University of Oxford Researchers Use Spectroscopy and Artificial Intelligence to Create a Blood Test for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Spectroscopic technique was 91% accurate in identifying the notoriously difficult-to-diagnose disease suggesting a clinical diagnostic test for CFS may be possible
Most clinical pathologists know that, despite their best efforts, scientists have failed to come up with a reliable clinical laboratory blood test for diagnosing myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), the condition commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)—at least not one that’s ready for clinical use.
But now an international team of researchers at the University of Oxford has developed an experimental non-invasive test for CFS using a simple blood draw, artificial intelligence (AI), and a spectroscopic technique known as Raman spectroscopy.
The approach uses a laser to identify unique cellular “fingerprints” associated with the disease, according to an Oxford news release.
“When Raman was added to a panel of potentially diagnostic outputs, we improved the ability of the model to identify the ME/CFS patients and controls,” Karl Morten, PhD, Director of Graduate Studies and Principal Investigator at Oxford University, told Advanced Science News. Morton led the research team along with Wei Huang, PhD, Professor of Biological Engineering at Oxford.
The researchers claim the test is 91% accurate in differentiating between healthy people, disease controls, and ME/CFS patients, and 84% accurate in differentiating between mild, moderate, and severe cases, the new release states.
The researchers published their paper in the journal Advanced Science titled, “Developing a Blood Cell-Based Diagnostic Test for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Using Peripheral Blood Mononuclear Cells.”
“This could be a game changer as we are unsure what causes [ME/CFS] and diagnosis occurs perhaps 10 to 20 years after the condition has started to develop,” said Karl Morten, PhD, Director of Graduate Studies and Principal Investigator at Oxford University. “An early diagnosis might allow us to identify what is going wrong with the potential to fix it before the more long-term degenerative changes are observed.” Though this research may not lead to a simple clinical laboratory blood test for CFS, any non-invasive diagnostic test would enable doctors to help many people. (Photo copyright: Oxford University.)
Need for an ME/CFS Test
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes ME/CFS as “a serious, long-term illness that affects many body systems,” with symptoms that include severe fatigue and sleep difficulties. Citing an Institute of Medicine (IoM) report, the agency estimates that 836,000 to 2.5 million Americans suffer from the condition but notes that most cases have not been diagnosed.
“One of the difficulties is the complexity of the disease,” said Jonas Bergquist, MD, PhD, Director of the ME/CFS Research Center of Uppsala University in Sweden, told Advanced Science News. “Because it’s a multi-organ disorder, you get symptoms from many different regions of the body with different onsets, though it’s common with post viral syndrome to have different overlapping [symptoms] that disguise the diagnosis.” Bergquist was not involved with the Oxford study.
One key to the Oxford researchers’ technique is the use of multiple artificial intelligence models to analyze the spectral profiles. “These signatures are complex and by eye there are not necessarily clear features that separate ME/CFS patients from other groups,” Morten told Advanced Science News.
“The AI looks at this data and attempts to find features which can separate the groups,” he continued. “Different AI methods find different features in the data. Individually, each method is not that successful at assigning an unknown sample to the correct group. However, when we combine the different methods, we produce a model which can assign the subjects to the different groups very accurately.”
Without a reliable test, “diagnosis of the condition is difficult, with most patients relying on self-report, questionnaires, and subjective measures to receive a diagnosis,” the Oxford press release noted.
But developing such a test has been challenging, Advanced Science News noted.
How Oxford’s Raman Technique Works
Raman spectroscopy uses a laser to determine the “vibrational modes of molecules,” according to the Oxford press release.
“When a laser beam is directed at a cell, some of the scattered photons undergo frequency shifts due to energy exchanges with the cell’s molecular components,” the press release stated. “Raman micro-spectroscopy detects these shifted photons, providing a non-invasive method for single cell analysis. The resulting single cell Raman spectra serve as a unique fingerprint, revealing the intrinsic and biochemical properties and indicating the physiological and metabolic state of the cell.”
The researchers employed the technique on blood samples from 98 subjects, including 61 ME/CFS patients, 16 healthy controls, and 21 controls with multiple sclerosis (MS), Advanced Science reported.
The Oxford scientists focused their attention on peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs), as previous studies found that these cells showed “reduced energetic function” in ME/CFS patients. “With this evidence, the team proposed that single-cell analysis of PBMCs might reveal differences in the structure and morphology in ME/CFS patients compared to healthy controls and other disease groups such as multiple sclerosis,” the press release states.
Clinical Laboratory Blood Processing and the Oxford Raman Technique
Oxford’s Raman spectroscopic technique “only requires a small blood sample which could be developed as a point-of-care test perhaps from one drop of blood,” the researchers wrote. However, Advanced Science News pointed out that required laser microscopy equipment costs more than $250,000.
In their Advanced Science paper, the researchers note that the test could be made more widely available by transferring blood samples collected by local clinical laboratories to diagnostic centers that have the needed hardware.
“Alternatively, a compact system containing portable Raman instruments could be developed, which would be much cheaper than a standard Raman microscope, and [which] incorporated with microfluidic systems to stream cells through a Raman laser for detection, eliminating the need for lengthy blood sample processing,” the researchers wrote.
“Our paper is very much a starting point for future research,” Morten told Advanced Science News. “Larger cohorts need to be studied, and if Raman proves useful, we need to think carefully about how a test might be developed.”
Bergquist agreed, stating it’s “not necessarily something you would see in a doctor’s office. It requires a lot of advanced data analysis to use—I still see it as a research methodology. But in the long run, it could be developed into a tool that could be used in a more simplistic way.”
Though a useable diagnostic test may be far off, clinical laboratories should consider how they can aid in ME/CFS research.