Immune cell exhaustion, dysfunction, and metabolism in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome

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Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) is a chronic and incapacitating multisystem condition with unknown etiology, no cure, and no FDA- approved treatments, all of which can be attributed to historical underfunding, widespread misinformation, and the complexity of the disease. Many patients encounter several immune-related symptoms, extreme fatigue, post-exertional malaise, and a flu-like onset. Studies have documented changes in ME/CFS immune cell populations and decreased natural killer (NK) cell performance, along with aberrant cytokine production, reduced glycolysis in T cells, and altered metabolites relevant to fatty acid oxidation, implicating potential intracellular metabolic dysregulation.This knowledge prompted me to investigate fatty acid oxidation and immune cell functional states in isolated ME/CFS lymphocytes. Using extracellular flux analysis and flow cytometry, I observed elevated fatty acid oxidation levels in ME/CFS immune cells, including NK cells, CD4+ memory cells, CD4+ effector cells, CD8+ naïve cells, and CD8+ memory cells compared to healthy controls, particularly during high energy demands and activation. My findings suggest a metabolic dysfunction in ME/CFS immune cells, consistent with T cell exhaustion - a state that hinders immune cell proliferation, survival, and cytokine production following persistent antigen stimulation. Building upon these results, I further investigated immune cell exhaustion and dysfunction in isolated CD8+ and CD4+ T cells from ME/CFS and healthy samples. I analyzed T cell sub-populations, including naïve, effector, memory, regulatory, and helper T cells, for frequencies of inhibitory receptors and transcription factors associated with dysfunctional immune cell states. I detected distinct transcription factor dynamics and elevated exhausted T cell phenotype proportions in ME/CFS CD8+ T cell populations compared to healthy controls. In ME/CFS CD4+ T cells, I also observed altered inhibitory receptor population frequencies compared to healthy control samples. Moreover, dysfunctional T cell features correlated with ME/CFS health status and symptom presentation. Overall, my findings detect dysfunctional T cell states in specific ME/CFS cell populations, which can lead to reduced effector function that may contribute to ME/CFS symptom presentation. This work highlights the significance of assessing both metabolic components and immune cell dysfunction-associated targets in the development of potential therapeutic interventions for individuals with ME/CFS.

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Chronic fatigue syndrome; ME/CFS; Myalgic encephalomyelitis; NK cells; T cell exhaustion; T cells


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Union Local


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Hanson, Maureen

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Grimson, Andrew
Leifer, Cynthia

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Genetics, Genomics and Development

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Ph. D., Genetics, Genomics and Development

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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Attribution 4.0 International


dissertation or thesis

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