Increased expression of activation antigens on CD8+ T lymphocytes in Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome: inverse associations with lowered CD19+ expression and CD4+/CD8+ ratio, but no associations with (auto)immune, leaky gut, oxidative an

BACKGROUND: There is now evidence that specific subgroups of patients with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis / chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) suffer from a neuro-psychiatric-immune disorder. This study was carried out to delineate the expression of the activation markers CD38 and human leukocyte antigen (HLA) DR on CD4+ and CD8+ peripheral blood lymphocytes in ME/CFS.

METHODS: Proportions and absolute numbers of peripheral lymphocytes expressing CD3+, CD19+, CD4+, CD8+, CD38+ and HLA-DR+ were measured in ME/CFS (n=139), chronic fatigue (CF, n=65) and normal controls (n=40).

RESULTS: The proportions of CD3+, CD8+, CD8+CD38+ and CD8+HLA-DR+ were significantly higher in ME/CFS patients than controls, while CD38+, CD8+CD38+, CD8+HLA-DR+ and CD38+HLA-DR+ were significantly higher in ME/CFS than CF. The percentage of CD19+ cells and the CD4+/CD8+ ratio were significantly lower in ME/CFS and CF than in controls. There were highly significant inverse correlations between the increased expression of CD38+, especially that of CD8+CD38+, and the lowered CD4+/CD8+ ratio and CD19+ expression. There were no significant associations between the flow cytometric results and severity or duration of illness and peripheral blood biomarkers of oxidative and nitrosative stress (O&NS, i.e. IgM responses to O&N modified epitopes), leaky gut (IgM or IgA responses to LPS of gut commensal bacteria), cytokines (interleukin-1, tumor necrosis factor-α), neopterin, lysozyme and autoimmune responses to serotonin.

CONCLUSIONS: The results support that a) increased CD38 and HLA-DR expression on CD8+ T cells are biomarkers of ME/CFS; b) increased CD38 antigen expression may contribute to suppression of the CD4+/CD8+ ratio and CD19+ expression; c) there are different immune subgroups of ME/CFS patients, e.g. increased CD8+ activation marker expression versus inflammation or O&NS processes; and d) viral infections or reactivation may play a role in a some ME/CFS patients.

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