Archive for April, 2017

Columbia & Simmaron Gut Study Uncovers Another Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) Subset

With their second myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) study published this month, Ian Lipkin and Mady Hornig’s Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) and collaborator Simmaron Research are on an ME/CFS roll.  As with all CII studies, this one combined unusual rigor and the latest technological advances to cast new light on ME/CFS – and possibly  produce yet another subset.  Longtime CII collaborators, the Simmaron Research Foundation and Dr. Daniel Peterson provided samples for both studies.

precision-gut-data-me-cfs

This study used the latest technology to dig deeper into ME/CFS patients guts than ever before.

Published this week, the new study combined microflora, metabolic and immune analyses in fifty chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and healthy controls from four clinical sites (Dr. Peterson, Dr. Lucinda Bateman, Dr. Nancy Klimas and Dr. Susan Levine). A typically rigorous study  from the Center, it matched ME/CFS and healthy controls in numerous ways (age, sex, race, geographic site and season of sampling). The goal was to take the deepest look yet at gut bacteria and their effects on metabolic pathways and the immune system.

Species, Species, Species….

This was a gut study with a twist.  All chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) gut studies to date have used a process called 16 S rRNA sequencing to characterize the gut microbiome. Unfortunately this process, which focuses on one section of the bacterial genome, is unable to differentiate approximately 40% of the species within each bacteria genera.  Because different primers can also produce discordant results, results of 16 S rRNA studies can also vary from study to study.

These studies have been valuable; they’ve have indicated that something is off in the ME/CFS patients guts, and have given us some idea about the bacterial species involved, but because they can’t differentiate between some of the helpful or harmful species in a genera, they lack specificity.

Lipkin has changed the ways researchers identify pathogens

Dr. Ian Lipkin, Columbia Center for Infection & Immunity

Enter Ian Lipkin. It’s perhaps no surprise that technological ace Ian Lipkin would be the first to produce a study that really gets at gut species in ME/CFS.  (Lipkin has invented several viral identification tools). Lipkin used a more expensive tool called metagenomic sequencing which analyses the entire genome. It has even been used to identify species new to science.

Lipkin’s ME/CFS study identified more than 350 bacterial species.  How cutting-edge Lipkin’s approach was showed up when I asked him if finding 350 species was unusual. He said he couldn’t say; the technique hasn’t been used enough in other diseases to tell. He was confident, though, that the species the study identified were correct.

The study indicated that the guts of people with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) were harboring  a significantly different flora than the healthy controls.  As in other studies, the relative abundance of species from one phylum (Firmicutes) chiefly defined the ME/CFS.

Moving from the top down, topological  analyses and prediction models found that the relative abundances of seven bacterial genera (Faecalibacterium, Roseburia, Dorea, Coprococcus, Clostridium , Ruminococcus, and Coprobacillus) differentiated ME/CFS patients from healthy controls as well.

Getting into the species level, four gut species in particular (C. catus, P. capillosus, D. formicigenerans , and F. prausnitzii) and four others (C. asparigiforme, Sutterella wadsworthensis, A. putredinis, and Anaerotruncus colihominis) mainly differentiated the ME/CFS patients from the healthy controls.

Thankfully, the study’s general conclusions jived with the results of past ME/CFS studies which also found reductions in Faecalbacterium and increases in Alistepes bacteria.

Another Study – Another Subset

Ian Lipkin and Mady Hornig are beginning to specialize in uncovering subsets in ME/CFS. Their studies are bringing scientific definition to Dr. Peterson’s and other clinicians’ long experience of clinical subsets. First they identified a short/long duration subset, then they uncovered Dr. Peterson’s atypical patient subset and now they’ve illuminated an ME/CFS-irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) subset.

Whether they had IBS or not, chronic fatigue syndrome patients had a different microbiome than the healthy controls. Topological analyses, however, indicated that having IBS, changed a great deal.

The relative abundance of four bacteria (Faecalibacterium species, R. obeum, E. hallii, and C. comes) were lower in the ME/CFS + IBS group than the ME/CFS – IBS group. One bacteria (D. Longicatena) that was increased in ME/CFS patients – IBS, was actually decreased in the ME/CFS + IBS patients. This appears to suggest that ME/CFS patients with IBS specialized in having lower abundances of “good bacteria”.

IBS-ME/CFS-GUT

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) added another overlay to the ME/CFS gut picture

Encouragingly some of those same bacteria are low in IBS studies. Low levels of these protective bacteria have been associated with gut hypersensitivity, bloating and discomfort in both animal and human studies.

That suggests that having inadequate levels of these bacteria may result in inflammation which attacks the gut lining and allows bacteria to escape to the blood.  Once in the blood the bacteria are believed to trigger a systemic immune response that may be able to affect the central nervous system.  Evidence of leaky gut has shown up in several ME/CFS studies.

Gut Triggers

Lipkin drew a possible connection between the flu-like onset in ME/CFS that many people experience and gastrointestinal infections that can precede irritable bowel syndrome. Studies indicate that gastroenteritis or the stomach flu increases one’s chances of coming down with IBS six fold – but does it also increase the risk of getting ME/CFS?

Lipkin asked if the same gut infection could trigger both diseases. Studies suggest yes. Even when treated, giardia infections can produce long lasting cases of ME/CFS. (Three years after being treated for Giardia, 50% of those affected still suffered from chronic fatigue and/or Giardia.) Tests indicated that their illness persisted long after they’d cleared the bug from their system. Dr. John Chia, of course, has long associated ME/CFS with enteroviral gut infections.

Several well-known ME/CFS patients (author John Falk, Tom Hennessey, Whitney Dafoe) experienced some sort of stomach flu before becoming ill. (I contracted Giardia about three years before becoming ill. Tests years later indicated it was still present.)

Metabolic Tweaks

We know that the bacteria in our gut affect our metabolism.  It’s in the gut, after all, where many of the metabolites that our bodies use get manufactured.  Next the researchers used a pathway analysis to try and determine what effects those differences might have on metabolic functioning.

Differences, Differences – Their metabolic pathway analysis indicated different metabolic pathways were accentuated in the different groups.  Vitamin B6 biosynthesis and salvage, pyrimidine ribonucleoside degradation, and atrazine degradation all appeared to be going gangbusters in the ME/CFS patients at large while the production of arginine, polyamine, unsaturated fatty acid (FA), and mycolate appeared to be significantly reduced relative to the healthy controls.

gut bacteria-IBS-ME-CFS

Are gut bacteria in contributing to the energy problems in ME/CFS patients with IBS?

The ME/CFS with IBS group looked far different from the ME/CFS group overall with projected increases in the production of fucose, rhamnose, atrazine degradation and L-threonine biosynthesis, reduced heme, AA and polyamine biosynthesis, and reduced purine, pyrimidine, and unsaturated FA metabolism compared to the controls. Of those pathways only the atrazine degradation and decreased unsaturated FA metabolism were similar to the ME/CFS patients without IBS.

Energy production has become a key area of study in ME/CFS but no study until this one has implicated IBS in that problem.  A mitochondrial pathway affecting the Krebs cycle was upregulated in the ME/CFS – IBS group and downregulated in the ME/CFS + IBS group.  The pathways affecting metabolites associated with the urea cycle (another metabolomic finding) also only effected the ME/CFS + IBS group.

Throughout the paper the authors cautioned that they didn’t know if bacterial issues in the gut might be causing problems with energy production or other factors.  The findings, though, lead the authors to speculate that some metabolomic findings could be caused by the inclusion of high numbers of  ME/CFS + IBS patients in their studies. That’s an intriguing question given that up to 90% of ME/CFS patients may have IBS.

Similarities – Problems with fatty acid metabolism proved to be one of the ties that bind: the reduced activation of those pathways in ME/CFS patients with and without IBS suggested that problems with fatty acid metabolism could be producing inflammation in both groups.

Enhanced vitamin B-6 synthesis was also a hallmark of  both the ME/CFS + and – IBS groups. Dr. Wessely, of all people, suggested way back in 1999 that poor Vit. B6 synthesis in ME/CFS could be causing central nervous system issues. A further analysis nailed increased atrazine  (a pesticide) degradation as a key factor in both the ME/CFS and ME/CFS + IBS groups compared to the controls.

Conclusion – Some important similarities in bacteria activated metabolic pathways are present in both ME/CFS patients with and without IBS, but important differences were found as well.

 Immune Study

Mady Hornig sits on the Simmaron Research Foundations Board. She and the Simmaron Research Foundation are frequent collaborators.

Dr. Mady Hornig, Columbia Center for Infection & Immunity

In a recent blog, Dr. Hornig pointed out that it’s clear that the bacterial communities in our gut shape our immune response. For all the bacterial differences found in this study, though, none were linked to changes in cytokine levels – a somewhat surprising finding since bacterial alterations are believed to produce their effects via immune activation.

Dr. Lipkin, however, suggested that too few short duration ME/CFS patients with upregulated immune systems were present in the study to pick up immune differences. It could also be that a bigger patient sample would have detected them as well.

Some important immune differences were found, however. One of the master pro-inflammatory immune factors in the body – TNF-a – was increased in the ME/CFS group.  Plus Jarred Younger’s big finding – leptin – plus another CXCL immune factor showed up in the ME/CFS + IBS group.  CXCL-8 has not been found in ME/CFS before but another chemokine CXCL-9 was significantly reduced in Dr. Peterson’s atypical subset, and in Houghton’s cytokine study

 Symptoms

The differences in gut makeup didn’t show up in immune system changes but they did appear to effect symptoms. Increased levels of  several species (R. gnavus, C. bacterium, C. bolteae, and C. asparagiforme) were associated with better vitality, health change, and motivation scores. Decreased relative levels of F. prausnitzii and C. catus were associated with worse emotional well-being scores, while levels of R. inulinivorans and D. formicigenerans were associated with improved motivation scores.

 A Focus on Faecalibacterium prausnitzii

good-bacteria-reduced-me-cfs

A good bacteria that was reduced in ME/CFS is also reduced in IBS, IBD, asthma, depression and other diseases.

F prausnitzii is not your ordinary gut bacteria. Making up about 5% of our gut bacteria, F. prausnitzii is one of the most abundant and consequential bacterium found in our guts. Unlike many other gut bacteria, F prausnitzii hangs out in and around our gut lining.    It mainly  produces short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate (remember the fatty-acid synthesis problem?) through its fermentation of dietary fiber. It also appears to have anti-inflammatory effects including  the induction of IL-10 and TGFB-1.

F. prausnitzii is considered a “clostridial microbe” – a bacteria that’s distantly related to the dangerous Clostridium difficile. While C. difficile causes inflammation, bleeding and sometimes death by diarrhea, other clostridial microbes such as F. prausnitzii work to soothe our immune systems and strengthen our gut lining. F. prausnitzii was recently highlighted in a Scientific American article “Among Trillions of Microbes in the Gut, a Few Are Special“.

Reduced levels of F. prausnitzii have been associated with both gut diseases  (irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s Disease, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis) and others including asthma, psoriasis, and depression, of course, now chronic fatigue syndrome.   It’s considered a potential prime candidate in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease.  It was the only gut species that showed up in a meta-analysis of irritable bowel syndrome gut studies.  It appears to be an indicator of general gut health.

Reduced levels of F. prausnitzii (and one other bacteria) were the strongest predictors of having ME/CFS in this study.

Treatment (Treatment?)

“Much like IBS, ME/CFS may involve a breakdown in the bidirectional communication between the brain and the gut mediated by bacteria, their metabolites, and the molecules they influence. By identifying the specific bacteria involved, we are one step closer to more accurate diagnosis and targeted therapies.” Ian Lipkin

One of this study’s strengths was it’s ability to identify specific bacterial species. A targeted prebiotic-probiotic approach could presumably use findings such as these to jack up the levels of beneficial bacteria in hopes of producing a healthier gut. In a U.K Times interview, Lipkin speculated that given the dire need for effective ME/CFS treatments, some people were going to try to do just that.

“The ME/CFS community is very eager to find solutions. I expect there will be people immediately trying to modify their microbiota. In the end we think all this needs to be done in a full clinical trial but there will be people acting on this.”

I asked Dr. Lipkin if we were ready for a focused pre and probiotic treatment for ME/CFS.  As always he warned against one-size fits all prescriptions for ME/CFS but stated that we were getting there….

 Getting there. Treatment for ME/CFS won’t be a one size fits all. We anticipate that some people will benefit from pre and probiotics.

He also provided an interesting teaser: some upcoming studies from his group will suggest that different types of ME/CFS patients will benefit from immune or neuro-modulating drugs.

 In work we are preparing now for publication we see clues that that some people will also benefit from drugs that modulate immune responses whereas others will benefit from drugs that modulate neurotransmission.  

A Growing Field

ME/CFS may not be ready yet for a targeted probiotic treatment but the probiotic drug field is growing. Like any new field it’s going through its growing pains. A startup named Seres, valued at $130 million when it went public last year, failed at a clinical trial aimed to treat C. difficile infections with drug derived  from human feces.

Theoretically it should have worked. OpenBiome says it’s successfully treated 15,000 cases of C. difficile infection  since 2012 using raw poop donated by volunteers. Seres simply provided a well characterized mixture of what it thought were the right bacteria species.

The NIH is helping to move things along, so to speak, by funding a fecal transplant registry that sequences the microbiomes of fecal transplant patients pre and post-transplant in an attempt to uncover which bacterial strains work best.

A recent small autism fecal transplant clinical trial, on the other hand, went swimmingly well. Like ME/CFS, altered gut microbiomes and irritable bowel symptoms are common in autism. (Bob Naviaux finds similar patterns of metabolites in both diseases.)

First the kids got an antibiotic, and a gut cleanse to clear the gut of bacteria. Then they got a dose of “standardized human gut microbiotia” (either orally or rectally) in combination with a stomach acid suppressant (Prilosec) for 8 weeks to repopulate it. According to a Medscape article “Fecal Transplants May Yield Lasting Benefits in Autism“, autism scores went down significantly.

Autism and gut tests eight weeks later indicated the improvements had persisted and that many of the new bacteria had permanently colonized the gut. A much larger placebo-controlled, double-blinded trial is being planned.

It’s clear that Dr. Lipkin believes that targeted pre and probiotic treatments will be able to help some people with ME/CFS. He’s certainly not alone in believing the probiotics are going to help with disease. Money is being pumped into several companies aiming to produce probiotic drugs. Here are some examples.

After a Japanese researcher identified 17 clostridial species  including F. prausnitzii that were able to halt runaway pro-inflammatory activity in mice, Vedanta Biosciences, a Massachusett’s company, pulled in $50 million in venture capital to produce live bacterial drugs to treat inflammation, infections or cancer. Vedanta asserts that the “here today, gone tomorrow” bugs found in yogurt are too transient to do much good.

Synlogic brought in $70 million over a couple of years to develop a “smart” bacterial based drug that responds to different conditions in the gut.  A San Francisco company, Second Genome, recently scored $43 million to develop a bacterial-based drug for inflammatory bowel disorder. The military gave Gingko Bioworks almost $2 million last year to produce a “probiotic vaccine” to protect U.S. troops against the bad bacteria they encounter overseas.

 Intellect and Compassion

Ian Lipkin has a reputation as a hard-nosed scientist but he has a strikingly compassionate side as well. He was one of the few doctors willing to treat AIDS patients early in the epidemic. While everyone who could left China during the SARS epidemic, Lipkin flew on an empty plane bringing medicines to China. In a Times UK article titled “Gut bacteria linked to chronic fatigue” Lipkin made a direct appeal to ME/CFS patients to hang on.

“We don’t think this could be a panacea. It is a complex disorder. But we do think there are a group of people who may be helped. It is our fervent hope to find real solutions. People become despondent and even suicidal. I want them to realize that we are working on this. Please hang on.”

Next Up for the Lipkin/Hornig Team

I asked Lipkin what was next for his group. After laying out his desire for a comprehensive and integrated approach to ME/CFS, he noted that despite the NIH’s increased funding, a thicker shoestring is still a shoestring and once again called for a much more funding.

We are currently putting the finishing touches on our NIH Collaborative Research Center proposal. And, we are integrating clinical, microbiome, metabolomic and gene expression data using mathematical programs with the goal of achieving precision medicine for the ME/CFS community. What we need is a moonshot akin to what will be done for cancer. Our challenge is to do it on a shoestring.

lab testing

The CII is one of probably 7 or more sites vying to become an NIH funded research center

Lipkin has the samples to do this. He and Hornig gathered samples at different time points over a year in many ME/CFS patients but inexplicably weren’t given the funding to analyze them. Had he finally gotten that funding yet?  It turned out that even with a successful research center application he will still need more money. (With the heavy administrative reporting needs baked into the research centers and the need to bring in outside researchers, $1.2 million is not going to go a long way).

 Wish we did.  In the event we are successful with our Center application—and that is by no means certain because many excellent teams are putting in applications—we will still be significantly short because there is so much to do. Continued community support is critical!

The competition will be intense indeed for those three NIH funded ME/CFS research centers. Applications are believed to be going in this week from at least seven groups: Ron Davis, Nancy Klimas, Ian Lipkin/Mady Hornig, Jarred Younger, The Nevada Center for Biomedical Research (formerly WPI), Dr. Montoya and Maureen Hanson. Others may be applying as well.

Conclusion

The Center for Infection and Immunity was able to distinguish ME/CFS patients with and without IBS from healthy controls using  analyses of their gut flora. Underlying alterations in gut flora were common to all ME/CFS patients but having IBS as well had a  major effect on the gut flora and possibly on ME/CFS patients’ metabolism.

Using a technique that was better able to identify more gut species than past studies, the group found marked differences not just in the gut flora of ME/CFS patients with IBS but in the metabolic pathways those differences are believed to effect. Problems with ATP production and the urea cycle might be more associated with ME/CFS + IBS patients while problems with fatty acid metabolism appear to be common to all ME/CFS patients. The study suggested that infectious gut illnesses might be common triggers of  both ME/CFS and IBS.

The Simmaron Research Foundation

Three studies – three subsets identified using clinical expertise, cutting-edge technologies, and precision medicine. With your support the Simmaron Research Foundation is  redefining how ME/CFS is understood and treated.

SR_Donate_6.9.14_5

Peterson’s Atypical Subset Opens New View of ME/CFS in Columbia/Simmaron Publication

“We now have biological evidence that the triggers for ME/CFS may involve distinct pathways to disease, or, in some cases, predispose individuals to the later development of serious comorbidities.” Dr. Mady Hornig. 

The Subset Makers

Simmaron Research | Scientifically Redefining ME CFS | #ShakeTheCFSstigmaOver the past couple of years the Simmaron Research Foundation and Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University and others have begun to pump out some long awaited subsets. This week, new findings were published by Columbia and Simmaron that define 2 subsets.

They’re not the usual suspects (infectious trigger vs non-infectious trigger; gradual onset vs acute onset). In fact, they involve subsets few would have predicted a couple of years ago. They suggest that we might be in for some real surprises over time.

Short Duration vs Long Duration Subset: Two years ago, the Simmaron Research Foundation collaborated with Ian Lipkin and other doctors to uncover a subset few had anticipated: short duration patients vs long duration patients.

The Atypical Patient or “Peterson Subset”:  Now comes a subset of atypical chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) patients (the “Peterson Subset”) that Dr. Peterson had long wondered about. These patients had ME/CFS but tended to follow a different course. Some had had unusual exposures (unusual infections, blood transfusions); others developed serious illnesses (cancer, autoimmune diseases, etc.) that Dr. Peterson didn’t see in the rest of the population.

Dr. Hornig talked about how the atypical subset came about. Like so many breakthroughs in medicine it took a careful and observant doctor/researcher to bring it about. This study, she said, was a testament to:

“Dr. Peterson’s clinical acumen, his long-term follow up of this patient population and his attentiveness to the full range of complex, serious medical disorders that might develop. The classical group had been followed for similar lengths of time but had not developed these more severe, serious comorbidities.”

The atypical vs classical distinction was pre-established by Dr. Peterson before the analysis. Based on his wide-ranging clinical experience, the atypical group stood out for either: 1) the presence of unusual precursors (triggers) of ME/CFS or; 2) the development of more unusual and severe comorbidities over varying (and often long-term) intervals after ME/CFS onset.”

atypical subset

The atypical group turned out to be quite different

Dr. Peterson felt the unusual outcomes weren’t just the result of chance: something different was going on – something that he felt as a doctor needed to be identified. What if, he thought, there was a way to identify these unusual patients before they started developing these significant illnesses. Then he could do more extensive cancer or immune screens and watch these patients more closely.

Plus, these patients could be inadvertently bollixing up the results of ME/CFS studies. Peterson was so sure, in fact, this subset was different that he had its effects assessed during the first Simmaron/CII spinal fluid study. Peterson turned out to be right: the atypical subset had such an effect on the results that it had to be removed.

The next step was a study comparing the two groups. Using Dr. Peterson’s spinal fluid samples, The Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia found that “Peterson Subset” not only had markedly different immune findings but displayed a different pattern of immune results as well. Dr. Peterson is Scientific Advisor to Simmaron and Gunnar Gottschalk was its Research Manager.

Immune network analysis of cerebrospinal fluid in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome with atypical and classical presentations M Hornig1,2, CG Gottschalk3, ML Eddy1, X Che1, JE Ukaigwe1, DL Peterson3 and WI Lipkin. Translational Psychiatry (2017) 7, e1080; doi:10.1038/tp.2017.44; published online 4 April 2017

 The Atypical Subset

What does a typical chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) patient look like? Something like someone who suddenly comes down with a flu-like illness and never recovers. They may get better or they may get worse, but they don’t come down with cancer, an autoimmune illness, seizures or other significant illnesses.

An atypical patient, on the other hand, might have a history of viral infection (viral encephalitis) or have been exposed to unusual pathogens during foreign travel or had a blood transfusion before becoming ill. They also tended to be more severely cognitively impaired and had more neurological complaints.  They tended to suffer from severe diseases as well.

Many of these illnesses appeared long after the ME/CFS diagnosis. In fact, at the time of diagnosis these patients looked like a typical ME/CFS patient. This study suggests, though, that very early on, something different was happening in their central nervous systems.

The Atypical Patients in the Study (the “Peterson Subset”):

  • Atypical multiple sclerosis – 3
  • Other autoimmune/inflammatory disorders – 4
  • Cancer – 8 (brain-3, breast-2, lymphoma -2, pancreatic-1)
  • Infections – 2 (West Nile Virus encephalitis – 1; Unspecified viral encephalitis – 1)
  • Illness during foreign travel – 2
  • Illness after blood transfusion – 1
  • Seizure disorder – 6
  • Gulf War Illness – 1

Immune “Exhaustion”?

This “broadly based” immune study compared 51 cytokines and other immune factors in the cerebral spinal fluid of 32 typical and 19 atypical ME/CFS patients. These numbers at first glance may seem small but they’re actually quite large for spinal fluid studies.

The Simmaron Research Foundation/Center for Infection and Immunity’s prior studies suggested that typical ME/CFS patients’ immune systems went on high alert for the first couple of years of illness but then went into slumber mode. In fact, it was more than slumber mode: their immune activity essentially tanked – leading to the hypothesis that frantic activity of the first couple of years might have left their immune systems depleted.

autoimmune diseases

Autoimmune diseases were amongst the unusual comorbidities found in the atypical subset.

This study suggests that the “Peterson Subset” follows a markedly different pattern. The major burst of immune activity early on followed by equally dramatic downturns found in the typical patients is gone. Instead the study suggests that the immune systems of the atypical patients essentially started off low and stayed low.

Almost half the immune factors tested (IL1β, IL5, IL7, IL13, IL17A, IFNα2, IFNγ, TNFα, TRAIL (TNFSF10), CCL2, CCL7, CXCL5, CXCL9, CSF3 (GCSF), βNGF, resistin, serpin E1) were lower early in the illness in the atypical group.

As the illness proceeded, though, the pattern changed again: the atypical groups’ immune system actually revved up again.

When I asked if immune exhaustion was bringing the immune system down early in the atypical group, Mady Hornig replied:

 “We don’t know yet. Our additional finding of an interaction of diagnostic subset with duration of illness – wherein the atypical group showed a pattern of increased levels of immune molecules with longer duration of illness, as opposed to the dampened immune profiles in the classical group with longer illness duration compared to classical ME/CFS in the early stages of disease  (as we had seen in the immune profiling work based on plasma samples) – suggests that the response tends to be more suppressed at the onset of ME/CFS in the atypical group.”

Could that dampened immune response early in their illness be contributing to the illnesses the atypical group experienced later? Dr. Hornig again cautioned about the need to replicate the study but suggested it might.  A viral trigger could have blasted their immune systems or vice versa – a problematic immune system could have allowed a virus in …

 “However, dampening of inflammatory (so-called Th1/Th17-type) responses might be expected to restrict an individual’s ability to keep problematic microbes from replicating. Certain viruses – even common ones implicated in ME/CFS in some studies, such as Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) – are well-known to be associated with development of certain cancers; however, only a fraction of those infected with EBV develop cancers.

It is a bit of a chicken-egg conundrum: EBV could alter immune responses of T/NK cells to increase cancer risk, or altered T/NK responses at the time of EBV infection could be the critical factor. Alternatively, reduced Th1/Th17-type immune profiles after infection – along with reduced T regulatory cell responses – might skew some individuals toward autoimmunity, raising the risk for more severe autoimmune diseases, including atypical multiple sclerosis or even autoimmune-mediated epileptiform disorders. But at this early juncture this remains only speculation.”

Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) brings up the age and exposure question. It’s much more difficult for the immune system to corral or ward off EBV if EBV is encountered for the first time at a later age (during or after adolescence). That difficulty shows up as the months long fight to beat EBV called infectious mononucleosis.

A meta-analysis of studies examining many environmental risk factors for multiple sclerosis (including vaccinations, comorbid diseases, surgeries, traumatic events and accidents, exposure to environmental agents, and biochemical, infectious, and musculoskeletal biomarkers) found that only three were associated with an increased risk of coming down with MS. Two of those concerned EBV (having had infectious mononucleosis, IgG seropositivity to EBNA). (The last significant factor was smoking).

Could a later exposure to EBV which resulted in infectious mononucleosis be the straw, so to speak, that ultimately broke the camel’s back for some of the atypical patients?

Dr. Hornig agreed that a study parsing out the rates of infectious mononucleosis in ME/CFS could be helpful but said it was hard to know at this point if IM played a role. She said that the CII group was investigating EBV further:

 “Hard to know (if late exposure to EBV is involved)- we are looking for clues suggesting greater risk for autoantibody-mediated disease in EBV and other virally-exposed subsets of ME/CFS. We do know that females have higher risk for autoimmune disease, but the sex skew only begins after puberty (when females might have come down with IM [Infectious Mononucleosis]).”

Poor Networking

Not only was less immune activation present earlier in the atypical groups but a network analysis indicated a weaker immune network was present as well. These network analyses assess the “wiring” present in the complex immune system.

Immune mediators called cytokines (and other immune factors) form these networks when they communicate with each other to drive an effective immune response.  While a central immune network was found in the typical patients, no such network connection was found in the atypical group.  That suggested a less robust immune response was occurring.

Pro-inflammatory Markers Down

pathogen

A less than robust immune response to an infection could play a role in the atypical group.

Surprisingly, the atypical group’s spinal fluid had lower levels of two pro-inflammatory cytokines, IL17A and CXCL9.  Given the atypical group’s increased neurological and cognitive problems one would have expected the opposite.

That suggested that the atypical patients might be more than different in degree; they might be different in kind. The TH17 pathway that underlies many autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, and which the authors believes may be contributing to the typical ME/CFS group, doesn’t appear to be in play in the atypical group. In fact, the authors suggested the researchers vigorously pursue “alternate, nonimmune mechanisms of pathogenesis in more complex, atypical patients with ME/CFS.”

Dr. Hornig suggested genetics might play a role or that a different kind of immune response; one that was a bit too weak early on to knock off a pathogen, was another possibility.

“I think it may rather be the kind of immune response (inadequate inflammatory responses that might serve to contain an infectious agent upon first exposure, with skew towards autoimmunity or permissiveness to later uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells – i.e., neoplasia) and its timing (too little early on, with some limited immune escape at later time points, allowing for some inappropriate inflammatory type responses after the infectious agent has already had an opportunity to set destructive processes in motion – but too little and too late to contain or eradicate the pathogen).”

That could set up what Dr. Hornig called a “smoldering inflammatory process”.

Cause(s)

What might be causing the immune systems of the atypical group to act so differently early on? Dr. Hornig warned that it was essential that the study results be confirmed by a larger study but suggested that different triggers (unusual infections) or genetic vulnerabilities  (environmental susceptibility, immune response, autoimmunity genes) or even one’s age at exposure could play a role.

Results Suggest Atypical ME/CFS Patients Should Be Screened for Cancer and other Diseases

As with any single study the results need to be validated in studies by other labs using other patients to be validated. If they are, though, they could help doctors and patients. Dr. Peterson said:

 “Early identification of patients who meet the usual clinical criteria when first diagnosed but then go on to develop atypical features would help clinicians like myself identify and treat these complex cases and even prevent fatal outcomes.”

Hornig and Lipkin suggested that atypical ME/CFS patients should be screened for cancer just as patients with paraneoplastic syndromes are. Paraneoplastic syndrome occurs when an immune response against cancer affects other parts of the body, often before a diagnosis of cancer is made.

How Common are Atypical Patients?

How many patients are “atypical”? In her answer to that question Mady Hornig called for more comprehensive studies to fully understand ME/CFS.

 “Though we know comorbidity rates in ME/CFS are thought to be high for quite a number of conditions (allergies, gastrointestinal problems), few studies have addressed this issue in a systematic manner.

It is rare to find physicians who specialize in this disorder, let alone follow the same individuals over time. Given the finding that prior to the development of these other serious comorbidities, all members of this subset met research diagnostic criteria for ME/CFS and would only later qualify as “atypical” based on subsequently developing comorbidities (over many years), we desperately need longitudinal studies that monitor for such issues.

The bottom line is that we don’t know what percentage of ME/CFS patients are “atypical”.”

It’s not clear what percentage of ME/CFS patients are atypical but they may  have already had a dramatic impact on ME/CFS research and treatment. Dr’s Fluge and Mella started the Rituximab saga in ME/CFS after noticing improvements in the fatigue, etc. of ME/CFS patients who’d come down with cancer; i.e. atypical patients.

Dr. Hornig has called the spinal fluid samples Dr. Peterson has collected over the years a “precious” resource, and she highlighted his persistence in collecting them over the years.

 “There also may be long-term cohorts at some ME/CFS clinical sites that might be available for closer examination, at least with respect to clinical patterns and disease/comorbidity trajectories. But most of these sites are unlikely to have cerebrospinal fluid samples (let alone plasma samples) banked in a repository for years!

The suggestion that biological pathways in the CNS already look different even before the onset of these comorbidities implies not only that screening and surveillance are likely to be important to ensure better long term care for individuals with ME/CFS, but also that treatment might need to be tailored differently in classical vs. atypical subsets.”

 Similar Issues Showing Up in Other Neurological Diseases

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Subsets are common in neurological diseases.

Gunnar Gottschalk, a co-author of the study and medical student is a former research manager for Simmaron Research Foundation. He’s been deeply immersed in ME/CFS research for several years and continues as a Trustee of the Foundation.  Gunnar noted that the neuroscience lab he is working in is studying similar issues in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. It’s not that the same findings are present but that highly abnormal spinal fluid cytokine findings are showing up in all these diseases –  including ME/CFS.

Nor is this study’s general finding – that atypical patients can be differentiated from typical patients in ME/CFS – unusual in the neuroscience field.  Virtually every neurological disease, Gunnar said, appears to be studded with subsets. Different types of multiple sclerosis, for instance, have been identified using similar kinds of spinal fluid analyses.

Noting that developing animal models are critical to understand what’s happening in the brain, Gunnar said he wouldn’t be surprised at all if some animal models which have been developed at great cost for other diseases wouldn’t eventually be helpful in some ways for ME/CFS.

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Next Steps

This is not it for the spinal fluid and the atypical patients. Metabolomics and proteomics studies are next in Phase 2 of the study, which is being funded by Simmaron.  Gunnar noted that the cytokine studies can identify important pathways, but the metabolomics studies can provide more detailed results and he’s eager to see how they turn out.

Dr. Hornig has a long, long list of studies she’d love to do in ME/CFS. This is a disease, she feels, that is calling out for comprehensive studies. She wants to analyze blood, fecal and spinal fluid samples collected at the same time to assess what infection or environmental insult the patient is reacting to.

Comparing immune profiles in the blood and spinal fluid could, for instance, help tell her whether powerful immune cells are squeezing though the blood-brain barrier and wreaking havoc in the brain. Determining that immune cells from the periphery are in the brain would open an entirely new window on ME/CFS.

The gut is another area primed for research. Dr. Hornig pointed out that it’s clear that the bacterial communities in our gut shape our immune response. The TH17 profile found in some patients that tilts the immune system towards inflammation could derive from danger signals produced in the gut. Similarly the TH2 profile found in other patients that tilts them towards autoimmunity could come from the gut as well.

What Dr. Hornig wants is “system-biology” work that ties all these systems into a coherent whole. A gut level disturbance could, for instance, end up impacting virtually every system involved in ME/CFS – including the central nervous system.

“Further systems biology-type work will help us delineate how altered gut microbiota might translate into faulty signals – ranging from bacterial or human metabolites, including a range of immunity-modifying and neuroactive molecules, to immune molecules, to autonomic/vagal nerve axis effects – that then access the CNS (perhaps involving damage to the integrity of the blood-brain barrier to allow entrance of these aberrant signaling molecules) and disrupt brain function.”

In fact, Mady Hornig and Ian Lipkin do have most of the samples they need to begin this work. In what must have been one of the stranger NIH grant awards ever, however, the NIH funded the collection of an enormous amount of samples taken at four points over a year in 250 ME/CFS and healthy controls, but has not funded the analysis of these very same samples.

“In the more recent longitudinal NIH study we have no funding at all for laboratory studies, but have a unique banked set of well-characterized samples (oral, fecal and blood).” (bold added)

Having so many samples just sitting there is astonishing, and hopefully the second half of the study will get funded.

When I asked Dr. Hornig about funding the metabolomics and proteomics work she said that the metabolomics and proteomics assays had been run – but only for a subset of patients.  The CII, she said had funding:

 “Only for analysis of a subset of the Chronic Fatigue Initiative main study cohort samples (and this assay work is completed with analysis in progress) – not for the latest 125+ cases and 125+ controls based on the 1-year, NIH-funded study with 4 serial sample collections.

We don’t have any funding to follow up on candidates identified, including validation, quantitation and correlation with genetic, epigenetic and RNA-based assays.”

 A Foundational Approach To ME/CFS Proposed

foundational study

Large foundational studies are needed to take ME/CFS to the next level

Dr. Hornig went further, though, and called for a “foundational” approach to chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) that included national registries which would be able to tease out subsets and determine just what happens as people get ME/CFS.

“To support this sort of work on a larger scale, fundamental and foundational work is required. National registries of ME/CFS populations could be developed that would have the capacity to identify the range of preceding potential triggers to disease, to define comorbidities at the time of diagnosis, as well as to longitudinally track the new occurrence of comorbidities in ME/CFS populations over time.”

That is the kind of vision this field needs.  That is the kind of vision that should be able to excite NIH and other funders.

The Simmaron Research Foundation’s unique spinal fluid work with the CII has thus far helped to identify two potential subsets in ME/CFS.  Validating the atypical or “Peterson Subset” could lead to a new understanding of how ME/CFS works and open new treatment options for patients.  The SRF looks forward to further collaborations with the Center for Infection and Immunity and Mady Hornig and Ian Lipkin as it works to redefine ME/CFS biologically.

Simmaron Research | Give | Donate | Scientifically Redefining ME/CFS

 

Poll Note: The poll will only allow one option to be picked. One positive response suggests you may be an atypical patient. Keep in mind, though, that this is early research on subsets and further studies are needed to verify the findings.

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