Archive for March, 2017

The Shift: Top Science Journal Asserts Shift in Attitude Towards ME/CFS Has Occurred

“Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a biological disease” Dr. Ian Lipkin’s Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University

From NIH Director Francis Collins’ high profile blog “Moving Toward Answers in ME/CFS“, to the New York Times Opinion piece “Getting It Wrong on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” exposing the failures of the PACE trial, to the coverage of the Australians’ search for a biomarker, the chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) community has been treated to some excellent press lately.

difference-maker

Influential journal suggests a shift is occurring in how researchers are viewing ME/CFS

Now comes a piece “Biological underpinnings of chronic fatigue syndrome begin to emerge” from the news section of Nature, one of the world’s most read and most prestigious scientific journals. The article, written by Amy Maxmen, proclaims that a “shift” from viewing ME/CFS as psychosomatic to viewing it as a real disorder has occurred.

The article is a far cry from some of sentiments of the “Life After XMRV” piece Nature did in 2011 in which Simon Wessely asserted that the patients’ reactions to that finding would lead another generation of researchers to avoid ME/CFS research.  (He rather memorably suggested that researchers would rather “work on images of Mohammed” than study it.) Even advocates for the disease, though, worried that the controversy would turn off researchers.  Others, however, felt that the XMRV finding would galvanize researchers to use new technologies to understand ME/CFS.

They were right. Wessely, it appears, was wrong.

World-Class Researchers Beginning to Take ME/CFS On

The Nature article makes it clear that a major cause for the shift occurring is the presence, for the first time ever, of world-class researchers willing to take ME/CFS on.

Dr. Ian Lipkin, an immunologist with an unmatched resume, has not only lent his name and prestige to this disease, but his Columbia team’s published findings  – two of which have outlined dramatic changes in immune functioning in ME/CFS –  have been at the center of this shift. The Columbia team’s findings have been built on collaborations with expert clinicians, including Dr. Daniel Peterson and the Simmaron Research Foundation he advises. (Check out the slideshow that dominates the website for Lipkin’s Center for Infection and Immunity (CII): one of the slides simply says, “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a biological disease”.)

Ron Davis, with his many awards and the stunning story of his son’s illness, is also reaching deep into the scientific world to find answers. The stunning picture of Davis holding the printed circuit he’s using to decipher ME/CFS could be a metaphor for the search for the answer to ME/CFS itself.  The answer is there in that maze somewhere, and it’s going to be technology – probably new technology – that uncovers it.

These two men, with their willingness to publicly take bold stands for this disease, have been at the forefront of the “shift” that appears to be occurring. Both men have had the ear of the NIH Director, Francis Collin.  Their credibility has gone far in helping the National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of biomedical research in the country, take a reinvigorated approach to ME/CFS.

Dr. Avi Nath

Dr. Avi Nath, National Clinical Center, NIH

Next, Nature cites the conclusion from the IOM report’s “expert panel” that  chronic fatigue syndrome is an under-studied physiological illness. Then comes mention of the intramural study led by Avindra Nath, the widely published and respected clinical director for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders (NINDS). An infectious neurologist, Dr. Nath is conducting the first intramural study in ME/CFS in decades at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. Dr. Lipkin and Dr. Peterson are advisers on this intramural study.

Others could have been mentioned: Mark Davis of Stanford, Derya Unutmaz of the Jackson Laboratory, Lasker Award winner Michael Houghton of the University of Alberta, Patrick McGowan of the University of Toronto and others new to the field.  As the names line up, you do get the idea that, as Dr. Nath told Nature, “Researchers are thinking deeply about how to build the field.”

Building the field, of course, is what the NIH’s recent decision to fund three ME/CFS research centers is all about. Yes, much more is needed, but this article, showing up in a highly cited journal, suggests that the tide may be slowing turning where it needs to turn the most – in the research community.

Ian Lipkin and the Center for Infection and Immunity Step Forward

 Ian Lipkin is featured twice in the article, first stating:

“We now have a great deal of evidence to support that this is not only real, but a complex set of disorders. We are gathering clues that will lead to controlled clinical trials.”

Lipkin has been a vocal advocate for ME/CFS

Lipkin has been a vocal advocate for ME/CFS

Three studies from Lipkin and Hornig at Columbia are expected to be published shortly with one to be published next week. Don’t be surprised if, based on Lipkin’s comments, the CII lays the groundwork for something the chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) community has been waiting for a long time: evidence of biologically determined subsets, or in Lipkin’s words, direct evidence that ME/CFS is made up of a “complex set of disorders”.

The Simmaron Research Institute / Center For Infection and Immunity Collaboration

Simmaron CII partnership

Simmaron and the Center for Infection and Immunity: working together to understand ME/CFS

In its efforts to scientifically redefine ME/CFS, the Simmaron Research Foundation regularly partners with Dr. Lipkin’s Center for Infection and Immunity. Recent efforts included the spinal fluid study which showed dramatic alterations in immune functioning in the brain, the immune study which differentiated short from long duration ME/CFS patients, and the gut study about to be published. Simmaron is currently collaborating with the CII on additional phases of spinal fluid research and more.

Stay tuned for a Simmaron/CII study that will help to reshape our understanding of what ME/CFS is and how it should be treated.

Simmaron

The Gut and ME/CFS

The gut with its immense effect on the immune system is proving to be a fertile area of research on ME/CFS (see below). Perhaps no other team has pushed the ME/CFS gut connection more effectively recently than Ian Lipkin and Mady Hornig at the CII.

The Nature piece tantalized us a bit with news from Ian Lipkin that one of those studies showing an unusual pattern of gut flora in people with ME/CFS and IBS will be published soon.

A quick look at what studies have told us (see below) about the gut and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) suggests that reduced gut floral diversity, possibly characterized by increased numbers of inflammatory bacteria may be common in ME/CFS.

Importantly, every study that has looked for leaky gut – which involves the translocation of gut bacteria into the blood – where it could spark an immune response causing fatigue, pain and other symptoms – has found it.  Most intriguingly, the research suggesting that exercise may negatively affect ME/CFS patients’ gut flora and increase their leaky gut issues could help explain post-exertional malaise.

The Gut and ME/CFS – Recent Findings

  •  Exercise in ME/CFS produces changes in gut flora, leaky gut and Inflammation  – Shukla’s 2015 study suggests that exercise not only changes the composition of the gut flora in people with ME/CFS but results in increased levels of gut bacteria leaking into the blood (possibly causing inflammation and post-exertional malaise.) The fun didn’t stop there. The ME/CFS patients also had more trouble clearing the gut bacteria from their blood than the healthy controls.
  • People with ME/CFS have reduced gut flora diversity and leaky gut – Gilotreaux’s 2016 study suggests more pro-inflammatory and fewer anti-inflammatory gut species are present in ME/CFS, and provides more evidence of bacteria sneaking through the gut lining and ending up in the blood.
  • Gut bacteria/viruses are infectious triggers in ME/CFSNavaneetharaja’s 2016 review paper suggests that gut bacteria and/or viruses have been overlooked in the search for an infectious trigger in ME/CFS.
  • ME/CFS is associated with reduced gut microbiome diversity and increased gut viral activity – Gilotreaux’s 2016 case report of twins found reduced VO2 max, decreased gut bacterial diversity and increased gut viral activity in the sick ME/CFS twin.
  • Antibiotics can improve gut flora and sleep in some ME/CFS patientsJackson’s 2015 Australian study suggests that erythromycin improved the gut flora and sleep in about a third of ME/CFS patients but not in the rest.
  • Altered gut flora diversityFremont’s 2013 study shows increased abundance of the same bacterial family (Firmicuties) in ME/CFS as found in Shukla’s 2015 study.
  • Leaky gut is associated with an autoimmune processMaes 2013 study suggests that increased bacterial translocation (leaky gut) is associated with high levels of antibodies targeting serotonin. Patients with these antibodies had evidence of increased inflammation.
  • Leaky gut is associated with inflammation and symptom severityMaes 2012 study suggests ME/CFS patients are mounting a very strong immune response to intestinal bacteria found in the blood that is leading to increased inflammation.
  • IBS/leaky gut subset is present in ME/CFSMaes 2012 study shows one subset of ME/CFS patients (60%) has leaky gut and IBS while another subset does not.
  • Treating leaky gut in ME/CFS can reduce symptomsMaes 2008 study shows that treating leaky gut with natural anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative substances (NAIOSs), such as glutamine, N-acetyl cysteine and zinc in conjunction with a leaky gut diet can significantly improve symptoms in ME/CFS

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Through the “Valley of Death”: Dr. Pridgen, Fibromyalgia and the Looming Trials

First there were the anecdotal reports – FM patients were not just getting better but some, and not just a few, were getting well using something entirely new – an antiviral protocol, of all things, created not by a pain specialist or rheumatologist but by a surgeon.

Aside from a few doctors in the U.S., no one was treating FM with antivirals and virtually no research had examined the role of pathogens in the disease. A PubMed search of fibromyalgia and herpesviruses pulled up just two herpesvirus studies – both done over thirty years ago.

Skip Pridgen fibromyalgia

Dr. Pridgen’s hypothesis that FM is a herpesvirus disease may be put to the test by the end of this year.

But here was Skip Pridgen, a Tuscaloosa surgeon, not just asserting that herpesviruses were the cause of FM, but that an unusual antiviral protocol consisting of a herpesvirus antiviral and anti-inflammatory with antiviral properties (celecoxib) was doing the trick.  Plus, he asserted that herpes simplex virus – a virus that has gotten no attention in FM’s sister disease, chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) – was the culprit.

Pridgen, who’s treated thousands of patients with gastrointestinal issues, came up with the protocol after he noticed that his FM patients with IBS seemed to get better and then relapse. Figuring that a herpesvirus might be responsible, he gave them a herpesvirus drug and was surprised that not only their GI but also their FM symptoms improved. When celecoxib had the same effect in FM patients with arthritis, the idea of a drug combo – IMC-1 – was born.

Pridgen and Carol Duffy – his research partner at the University of Alabama – believe the drug combo is effective because each drug inhibits the virus at different points in its replication cycle and they stop viral reactivation as well.  (Hitting a virus at multiple points is a strategy employed to stop HIV.)

Pridgen created a startup Innovative Med Concepts – and put together a pretty hot team (including a past Vice President of Pfizer) and some respected researchers for its Scientific Advisory Board (including Daniel Clauw and surprise, surprise former ME/CFS researcher Dr. Dedra Buchwald) and got a Phase II clinical trial funded and going. (Dr. Buchwald was a surprise because she was so darn conservative in her approach to ME/CFS…)

The clinical trials are where it gets really serious, though. For all the reports of Pridgen helping FM patients, they mean nothing to Pridgen’s hopes of producing an FDA approved drug. The trials are where the action is, and with the recent publication of Pridgen’s Phase II clinical trial in the Journal of Pain Research, we finally have something we can really get our hands around.

The Trial

A famciclovir + celecoxib combination treatment is safe and efficacious in the treatment of fibromyalgia. William L Pridgen, Carol Duffy, Judy F Gendreau, R Michael Gendreau. Journal of Pain Research 2017:10 451–460

Pridgen has been almost relentlessly upbeat in his assertions about the effectiveness of his new protocol and he and his co-authors don’t pull any punches in the title of their journal article which boldly states that “A famciclovir + celecoxib combination treatment is safe and efficacious in the treatment of fibromyalgia”.

Because the trial was distributed across twelve sites, it sampled a broad array of FM patients (and doctors). With 143 patients participating, it was a good size and was double-blinded (neither the patients nor doctors/researchers knew who got the drug or placebo), placebo-controlled 16-week study.

Six questionnaires were used to assess the drug combo’s effectiveness. The primary endpoint – the test the study really had to meet involved two questionnaires – a numerical pain rating scale (NRS) and a past week functional and symptom assessment questionnaire called the Fibromyalgia Impact Quotient (FIQ-R) score.

The first part of the FIQ-R asks how difficult it was over the past week to do things like walk continuously for 20 minutes, vacuum the floor, climb one flight of stairs, go shopping etc. The second part asks each patient to rate their pain, energy, sleep, depression, etc.

The study participants had to be off a variety of drugs (duloxetine, milnacipran, pregabalin, gabapentin, sodium oxybate, and opioids). Over ninety percent of the participants were women and their average age was 49.

Results

Functionality and Symptoms - The FM patients on the IMC-1 protocol showed a statistically significant improvement in their functionality and overall symptom scores on the FIQ-R test relative to the patients not on the protocol.  (The average patient showed a 2.2 point improvement on the eleven point scale.)  Functionality, symptoms and overall impact of FM all showed significant improvement on the drug.

Pain Assessment – Past 24 Hours – With regard to the other primary endpoint – the NSR measurement of pain, only when the data was subjected to “imputation” did the patients report statistically significant improvement in their past 24-hour pain. (Imputation analyses were used to account for missing data.)

IMC-1 was statistically significantly superior to placebo in most of the tests

IMC-1 was statistically significantly superior to placebo in most of the tests

Overall Improvement - Another test called the PGIC which asked patients about how much they had improved. Patients had to report that they were much or very improved to pass the PGIC test. About 35% of patients on the IMC-1 protocol reported they were much or very much improved at weeks 12 or 16 vs about 18% of those on placebo – a statistically significant result.

Another Pain Analysis – Responder analyses used to assess what percentage of patients received a 30-50% reduction in pain found that about 30% of FM patients reported a greater than 50% reduction in pain over the past 24 hours on the IMC-1 drug combo.

Fatigue – Two fatigue assessments (MFI, PROMIS fatigue short form) had differing results; the older MFI test showed no significant improvements in fatigue while the more recently developed PROMIS test showed that those on the drug combo received statistically significant reductions in fatigue.

Depression – The depression findings were intriguing given that one does not ordinarily link depression with herpesvirus infections. When the imputation analyses to account for missing data were performed, however, IMC-1 produced a highly statistically significant (P=0.003) reduction in depression. (This data was not in the published paper.) Since the HSV-1 virus hangs out in three different nerve ganglia in the body, knocking it down could conceivably affect many symptoms – including depression and anxiety.

Safety and Tolerability

With more patients off the drug than on the drug reporting side effects, the IMC-1 drug combo passed the safety test with flying colors. That finding was bolstered by the much higher dropout rates in the placebo arm compared to the drug arm.

The Phase II clinical trials reported on here is a proof of concept trial done to demonstrate that the drug probably works and is safe. Because these trials are also used to help manufacturers determine the best dose to use in a Phase III trial, Phase II trials are also more experimental.

The results were good but not spectacular. I asked Dr. Pridgen if he was satisfied with them. Considering that he felt that Innovative Med Concepts had a hand tied behind its back by the FDA he was:

Given that the FDA restricted our dose to that which we ultimately used, we were thrilled that we met statistical significance with our primary, secondary and even our exploratory endpoints. Being able to show statistically significant improvement in Pain, fatigue, depression, and a dramatic impact on IBS is truly unique. Honestly, I have never seen a proof of concept trial with this broad of an impact. Knowing that the recent toxicology results support our planned ideal dose, as you might imagine, we are incredibly confident in our Phase 3 trial. Dr. Pridgen

Pinpointing the Culprit

One of Pridgen’s and Duffy’s tasks includes demonstrating that herpes simplex one (HSV-1) – the virus they believe is responsible for FM – is, in fact, present. Pridgen reported that Duffy’s analysis of FM patients gut tissue is complete and that the data that emerged “far surpassed” their expectations. They are writing up the manuscript now.

Through the Valley of Death

Pridgen reported a couple of factors that may increase IMC-1’s effectiveness in the next trial. A higher dose will be used in the next trial and the screening process for the participants will be tighter to avoid the impact of confounding factors.

The huge Phase III clinical trials required for FDA approval are called the “Valley of Death” by some for good reason. Pridgen said that testing the drug combination – featuring two drugs that are already FDA approved – will require two 500-1000 person drug trials, each costing from $25-50 million. That’s on top of almost complete animal toxicology testing that’s been done and the large proof of concept Phase II trial.

Trials like that take some heavy lifting and Pridgen’s enrolled some top talent to get IMC-1 through the “Valley”. Rick Burch, the President of Innovative Med Concepts and the former Senior Vice President for Pfizer, oversaw divisions employing more than 6,500 employees and had a hand in launching Lyrica. As chief medical and safety officers, Drs. Michael and Judy Gendreau helped usher Savella to FDA approval.

Pridgen-IMC-1-valley-death

Pridgen hopes to get IMC-1 through the “valley of death” and into its final clinical trials by the end of this year

Pridgen reported that Innovative Med Concepts met with 14 companies (half pharmaceutical, half companies that could provide financing) at JP Morgan in January of this year. He expects the trials to begin in late 2017.

He’s confident enough of the drug’s success to expect to employ in the next trial what he stated was the toughest primary endpoint ever used in an FM drug trial – a 50% or more reduction in pain.

Will Pridgen’s approach revolutionize our understanding and treatment of fibromyalgia? Could FM really come to be viewed as a herpesvirus induced disease – and if it is – what would that mean for chronic fatigue syndrome?

Intriguing questions all. The rubber will really meet the road for surgeon turned drug developer and the many FM patients looking for better treatment options probably at the end of this year.

 More on Dr. Pridgen and His Approach to Fibromyalgia

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