Long COVID: QLD researchers probe link between illness and chronic fatigue syndrome

The “symptom overlap” between long COVID and chronic fatigue syndrome patients has prompted a team of Queensland researchers to investigate if the two illnesses are essentially the same thing.

They’re also seeking to answer whether drugs for one illness can be repurposed to treat the other.

Amid the infancy of research into the pandemic phenomena of long COVID, the team at Menzies Health Institute at Griffith University on the Gold Coast has noted about 70 per cent to 75 per cent of myalgic encephalomyelitis, more commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/ CFS), is caused by viral infections.

The institute’s Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik, a professor in immunology, said while long COVID is only “just coming into light” as a disease, it was apparent there are “a number of key symptom overlaps between ME and long COVID”.

“The overlap is neurocognition impairment, similar to ME/CFS. There are also sleep disturbances (in both illnesses), there are respiratory disturbances, there are also changes in memory, word choice, et cetera,” she told 7NEWS.

“However we’re now starting to work on what is long COVID in terms of a definition, also then the underlying pathology causing this long COVID phenomena.”

A long COVID patient does breathing training in a gymnastics room at a clinic in Germany. Credit: Getty Images

More research is needed to determine the full extent of the similarities, not only in symptoms but also pathologies, of the two illnesses, said Marshall-Gradisnik.

She said the emergence of long COVID – and the difficulties patients have in getting answers about their illness – has highlighted what chronic fatigue syndrome sufferers have experienced for decades, with the illness previously been misdiagnosed as depression.

What the research team will do, said Marshall-Gradisnik, is explore whether drugs they found to have positive results in laboratory tests of ME/CFS are effective for treating long COVID.

Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik is a professor of immunology at Griffith University.
Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik is a professor of immunology at Griffith University.
Credit: 7NEWS

“What we have found is patients who are identified as ME/CFS have a default or a dysfunction in that receptor and it is unable to bring calcium inside cells of our bodies,” she said.

“It’s important because all cells have these receptors – so if we’ve got a defective receptor it’s less calcium coming into the cell. So in cardiac cells, for example, that changes cardiac function and that’s (a symptom) reported in ME patients.

“We’ve looked at potential pharmaco-therapeutic interventions. We’ve used a number of interventions in the laboratory, first and foremost, to test whether or not there was a change in those cells for ME/CFS patients.

“We have reported there’s a significant improvement in the functions of those cells”.

Marshall-Gradisnik is hopeful the results of current tests will indicate if long COVID patients have the same receptor disfunction as ME/CFS patients.

But she has stressed the team is in the early stages of determining the similarities of the two illnesses and an abundance of further research is needed.

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