The Mitochondrial Nexus Behind Chronic Illness

Debilitating Conditions May Have a Common Cause

The Naviaux Lab, led by Dr. Robert Naviaux of University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, was founded in 1996 to help children and adults with mitochondrial disease. Mitochondrial disease was once considered a specific group of genetic illnesses that affect less than 50,000 adults and children in the United States. We now know that mitochondria are essential for the healing process itself, and virtually all chronic complex diseases are associated with a novel kind of mitochondrial dysfunction that blocks healing and recovery.

Thanks to metabolomics (the precise measurement of the chemicals in our blood that our cells use to communicate with each other), we know that diseases like diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson, Alzheimer, mental health disorders like bipolar disorder, major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autoimmune diseases like lupus and multiple sclerosis (MS), and childhood disorders like autism, ADHD, asthma, and many more all have a kind of mitochondrial dysfunction that blocks the cellular steps needed for healing.

Mitochondria in the body serve two primary purposes. The first is to serve as a powerhouse. The second is to defend the body against environmental threats (viruses, pathogens, toxins, etc.). When mitochondria are in threat mode, they go through three phases before they return to their powerhouse state. In the first stage of the cell danger response (CDR1), cells contain threats and provide damage control. In CDR2, damaged cells are replaced. In CDR3, cells are re-educated and re-integrated in a kind of ‘cellular bootcamp’ to re-establish normal organ function.  Completion of all three stages of the CDR is needed for wound healing and recovery from any injury or illness. When a cell gets stuck in one of the CDR modes, chronic illness results.

The Naviaux Lab has helped hundreds of patients with mitochondrial and metabolic concerns over the last 20 years. Their projects include continual discoveries that will change the way chronic disease is diagnosed and treated, clinical trials for the treatment of mitochondrial disease, and a movement to push the U.S. Government to ensure children of the future a healthy environment.

The Future of The Naviaux Lab

  • Mitochondrial Disease Research: One of Dr. Naviaux’s early discoveries brought a close to a 70-year old medical mystery.  His lab discovered the cause of a classical mitochondrial disease called Alpers syndrome that was first described in 1931. Now the lab uses its mitochondrial expertise to study how the lessons learned can be used to help people with many other disorders. New research is testing the hypothesis that all chronic diseases are organ-selective manifestations of the CDR, and treatment for the stages of the CDR can help many different disorders, including some of the original mitochondrial disorders that inspired this research.

  • Autism Research: This research is testing a new unifying theory for the genesis and treatment of autism proposing that autism is caused by a treatable metabolic syndrome in some children. The lab has just completed the first clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of suramin in children with autism.

  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) Research: CFS is notoriously difficult to diagnose. The Naviaux Lab developed a novel mass spectrometry-based method that allows them to measure over 500 molecules in the blood and see deeper and with greater clarity into the universe of the cell than has been possible before. This research will allow for more accurate diagnosis and better treatment for patients with CFS.

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Research: PTSD not only can fracture the home lives of patients, but also increases the risk of many other co-morbid problems and illnesses such as obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, cardiac disease, and accelerated aging and dementia, which create additional health burdens. Dr. Naviaux's lab has uncovered a chemical signature of PTSD that holds promise not only for diagnosis, but also for personalized medical treatment.

Chronic Disease is one of the most enigmatic problems for modern society. For no apparent reason, children and adults develop chronic conditions that require a lifetime of medication, treatment and, in some cases, assisted care. Dr. Robert Naviaux, MD, PhD may have found  a common denominator that underlies chronic disease; not simply a cause for one chronic disease, but the potential cause of many seemingly disparate chronic diseases. This research could mean early diagnosis and potential pathways to better lives for many now living with chronic illness.



As a child, and later as a student, Robert Naviaux saw more layers and connections between the parts of the natural world around him than he could understand from what he learned in school. There always seemed to be deeper mysteries and questions hidden just beyond his reach. He learned that if he kept a child-like eye for wonder, while applying the tools of science, that the inner workings of the living world and its connections to the health of our physical world could be discovered.  

As a professional physician-scientist, he started his career wanting to be the voice for children who had no voice.  In the beginning, those were children with genetic forms of mitochondrial disease. The life of a two-year old little girl named Christini, whose life was cut short by a mitochondrial disease called Leigh syndrome, has inspired him for over 20 years. His lab went on to study other disorders that steal the voice of children, like autism. The desire to give hope and bring new smiles to children and families everywhere, who have been touched by these devastating diseases, fuels the lab’s research to this day.


Hailey’s Wish Foundation, 2008

Hailey’s Hero Award, For Outstanding Research and Clinical Care of children with mitochondrial diseases

Thomson ESI, 2007

Science Citation Index “Fast Moving Front Article”

Best Abstract Award, 2007

United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation Mitochondrial Medicine

Honored in a Non-Fiction Book

Anna’s Friends — Lessons Learned from a Short and Beautiful Life (336 pp, Rogue River Publications, Belmont MI, 2002, ISBN 0-9718076-3-9), written by John Stuive and Kathleen Feeney, parents of a child with a terminal mitochondrial disease cared for by Dr. Naviaux