks again for writing this!

  2. Yasmin

    A great paper, simply explained. What does that mean for ME sufferers? Can anything be done to correct the epigemetic changes? And maybe offer hope to ME sufferers.

  3. S Phillips

    This is brilliant in the truest sense of the word. Thank you so much!

  4. cort

    Great to hear…

  5. Valerie Freiermuth

    This is very interesting, but until these tests are available to all of us with CFS, still not helpful in proving that there is something very real wrong with us.
    I too have been living with CFS for over 20 years now, and also feel that it ruined my life – I’ve declined over the years to the point that I can only work a few hours a week now, with great difficulty.
    If there’s any way for those of us not included in these research studies to get the same labs, that along with published reports like the above, would greatly help in being treated seriously by our doctors, and getting approved for disability etc. when it gets to that point.

    • Kathy Jensen

      These are NOT lab tests that test for ME/CFS. These are research study results simply showing differences in the DNA, due to intrinsic or extrinsic (outside) factors that change the expression of the DNA. Knowing this would not help any doctor actually TREAT the illness but this is great for we sufferers because it shows we are different from “normal.” WHY still has to be found. It seems frustrating that research is ongoing that gives us information without any solution, but until we can quantify the information, researchers don’t have a “path” to follow to find the solution. Finding those paths is what this particular research was about. Have patience. Stay hopeful. We are all hoping for the “path” to be found that will allow future researchers to find those lab tests that diagnose, and then find the cure or treatments for which we hope.

  6. health tips

    I’m not sure why but this weblog is loading extremely slow for me. Is anyone else having this problem or is it a problem on my end? I’ll check back later on and see if the problem still exists.

    • Leigh Reynolds

      I believe this was an overall web issue, not something on BHC servers. Many sites have been experiencing issues. Hopefully it is resolved!


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