Archive for July, 2017

The Big Fishing Expedition: Report From the NIH Intramural Study on ME/CFS

A Big, Deep Fishing ExpeditionNIH jpeg

“We’re throwing every known sophisticated technology at these patients.”

Avindra Nath, MD – Lead Investigator of NIH Intramural Study on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

The NIH’s Intramural Study on ME/CFS now underway is almost certainly the most comprehensive chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) study ever done. In fact, it may be one of the more multi-faceted studies done in any disease. It’s breadth is astonishing. Besides the blood, urine, fecal matter and saliva gathered, participants will spend a night in a metabolic chamber, get their brains scanned, have their their immune systems transplanted into mice, and their neurons grown in a petri dish. After years of patient advocacy – at least in this one study – ME/CFS has abruptly transitioned from being one of the poorest studied diseases of all to getting an array of cutting-edge technologies thrown at it.

NIH intramural study net me/CFS

The NIH is casting a wide, wide net in its intramural ME/CFS study

Featuring top researchers at the NIH’s big research hospital its results are guaranteed to get noticed. This one study won’t solve ME/CFS – no one study can do that –  but it could and really should provide dramatic new insights into it, and, most importantly, provide the foundation for years and years of study into it.  Nath, for instance, recently suggested the study could produce the bio-signature we’ve been seeking for years.

The study is basically a huge fishing expedition, an anomaly for an institution known for its strict adherence to hypothesis testing. The NIH is looking (and building data) just about everywhere in patients.

We probably have NIH Director Francis Collins to thank for that. Collins has more control and discretion over the intramural site than any other part of the NIH and it shows. Collins got this study started before the NIH allocated money for the research centers. He wanted and got Avindra Nath – a highly prestigious researcher specializing in neuro-infectious diseases – to lead it and he got the NIH to bring out its fishing poles and fish.

Round One: The NIH’s “Deep Phenotyping Exercise”

Not only is the breadth of the study unusual, but the rigor with which it’s being run is unmatched. The first part of the study (participants come in for two rounds of testing) is partially being done to ensure that only one kind of patient participates. This is an important point since the ME/CFS disease population is very heterogeneous and mounting studies are identifying distinct subgroups.

In order to capture post-infectious ME/CFS patients, the study requires participants to have a sudden flu-like onset that’s been documented in a doctor’s files.  After taking questionnaire after questionnaire, a complete review of a patient’s medical records are being made by a panel of ME/CFS experts. Dr. Dan Peterson noted that one patient’s file ran to 191 pages (he said read every one). Dr. Peterson, longtime expert ME/CFS clinician and Simmaron Scientific Advisor, is reviewing patient selection for the NIH Intramural study.

Even the ME/CFS doctors reviewing the patient records have been taken aback at times with the strictness of the study. Dr. Peterson relayed one incident where Brian Walitt’s questioning of whether a patient should be included in the study raised eyebrows. (Walitt is the clinical lead investigator. Wallitt promptly dug into the Canadian Consensus Criteria to show the exact criteria the patient didn’t meet.)

Dr. Peterson noted that the reviewers have debated how “sudden” a sudden onset needs to be for someone to be included in the study. Does a patient have to remember the exact date they became ill or is something more general sufficient?

Another interesting twist concerns the rigor with which prospective patients have been tested. ME/CFS doctors that do more testing that others are more likely to find something that could kick a patient out of the study. That same patient coming from an ME/CFS doctor that doesn’t do a lot of testing might get into the study.

The first part of the study is apparently an attempt to level the playing field. Test after test after test is being done during the nine days a) to gather data and b) to ensure that nothing other than ME/CFS (and specified co-morbid diseases) is going on in these patients. At least in these early stages anything that looks off is being investigated. The NIH is calling the visit a “deep phenotyping” exercise.

An ME/CFS Patient Reports: Brian Vastag on Round One of the Intramural Study

It was fitting that Brian Vastag be one of the first ME/CFS patients to go through the first part of the study. He did after all, play a role in getting it started.

Vastag’s  “Dear Dr. Collins: I’m Disabled. Can the N.I.H. Spare a Few Dimes?” piece effectively used Vastag’s personal story to highlight the devastating funding problem and, importantly, provide a way out of the problem that was probably very appealing to Collins. (The dark humor in the piece didn’t hurt either.)

Francis Collins - Brian Vastag

Francis Collins, the Director of the NIH stops by for a visit. Vastag pushed for more ME/CFS funding and asked for ME/CFS to be assigned to a single institute

Vastag used to work for the NIH; in fact, Vastag worked with John Burklow, Francis Collins’ right hand man for communications for years. Vastag also worked with the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), and then reported for the Washington Post on science and medical issues. He knows the NIH well and used his personal connection to Collins to lobby for more funding.

He got in the study the old-fashioned way – by emailing the study recruiter.  In the months leading up to his stay, Vastag reported he had several conversations with the lead clinical investigator, Dr. Brian Wallitt, provided his medical records, was fully informed what he was in for and was provided several opportunities to bow out if he chose.

Thus far the reviews of Dr. Walitt from two people (Dr. Peterson, Vastag) participating with him have been positive.  Dr. Peterson said he found him attentive and interested, and Vastag, who said he spent a lot of time with him, found him available and dedicated.

Vastag spent five or six hours relaying his medical history to Dr. Walitt and nine full days in the NIH hospital. The history, he said, was very detailed.

Some people have worried that the ME/CFS patients well enough to participate in the NIH’s intramural aren’t sick enough to get results. Brian Vastag is exhibit number one why that hopefully is not the case.

When Vastag got sick he got really sick. At one point, he was 98% bedbound.  On his eighth or nineth doctor journey, Vastag saw neurologists and got checked out at a multiple sclerosis clinic.  Now he’s probably moderately ill for an ME/CFS patient and has to limit his walking to about 2 blocks a day; e.g. Vastag cant work at all, and he’s functionally very limited.

My guess is that if you can only walk two blocks a day without getting whacked there is something seriously, seriously wrong with you. Ditto with work; if you can’t work without getting hammered you have something seriously wrong with you that should be discoverable.

Having moderately ill people (by ME/CFS standards) participate in a study may not get the sickest patients in the study but it also brings with it the bonus that researchers don’t have to worry about the confounding factors that severe deconditioning brings. If there’s something to find in the testing the NIH is doing it should be found in these patients.

Cutting-Edge Technology

“I can’t believe they are letting us do all this stuff”.

Brian Walitt, MD MPH

The NIH is after all, throwing a lot of new technology at this disease. Vastag was told the intramural researchers have the green light to do a deep exploration of this disease and to let the evidence take them where it will.  They also have carte blanche to add to the study if the need arises.

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Avindra Nath stops by. Vastag said Nath had a great sense of humor. (Photo by Beth Mazur)

The head of Clinical Neurology at the Intramural Center, Avindra (Avi) Nath, heads the study. Nath has co-authored hundreds of journal articles and is on the editorial board of several journals. His main research focus – on the effects of infection on the brain – couldn’t be better suited to ME/CFS.

His latest paper on the cerebral spinal fluid in the survivors of the Ebola epidemic is exactly the kind of post-infectious work he’s been tasked with doing in ME/CFS. His 2016 review of Ebola survivors highlighted the functional declines seen in those who survived the outbreak. The study also noted that joint and muscle pains were “persistent problems” in more than half the 200 plus survivors assessed.

“Tellingly, the survivors reported a functional decline when compared with before the EVD outbreak. In comparison with the household contacts, the survivors were more likely to report a decline in both overall health (70% vs 18%) and ability to work (70% vs 7%).”

Nath told Dr. Peterson, after Peterson’s NIH talk on epidemic presentations of ME/CFS, that the Incline Village outbreak was probably an infectious encephalitis type of outbreak but that the technology at the time wasn’t up to diagnosing it. Nath has also collaborated often with Dr. Ian Lipkin on infectious diseases, and we know Lipkin’s work in ME/CFS is refining our understanding of immunity in the disease. Nath’s 2015 review paper demonstrated that the HIV virus may be able to survive in reservoirs in the brain indefinitely.

Nath will oversee a huge amount of work and do some cutting-edge work of his own. Using a new technique developed in his lab, Nath will knock out the immune systems of transgenic mice and give them the immune systems of ME/CFS patients.  He’ll also turn white blood cells from ME/CFS patients into “brains in a dish” neurons grown in the lab that Nath can then test. This technique, pioneered by Nath for other neurological diseases, can point highlight certain types of cellular problems.

A ton of data is being gathered in the first part of the study.  Besides his half a day of questionnaires, Vastag had standard labs done, provided his spinal fluid, did a sleep study, got 3.4 billion white blood cells drawn for Nath’s experimental studies, had his blood drawn for the Sea horse (mitochondria/energy production) study, had an EMG done to rule out muscle myopathy, did a tilt table test( positive for POTS), an MRI, and gave samples for the metabolomics part of the study. Just about every “tissue” possible, from blood, to urine, to cheek swabs to cerebral spinal fluid was gathered.

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Rebekah Feng is studying the mitochondria in ME/CFS

Some results may already be showing up.  The Seahorse study results from just three patients were unusual enough that the intramural mitochondrial expert came down to Brian’s room and chatted with him.

Part II of the study will require a week’s stay and include an exercise test on a stationary bicycle, sleeping in a metabolic chamber, cognitive testing, and more blood and other tests.

The study’s only down-side appears to be its size and the time it is taking. Vastag reported that Nath expressed regret that the study was taking so long and told him that he was trying to speed things up. A couple of months ago, Vastag said he was the fourth patient to go through the study. At the NIH Telebriefing Nath said ten people have now gone through the first part of the study and one will start the second part at the end of July. Since the second part of the study was originally slated to begin in fall, it appears that Nath may indeed have speed things up.

Some researchers and doctors have expressed concern about the study’s forty-patient size, but Nath is convinced he can peel off any subsets with the patient group he has to work with.

 

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Even “Minor” Infections Can Cause Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)

Giardia hasn’t historically ranked high as a potential cause of chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Some anecdotal reports suggest that a Giardia outbreak may have occurred prior to the Incline Village ME/CFS outbreak in the 1980’s. More recently, Corinne Blandino’s severe, decades long case of ME/CFS – which originated with an exposure to Giardia at work – demonstrated how devastating a case of Giardia triggered ME/CFS can be.

Giardia long lasting effects

Giardia is thought of as a minor infection – but it can have long lasting effects.

It wasn’t until city in Norway got exposed to Giardia in 2004, however, that Giardia, a protozoa, became one of the pathogens definitively linked with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Large studies (n=1254) examining the aftermath of the outbreak in a public water system in Bergen found that five years later, almost 50% of those originally infected still had symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and/or chronic fatigue (post-infectious chronic fatigue).

“Other patients suffer a severe, long lasting illness, for which treatment is ineffectual, and even after the parasite has finally been eliminated, some sequelae persist, affecting quality of life and continuing to cause the patient discomfort or pain” (LJ Robertson et al, 2010)

Five percent suffered from fatigue severe enough for them to lose employment or be unable to continue their education. Interestingly, all had taken anti-parasitic drugs and all had apparently cleared the pathogen from their systems.  Five years later, 30% were deemed to have an ME/CFS-like illness and almost 40% had irritable bowel syndrome  (IBS).

“Minor” Infection – Sometimes Serious Results

By all accounts Giardia shouldn’t be doing this. Giardia is not normally considered a serious infection. Most people have some diarrhea and pass the bug quickly – and if they don’t, antibiotics are usually (but not always) effective. Giardia, seemingly, produces the kind of “minor” infection that our medical system doesn’t spend much time on.

The Mayo Clinic reports that Giardia infection (giardiasis) is one of the most common causes of waterborne illness in the United States. The parasites are found in backcountry streams and lakes throughout the U.S., but can also be found in municipal water supplies, swimming pools, whirlpool spas and wells. Giardia infection can be transmitted through food and person-to-person contact.

Research studies are slowly revealing that the effects of even vanquished Giardia infections can be long lasting for some. The Mayo Clinic reports that intestinal problems such as lactose intolerance  may be present long after the parasites are gone. (Even though half a dozen studies have been published on the Bergen outbreak, Mayo fails to note that long term issues with fatigue and pain (or ME/CFS) may result).

The Bergen studies indicate, however, that this rather common infection worldwide can cause long term and even at times debilitating fatigue as well. The takeaway lesson from the Bergen studies is that one doesn’t need to have mono, Ross-River virus or Valley fever or any of several serious infections to get seriously afflicted. As Dr. Chia has been saying about enteroviruses for years, any minor infection has the potential to cause ME/CFS in the right person.

The Galland-Giardia Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) Connection

The Norwegians wrongly reported that they were the first to associate fatigue with Giardia infections, but they couldn’t be blamed for thinking so. Way back in 1989, an integrative doctor named Dr. Galland suggested that Giardia infections were associated with ME/CFS. That year, Galland reported at a scientific conference that Giardia might be more common in ME/CFS than expected. Using a new test, Galland found active Giardia infection in 46 per cent of his chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) patients. (Galland noted that many of his patients may have picked up the bug during travel to foreign countries).

In 1990 Galland published a paper “Giardia lamblia infection as a cause of chronic fatigue.” in the Journal of Nutritional Medicine. (The paper never appeared on PubMed, the main English research database, apparently because of the journal it was published in. Citations from present and past journals devoted to ME/CFS have never appeared in PubMed either.)

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Galland found the most devastating long term symptom after a Giardi infection was not gut pain but fatigue

Interestingly, given the involvement of a pathogenic gut protazoan, the patients’ gut symptoms were relatively minor; it was their fatigue, muscle pain, muscle weakness, flu-like feelings, sweats and enlarged lymph nodes that stood out. Galland reported that treating the infection alleviated the fatigue in over 80% of his patients and removed the digestive complaints in 90%. In 1998 Galland reported that one outbreak of Giardia, in Placerville, California, “was followed by an epidemic of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which swept through the town’s residents”.

Galland found that a longer than usual treatment regimen was often necessary to clear the body of the bug. Instead of the normal five-day treatment, his average treatment regimen lasted three weeks and could extend to eight.  He has also reported treatment successes involving other parasites (Entamoeba hystolytica, Cyrptosporidium) and other diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

In 2011, Galland hadn’t let up on the ME/CFS/giardia/intestinal parasite angle, reporting that a woman with severe fatigue and dizziness (but not many gut symptoms) who had tested positive for Giardia slowly recovered under his anti-parasitic protocol. Citing a Johns Hopkins study indicating that 20 percent of healthy controls had antibodies to Giardia, Galland suggested that Giardia infections were much more common, particularly in small town water systems (such as Incline Village?), than previously suspected.

Giardia is probably not a common cause of ME/CFS: Dr. Peterson said he regularly tests for it but rarely finds it – but because it is usually treatable, it’s a test that probably everyone, particularly those who got ill after foreign travel, should get.

The biggest question for the ME/CFS community (and the Lyme community), though, is why, as with other infections, some people who get enough treatment to make the pathogen disappear are still ill.

Back to the Norwegians

Galland may have generated some buzz in integrative medicine circles, but it took the Norwegian researchers to get Giardia and ME/CFS on the map in the research world. Tests revealing increased numbers of cytotoxic (i.e. killer) T-cells indicated an immune system on the alert for a pathogen.  (Similar findings occur in herpesvirus and cytomegalovirus infections, infectious mononucleosis, etc.)

With the Norwegian studies indicating that depression and anxiety weren’t the culprits in the ME/CFS outbreak, several hypotheses popped up:

  • The Sneaky Pathogen theory – The pathogen wasn’t gone at all, it was laying low. Poor immune surveillance was allowing low, undetectable levels of the bug to produce low-grade inflammation that was causing fatigue, abdominal distress and other symptoms.
  • The Hit and Run Gut Attack Theory #1 – Before it was overcome, the water-borne pathogen permanently damaged the lining of the intestines causing problems with gut permeability, hypersensitivity, bacterial overgrowth, immune reactions (fatigue, etc.) and irritable bowel syndrome.
  • The Hit and Run Gut Attack Theory #2 – the pathogen triggered the activation of mast cells in the gut causing fatigue, hypersensitivity, IBS and other symptoms.

The Latest Study

Giardia-specific cellular immune responses in post-giardiasis chronic fatigue syndrome, Kurt Hanevik1, 2Email authorView ORCID ID profile, Einar Kristoffersen1, 3, Kristine Mørch1, 2, Kristin Paulsen Rye1, Steinar Sørnes1, Staffan Svärd4, Øystein Bruserud1 and Nina Langeland1, 2 BMC Immunology 201718:5 DOI: 10.1186/s12865-017-0190-3

The latest Norwegian study attempted to explain the lingering fatigue and other problems by testing immune responses (T-cell proliferation assay, T cell activation and cytokine release analysis) to Giardia in 20 Giardia exposed fatigued individuals, 10 Giardia exposed non-fatigued individuals and 10 healthy unexposed individuals were recruited as controls.

The study did not find increased immune responses to Giardia (including T-cell activation or cytokine responses) in the post-infectious Giardia group. The still ill Giardia patients did, however, have higher levels of a key immune marker called sCD40L implicated in inflammation and in severe symptom flares in ME/CFS patients after exercise.

giardia question chronic fatigue syndrome

No one knows why 5-10% of the post-giardiasis patients are still sick

Why these patients – five years after their Giardia infection was resolved – are still ill remains a mystery, but the link between Giardia infections and subsequent chronic illnesses is growing.  A higher incidence of Giardia infection was recently found in lupus. Just this year, a study found an association between Giardia infection and the subsequent development of arthritis.  A 4,000 person study recently confirmed an association between Giardia infection and the development of irritable bowel syndrome.  That study’s findings were buttressed by an earlier study indicating that Giardia induces gut hypersensitivity in rats long after the parasite had been cleared.

How Giardia is setting some people up for subsequent illnesses such as ME/CFS, arthritis, lupus or IBS isn’t entirely clear.  It is clear, though, that particularly virulent strains of Giardia that cause more damage might be involved.  Giardiasis can damage the microvilli of the intestines and promote inflammation. Eight months after the apparent resolution of Giardia, signs of gut inflammation were present in almost 50% of the Bergen cohort. (That high number suggested that the Bergen cohort may have been hit by a particularly virulent strain of Giardia.)  Protracted levels of gut inflammation resulting in systemic inflammation – as some suspect is present in ME/CFS – could explain the fatigue and other problems that remained.

“Host responses” may be important as well. Reduced levels of gut arginine at the time of infection may result in more gut damage. Although T-cells are the big guns in the immune response to pathogens, one study suggested that one’s gut microbiome makeup played a bigger factor in preventing/allowing a serious infection to occur.

Some findings in the Norwegian Giardia outbreak mirror others seen in post-infectious ME/CFS illness states. Greater illness severity, whether characterized by increased symptom severity, more time spent in bed and/or a more difficult time ridding the body of the infection have been found to predispose people with infectious mononucleosis or giardiasis to coming down with ME/CFS.  Being female is another risk factor.

Prior illnesses may make a difference as well. Prior gut symptoms increased the risk of fatigue, etc., after a giardia infection but, interestingly, not more gut problems. This indicated, as has been shown before, that a lack of gut symptoms does not necessarily rule out the gut as a central factor in disease.

The Post-Infectious Cohort

Whether the pathogen involved is Ross-River virus, Q-fever, Epstein-Barr Virus, Giardia or other gut pathogens such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, Escherichia coli and Trichinella spiralis, a year or so later, from 5-10% of those afflicted are still ill. Infections, whether cleared or not, clearly can have long-term consequences.  The link between infectious mononucleosis and multiple sclerosis is a classic example. Dozens of studies indicate that having infectious mononucleosis increases one’s risk of later coming down with multiple sclerosis.

The Simmaron Research Foundation is continuing its efforts to examine the role unusual infections may play in ME/CFS with its support of the Konnie Knox study examining the role that vector-borne (bird/insect borne) infections may play in ME/CFS.