Metabolism, Cell Danger Response and Healing in ME/CFS


Written By Alana Karran

Robert Naviaux, MD PhD, was the keynote speaker for the Community Symposium on the Molecular Basis of ME/CFS, held at Stanford University on August 12th, 2017. Dr. Naviaux spoke about his research on Mitochondria, at the University of California San Diego, and its connection to understanding ME/CFS.

Dr. Naviaux began his talk by stating that he believes, somewhere in the complexity of ME/CFS, there is also an underlying unity. That unity points back to the Cell Danger Response (CDR), one of the two chief functions of the Mitochondria.

Mitochondria are connected to all life on the planet. They have two roles: Inside the cell, they are the carrier of energy, which animates life and powers metabolism; Outside the cell, they act as a Mitokine – a signaling cell – that coordinates the Cellular Defense System by engaging the innate immune system to respond with inflammation, to quickly carry white blood cells toward the intruding pathogen.

Mitochondria are called the “canaries in the coal mine” because they metabolize so quickly, they are the first to detect danger, stress and toxicity in the body. Studies into the abnormal pathways in many diseases, including Autism, Gulf War Illness, PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, Primary Mitochondrial Disease and ME/CFS, all show a common unifying factor, mitochondria and the Cell Danger Response.

The Cell Danger Response system consists of three steps that happen in order. If one of those steps is blocked, the body won’t progress toward healing. The steps begin when a cell is in danger and the mitochondria change their function to signaling a response. Once the threat is over, they go back to their primary function of producing energy. If, however, the danger is persistent, there may be blocks to healing and, as a result, the mitochondria cannot go back to producing energy.

In fact, these low-level energy states are actually created by diseases, like Lyme and Tuberculosis, to help them create an immunity to antibiotic treatment. Alterations to mitochondrial function actually allow some pathogens to survive an attack by the immune system.

Two metabolic studies of ME/CFS, a Discovery Study and a Validation Study, are being conducted at the University of California San Diego, by Dr. Naviaux and his team. Because blood is a microcosm of the biosphere of the body, researchers are using metabolomics to measure the blood in ME/CFS patients. These blood tests may help detect if there is a Cell Danger Response trigger still present in the body. Once it is identified, this trigger can be removed, which will allow the body to progress through the stages of healing. Along with supporting the body nutritionally, this would help the “metabolic tank” to refill with energy and normalize.

In one clinical trial, low-dose Suramin is being used in Autism patients to remove a block in the healing cycle and reprogram the metabolism so that it continues the steps of healing. This may have implications for ME/CFS patients, as well.

“This work opens a fresh path to both understanding the biology of CFS and, more importantly to patients, a robust, rational way to develop new therapeutics for a disease sorely in need of them.” ~ Robert Naviaux, MD PhD