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  • 16/20

Research that Never Rests

Searching for Answers to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
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Dawei Li, Ph.D., recently joined FAU as an associate professor and director of genomic medicine in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine. At the forefront of genetic research, he’s identified genes related to a number of psychiatric, behavioral and addictive disorders.

Invited to a conference on chronic fatigue syndrome three years ago, Li was captivated by the subject matter examined by each speaker. Fascinated by the mysteries of chronic fatigue syndrome, in between conference sessions, he sought out the life stories of patients impacted by the disease. He could see in their eyes their urgent need to find the cause and a cure.

Since then, Li’s focus has shifted to chronic fatigue syndrome, which is a multisystem disease involving the immune system and brain. Currently, there are no diagnostic biomarkers, FDA-approved treatments, nor cures for this condition. Its cause remains unknown.

Li is now building an FAU research team that includes faculty, graduate students and community partners.

Prior to his time at FAU, Li was an assistant professor in the department of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Vermont. His journey began at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, where he earned a doctorate in genetics (bioinformatics). He furthered his education as a postdoctoral associate in statistical genetics at Rockefeller University then as an associate research scientist in genomics and bioinformatics at Yale University.

It was FAU’s investment in genomic medicine research that lured Li to Florida. He brings with him two grants from the National Institutes of Health and one from the U.S. Department of Defense, in addition to several other research grants.

Li’s research goal is to develop and maintain a program involving “bioinformatics development, genetic risk discovery and translational medicine” into diseases, particularly for chronic fatigue syndrome. “These tools allow us to better examine the connections of endogenous retroviruses with altered immune responses, particularly observed in diseases such as chronic fatigue syndrome,” Li said.

“We are working on a number of innovative genomics and bioinformatics research projects to investigate new questions in the field.” COVID-19 created challenges for Li’s research, but it also brought additional opportunities for examination. Li currently is also in the process of developing a new COVID-19 genomic project on FAU’s campus.

“There has long been speculation of viral causes for chronic fatigue syndrome,” Li said. “Many believe the original virus that triggers the disease leaves the patient’s body, making it difficult to determine the cause of the illness. Many people affected with COVID do not fully recover – known as the ‘long-haulers’ – and develop symptoms similar to what we have seen in chronic fatigue syndrome.

“There has long been speculation of viral causes for chronic fatigue syndrome.”

— Dawei Li, Ph.D.

The large number of samples from COVID-19-affected individuals make it possible to examine viral causes in chronic fatigue syndrome and possibly other post-viral syndromes.”

Chronic fatigue syndrome affects up to 2.5 million Americans and more than 20 million people worldwide. The condition is more common than multiple sclerosis, lung cancer or AIDS. It is anticipated that this number may increase significantly after the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our research may also provide clues for new chronic fatigue patients among COVID-19 ‘long-haulers,’” Li said.  ♦

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