All posts by Cort Johnson

The Epstein-Barr Virus, Magnesium and ME/CFS Connection (?)

August 22, 2015

Magnesium may be the most commonly used supplement in chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.  Some people think a smoldering Epstein-Barr Virus infection may be common in ME/CFS.  In something of a shocker, recent research into EBV and magnesium suggests that low magnesium and EBV infections may sometimes go hand in hand.

Mg2+ Regulates Cytotoxic Functions of NK and CD8 T Cells in Chronic EBV Infection Through NKG2D. Benjamin Chaigne-Delalande,1* Feng-Yen Li,1,2* Geraldine M. O’Connor,3 Marshall J. Lukacs,1 Ping Jiang,1 Lixin Zheng,1 Amber Shatzer,4 Matthew Biancalana,1 Stefania Pittaluga, et. al, Michael J. Lenardo1† 12 JULY 2013 VOL 341 SCIENCE

The authors had recently characterized a primary immunodeficiency disease in people with chronic Epstein-Barr virus infection called XMEN.

XMEN disease

XMEN is a rare genetic disease that combines low magnesium levels and Epstein-Barr virus infection. Could it help explain ME/CFS?

XMEN disease is a rare genetic disease mostly appearing in men that is caused by mutations in the MAGTI magnesium transporter gene. People with XMEN disease suffer from increased infections including upper respiratory infections, sinusitis, otitis media, viral pneumonia, diarrhea, epiglottitis, and pertussis.

They also typically have high levels of Epstein-Barr virus infection and are at increased risk of coming down with EBV associated lymphoma.

The link to lymphoma and the recurrent infections were explained when they discovered that increased magnesium levels are required for natural killer (NK) and T-cell activation.

XMEN disease is not chronic  fatigue syndrome and vice versa, but the two diseases may share four intriguing  factors: EBV reactivation, poorly functioning NK and T-cells, the need for magnesium supplementation and possibly increased risk of lymphoma.

The Magnesium – Immune System Connection

The vast majority (95%) of the magnesium in our body is bound in our cells but it’s the 5% that’s unbound that makes the difference in our immune response.  The XMEN patients studied – some of whom had developed lymphoma – had normal levels of bound magnesium in their cells but reduced levels of unbound magnesium.

Interestingly, all experienced repeated minor viral infections and had elevated levels of active EBV in their blood.  Tests indicated that their immune systems knew the virus was there – it was producing normal levels of the  EBV specific memory T-cells – but their NK and cytotoxic T-cells – the cells tasked with killing EBV – were having trouble killing it.

The question was why. First they looked at the receptors on the NK and T-cells that activate them in the presence of EBV infected cells.   If the receptors are not present or are damaged the cells are effectively blind to EBV.

They  found reduced levels of the NKG2D receptors needed to turn NK and T cells into killing machines. They knew the genetics of the XMEN patients prevented them from taking up magnesium properly.  When they pumped their NK and T-cells full of magnesium (by culturing them in magnesium sulfate) the NKG2D receptors started working again. The cytotoxic T cell killing  problem was partially resolved and the NK cell killing problem was fully resolved.

magnesium

Low levels of free magnesium turned off NK and T-cells – and allowed EBV to take up residence in the cell.

They also found, importantly, that reducing magnesium levels abolishes NKG2D activation in normal T-cells; i.e. proper magnesium levels are needed for T-cell functioning. (Other receptors on NK and T-cells were not affected by magnesium levels – only these specific receptors.)

Next the researchers tested their hypothesis on humans. Upon being provided oral magnesium gluconate small but significant increases in free magnesium and a “modest restoration” in NKG2D levels were seen in an XMEN patient. A decline in the number of his B-cells harboring EBV suggested that his NK and perhaps T-cells were, indeed, more effectively targeting EBV infected  B-cells.

When the patient went off the magnesium supplementation the situation reversed itself.

Further testing indicated that infusions of magnesium sulfate and oral supplementation of magnesium threonate were more effective.

This was an early study (which did make it into Science) but it suggests that something as simple as magnesium supplementation may reduce the rate of infections and possibly the risk of lymphoma in XMEN patients.

EBV infections don’t necessarily lead to or are even associated with these problems: only one type of EBV patient was shown to have them in this study.  People with chronic active EBV infections (CAEBV) or something called X-linked lymphoproliferative disease (XLP) did not have reduced basal free levels of Mg2+ or problems with magnesium transport.

The ME/CFS Connection (???)

ME/CFS and FM  are not XMEN disease. They’re not rare and active EBV is not commonly found. Nor does magnesium supplementation, as common as it is, lead to a cure as it might for XMEN disease.

Because neither the MAGTI transporters or the NKG2D receptors found to play a role in XMEN disease have been assessed in ME/CFS, we have no idea if these transporters are functioning correctly in ME/CFS or FM.

Several features in ME/CFS and XMEN disease overlap...

Several features in ME/CFS and XMEN disease overlap…

Research into rare, genetic diseases, however, often gives us insight into more common disorders. That could be the case with ME/CFS.

EBV triggered infectious mononucleosis, after all is common in ME/CFS, natural killer and T-cells are dysfunctional, magnesium supplementation is rampant, and some ME/CFS patients do very well on antivirals targeting EBV. Recurrent (upper respiratory) infections can be found in some ME/CFS patients as well and increased rates of lymphoma have been found in early studies. (Could the increased rates of lymphoma found ME/CFS due to undiagnosed XMEN disease?).  Some researchers and doctors believe a special kind of EBV reactivation often occurs in ME/CFS.

Further studies in this area could impact ME/CFS or FM in several ways. They could elucidate problems with magnesium transportation and they could uncover other ways to fight EBV.

Indeed, the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID believes that further research into magnesium associated EBV reactivation could help patients with chronic EBV disorders.

Because chronic EBV infections afflict patients of other disorders, this information may be useful for designing general therapies against EBV. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disorders

Whether or not  ME/CFS falls into chronic EBV infected group largely depends on who you’re talking to.  An EBV ME/CFS researcher was, however, recently given a major NIH grant to study EBV infection and the Simmaron Research Foundation is engaged in similar research (see below).

The Future

We are going to learn a lot more how about how magnesium is transported into and out of cells, though.  Lenardo and Chaigne-Delalande are currently examining how other magnesium transporters work.  That’s good news for diseases like ME/CFS and fibromyalgia in which magnesium supplementation is common. They’ll also continue to examine magnesium’s role in chronic EBV infection.

(One question not examined in the study was whether EBV be somehow damaging magnesium transporters in order to turn off NK and T cell activity…)

More Epstein-Barr Virus News

The smoldering EBV infection hypothesis for ME/CFS recently got a boost when Ohio State University professor Dr. Vance Williams got a major NIH grant to study it. Williams earlier studies indicated that unusual EBV proteins rarely seen in humans can produce many of the symptoms found ME/CFS. Williams multi-year, multi-million dollar NIH study will further investigate the effects these proteins are having in this disease.

Simmaron Research | Give | Donate | Scientifically Redefining ME/CFS The Simmaron Research Foundation‘s NIH study examining the extent of autoimmunity and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in people with ME/CFS and their family members will focus on similar ground. This study will determine whether antibodies to the same EBV proteins Williams uncovered in ME/CFS are present. Finding antibodies to these unusual proteins would a) implicate EBV as a key player in ME/CFS and b) strongly suggest ME/CFS is an autoimmune disorder.

Please support the Simmaron Research Foundation as it scientifically redefines how ME/CFS is understood and treated.

More is Better: Rituximab Trial Boosts Hopes for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

The Rituximab  Story

“I was completely revitalized. Suddenly, I could be sociable again. I would go to work, go home, eat dinner and feel restless.” An ME/CFS patient in the study

The Rituximab story started in 2004 when Fluge and Mella two Norwegian oncologists noticed that some of their cancer patients with chronic fatigue syndrome were doing very well on a drug called Rituximab. In fact, they were doing too well. Not only had their cancer gone into remission but so had their chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms.

tweaking treatment protocol RItuximab

In this study Fluge and Mella tweaked their original treatment plan to produce more powerful and lasting results

Fast forward 11 years, one case series and another study later and we find Fluge and Mella not just treating ME/CFS patients with Rituximab but aggressively tweaking their formula to achieve a lasting remission in the responders and to provoke a remission in treatment resistant patients.

In the initial Rituximab trial published in 2011 Fluge and Mella gave 30 chronic fatigue syndrome patients two Rituximab infusions  two weeks apart and then followed them for 12 months. Three months into the trial there was no evidence the drug was working but 6-12 months later two-thirds of the participants had responded and some had responded in truly dramatic fashion. Years of disability and pain dropped away as some patients almost miraculously achieved normal lives.

Many of the responders, however relapsed later. In this study Fluge and Mella tried to do something about that. They gave Rituximab to 29 ME/CFS patients more often and for longer and they followed them for longer.

Rituximab

Rituximab induces B-cells to kill themselves by attaching to the CD20 receptor on them. It also enhances the ability of natural killer cells to kill them.

Originally developed and FDA approved to treat cancer (lymphoma) Rituximab is also FDA approved to treat rheumatoid arthritis and is used off-label to treat multiple sclerosis, lupus, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, autoimmune anemia, Sjogren’s Syndrome and many others.  Chronic fatigue syndrome may be the first disease outside of known autoimmune disorders, that Rituximab has been tested in.

The Study

B-Lymphocyte Depletion in Myalgic Encephalopathy/ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. An Open-Label Phase II Study with Rituximab Maintenance Treatment. Fluge Ø, Risa K, Lunde S, Alme K, Rekeland IG, Sapkota D, Kristoffersen EK, Sørland K, Bruland O, Dahl O, Mella O. PLoS One. 2015 Jul 1;10(7):

After the two infusions in the first two weeks (500 mg/m2 (maximum 1000 mg) Rituxmab was given four more times at 3, 6, 10 and 15 months (500 mg/m2 (maximum 1000 mg) and the patients were followed for no less than three years. The participants assessed their symptom levels every two weeks and health related quality of life using the SF-36 form.

Lymphocyte subpopulations, including CD19 positive B-cells were assessed before the infusions and at 3, 6, 10, 15, 20, 24, 30 and 36 months.

In an attempt to boost their response seven of the patients who showed slow and gradual improvement after twelve months received up to six additional infusions at two month intervals.

The Participants

This was Norway but the study population looked like that found anywhere else. Sixty-nine percent of the participants were women and 31% were men. The average age was forty and the average duration of illness was nine years. The severity of their illness ranged from mild (n=5), mild/moderate (n=4); moderate (mainly housebound) (n-13), moderate/severe (n=4), severe (bedridden) (n=3). Almost 60% associated an infection with their illness, 34% did not and 7% were not sure.

Seven patients had had Rituximab before but relapsed later and three had tried it and received no or a minimal response. Nine participants had been in the placebo arm of the former study.  All met both the Fukuda and Canadian Concensus Criteria for ME/CFS.

The Results

The Responders

As in the first trial over 60% of the participants reported significant clinical improvement; i.e. they achieved an improvement in their Fatigue score ≥ 4.5 for at least six consecutive weeks. Fourteen or 78% of those  who did were described as “major responders” and four (22%) were described as moderate responders.

more is better Rituximab

More was indeed better as many of the responders maintained their response a year and a half after receiving their last treatment

Some evidence suggested that the major responders were close to functioning normally or in some cases were fully recovered.  With their average SF-36 scores showing remarkable increases it appeared that many of the responders really responded. (More is better with the SF-36).

The average social functioning score – which denotes how much a person is inhibited from functioning socially – increased from 18.4 to 70.8, the average vitality score tripled from  17.7 to 61.3, the average physical functioning score – probably a really difficult one to improve on in ME/CFS – almost doubled (42.9 – 83.3), and bodily pain scores more than doubled (32.2 to 72.3).

At the end of the trial the responders average SF-36 score meet population norms; i.e. you wouldn’t be able, using this test, to tell them from healthy people. It didn’t mean they were all healthy- the test is not precise enough for that – but they were much, much improved.

Some limited Sensiware armband data validated the findings: the number of steps the responders took at the end of the trial indicated they were about as active as normal people.

The Non-Responders

The ten people who did not respond – really didn’t respond; no significant increases in any of the SF-36 scores were seen. It appears that most of the responders do pretty well while nothing much happens for the non-responders.

Maintaining Health – the Maintenance Strategy Mostly Works

The maintenance strategy of providing Rituximab more often to produce a longer-last effect was mostly successful.  Again, those who responded to it responded well. Those did not respond – really did not respond.

The duration of the response zoomed in the responders from 25 weeks (half a year) in the first study to almost 100 weeks (two years) when taking maintenance infusions in the second study.  The responders stayed healthier longer once they were off the drug as well. Three years after beginning the treatment and a year and a half after their last infusion  the treatment was sticking for about 60% of the responders. Some former patients were clearly well.

“Eleven of the 18 responders were still in remission three years after beginning the treatment, and some have now had no symptoms for five years,” Fluge.

B-cell tests indicating the B-cell numbers of all the responders were back to normal suggested their systems may have been reset. If they’d had an autoimmune problem it had disappeared during their long period of immune suppression.

The maintenance dose did not enhance the duration of the response in everyone, however; about forty percent had relapsed a year after receiving their last dose.

The More Is Not Better (Except When it Is) …..Group

Giving Rituximab more often (at the end of one year) to patients who’d had a moderate initial response to it failed to turn them into major responders.  One person, however, who didn’t respond to the two-dose first trial, did respond to five dose second trail.

More doses of Rituximab early on, then, might help but if a year of increased dosage is not helping then it’s time to try something else. Why some people respond and others don’t isn’t clear. Sophisticated immune analyses, however, are underway to attempt to figure that out.

Concerns

Placebo Response

There’s concern about the lack of a placebo group. No treatment will ever get approval without having a placebo controlled study but I wonder how serious the placebo concern is. The long time to the response seen (several months) and the long duration of the response argue (a year and a half in some) argues against a placebo response making a difference for many.

Study Size

A bigger concern is probably the small study size.  Thus far we have  response data on a small slice of the ME/CFS population in an ethnically homogeneous region.  (The upside to doing the study in Norway is that they can apparently get things done pretty quickly; the downside is that the country simply doesn’t have the ethnic diversity the U.S. has.)

subset

The biggest questions facing the two studies done so far is how closely the study participants resemble the ME/CFS population as a whole.

We can say that Rituximab works well  and sometimes very, very well in a subset of patients but we don’t know how big that subset is. I expect the response rates to drop as more types of ME/CFS patients sample the drug. Even a thirty or twenty percent response rate would be very exciting.

The results from the multicenter trial will not be available until 2017 or 18 – two or three years. If the 152 person trial goes well it’s hard to imagine – at least from this layman – that large trials will not quickly open up in the U.S. The infrastructure and the network of physicians needed to engage in a major trial is present. They will simply need access to the drug.  With all the federal reports citing the need for better treatments a way has to be found to get the” big lug” to mount a major trial.

The Severely Ill Study

Thus far in a separate study none of the four severely ill ME/CFS patients in a small open-label study have responded to Rituximab. Four more patients are being assessed. They do not encourage the use of this very strong drug in the severely ill at this time.

The Autoimmune Question – If it Looks Like A Duck…

Chronic fatigue syndrome with it’s female predominance, it’s often infectious trigger, it’s symptoms and the changes that sometimes occur in pregnancy has always looked like it might be, at least in part, an autoimmune disorder.

Fluge and Mella’s autoimmune hypothesis ties several aspects of ME/CFS together in a neat package. First an infection triggers the body to produce antibodies that target the blood vessels and stop them from delivering normal amounts of blood to the tissues. The drop in oxygen to the mitochondria resulting from explains the fatigue, lowered aerobic capacity and exercise problems. Given the brain’s enormous need for oxygen it also explain the brain fog. Several studies back up the muscle and brain issues – the question is whether antibodies are the result.

duck autoimmunity ME/CFS

If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck… is it a duck?

Thus far the Rituximab findings suggest autoantibodies play a role at least in a subset of patients. As before the responders took their sweet time – several months – to respond to the drug.  That several month time lag, though, is about how long it would take Rituximab to clear auto-antibodies from the body. That time-lag strongly suggests an autoimmune process is going on.

Increased rates of autoimmunity (41%) in the first-degree relatives of the patients buttressed the autoimmune hypothesis; a genetic predisposition is often present in autoimmune disorders.

If auto-antibodies are the key Fluge and Mella and others, however, have not found them yet.  They do have a hypothesis, though that ties several aspects of ME/CFS together in a neat package. They believe an infection triggers the body to produce antibodies that target the blood vessels and stop them from delivering normal amounts of blood to the tissues. The drop in oxygen to the mitochondria resulting from the reduced blood flows explains the fatigue, lowered aerobic capacity and exercise problems. Given the brain’s enormous need for oxygen it also explains the brain fog. it’s a theory with a nice foundation: several studies back up

We should see a paper explaining Fluge/Mella’s hypothesis soon and studies embedded in the 150 person trial will help assess whether their hypothesis is correct.

Norway!

It’s worth noting again what a remarkable role the small country of Norway has played in this unlikely scenario.  Size doesn’t always matter – and one suspects that it may be a hindrance in some cases. Two Norwegian physicians birthed the Rituximab findings, Norwegian advocates raised money and pressured the Norwegian government to do what nobody else has been able to do – fund and produce a very expensive and large treatment trial.  Not only did they do that but they did much more quickly than anyone else.

It’s a scary thing to have to depend on a small country with almost no history of ME/CFS research or on private donors in another country to follow up on the most exciting treatment finding in ME/CFS’s history.  If Rituximab works out – and it’s hard to imagine that it will not at least in part work out – the worldwide ME/CFS community will owe the two doctors, the Norwegian advocates and the Norwegian government a huge debt.

The UK is on board. It may be that UK advocates – driven by their awful circumstances – try harder when it comes to jumping on a hot treatment finding. Since June, 2013 Invest in ME has raised over $600,000 US dollars for its own Rituximab trial. According to Dr. Jonathan Edwards, who pioneered Rituximab’s use in autoimmune disorders, Invest in ME has enough money now for a small trial involving 30-40 patients.

That’s great and Norway  has already produced a much larger study and is years ahead of everyone.  That quick start is important given how long these treatment trials take and how long it can take to get approval for a drug.

A Rituximab Timeline

Let’s look at a Rituximab timeline. Fluge and Mella identified their first Rituximab responsive ME/CFS patient in 2004. Their three person case study was published in 2009.  Their 30 person placebo-controlled study was published in Oct. 2011. They began the 152 person multicenter trial at the end, if I remember correctly, of 2014. That study should end in late 2016/early 2017. It will take some time to analyze the results and then get them published. Perhaps we’ll see a paper in early 2018.

You can argue that moving from a small case-study in 2009 to a large multi-center trial beginning in 2014 is good progress and it probably is, but it’s still five years in the life of an ME/CFS patient.

The Big Lug

Much of the innovative research, both inside and outside the public sphere, is occurring in the U.S. but the Rituximab trials might never have happened for all the work that’s been done here. That’s something that ought to give one pause.  A possible new treatment for a disorder with no FDA-approved drugs occurs and the biggest and richest country in the world does nothing.

head in sand

The country with the biggest medical system in the world hasn’t figured in the Rituximab story at all yet

How does that happen? Norway got funding from both advocates and the government. UK advocates have raised $600,000 by themselves. No group has mounted a serious effort in the U.S. and federal funding for clinical trials is difficult to achieve.

It’s pretty clear right now that nothing’s going to happen around Rituximab in the U.S. until the Norwegian trial ends up in mid 2017. Say the Norwegian results published in 2018 are impressive and the U.S. gets a major year-long trial started in early 2019.  The results are in by mid-2020, they’re submitted for publication in early 2021, are published in mid-2021. The FDA examines the data from the US, Norwegian and UK trials and in early 2022 seven years from now, approves Rituximab for use in a subset of ME/CFS patients.

When U.S. – because of bureaucratic or institutional barriers or whatever, is simply sitting on the its hands everything takes longer. In another disorder the Oct 2011 Fluge/Mella study might have sparked an extensive U.S. treatment trial in 2012.  The first results of that multi-year trial might have been published in say 2015.  In this scenario with the big Norwegian study underway we’d have enough data to apply for FDA approval in two years.

An Unlikely Ally

The two studies have created an unlikely ally. Simon Wessely – the foremost proponent of the idea that ME/CFS is caused by poor coping and deconditioning – has been impressed enough by the results to call for a large trial. “There is now a strong case” he said  “to be made for a larger trial”.  Whatever you think of Wessely that’s a very helpful statement coming from a man of his background.

The silver in the lining of the United Kingdom’s embrace of CBT/GET is the extent to which they’ve funded it. The UK, per capita, has been far more generous with ME/CFS funding than the U.S. and they’ve shown the willingness to put significant dollars (or pounds) behind a treatment trial. Drug trials in the U.S., on the other hand, appear to be almost solely funded by pharmaceutical companies. Wessely – recently knighted – has a lot of pull in the U.K.  Could Wessely prod the UK government to get behind an enlarged Invest in ME Rituximab study? That would a be flip of major proportions.

Wessely also said “The belief that [CFS] is all in the mind has been around since the beginning,” he says. “It’s tragic that it might take a study like this to take sufferers seriously.” That’s quite a statement given his history. Check out how that statement jives with Wessely’s past ones in Simon Wessely’s Big Shift? CBT Icon Calls For Big Rituximab Trial

Conclusions

It was a remarkable thing to see almost half the study population exhibiting normal or near normal SF-36 and activity scores after three years.  Even if this is a small study the almost identical response rates (a strong 60 plus percent) found in it and the first study  are encouraging.

This study also demonstrated that give doses more often eliminates many of the relapses that dogged the patients in the first study and it presented more evidence that this powerful drug  is generally safe for use in ME/CFS patients.

As promising as the results of the first two studies are it should be noted that they are small studies and surprises may show up in the larger study underway. It is using the same improved treatment protocol used in this study. It’s results will probably not be published for several years.

In the meantime, this study prompted a major CBT advocate to call for larger studies and a smaller UK trial is in the process of being produced. (You can support that study here.)

Quantum Leap in Viral Detection Could Impact ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia

June 7, 2015

“I firmly believe that new technology drives science and generally has a much larger impact than individual basic science discoveries.” Stephen Elledge

Breakthrough findings in an individual disorder are special, but developing new technology that expands our ability to understand many diseases is something else entirely. It provides the potential to make a difference on a truly vast scale. Those types of breakthroughs are coming with increasing frequency.

research lab tests

Technological advances in medicine are appearing at a stunning rate.

  • Last month Mark Davis and his huge immune machine determined that exposures to herpesviruses, in particular, vastly altered the states of our immune system.
  • Just last week researchers uncovered a lymphatic network in the brain that provides a new window on neuro-immune disorders.
  • This week the journal Science published a breakthrough study that has major implications for understanding the role pathogens play in illness.

Each one could shed light on diseases like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromaylgia

The astonishing thing for us in the ME/CFS community is that two of the three researchers mentioned are also working on ME/CFS.

Pathogen Detection on Steroids

“Now that we can look at all viruses, it’s a complete game-changer.”

Steven Elledge, a Harvard researcher, is one of them. He pioneered a technique that quickly and thoroughly determines both the antibodies present in the blood and the strength of that response. Antibodies are produced by B-cells in response to pathogens. Because they continue to be produced for decades after an infection antibodies provide a library of past infective events. Until now, though, the search for antibodies has been a plodding, arduous one.

Viruscan test

Elledge’s new test presents a quantum leap in screening for pathogens.

Pre-Elledge –  researchers and doctors determined whether antibodies to a pathogen are present one antibody at a time. Post-Elledge – they’ll be able to look for all known antibodies to all 216 viruses known to infect humans a person – in a single blood sample – for about $25. This isn’t just a major leap in efficiency – it’s a quantum leap.

It doesn’t get much better than creating breakthrough results cheaply. Ian Lipkin called the feat “a technological tour de force and stated “This is a powerful new research tool.”

The Study

Comprehensive serological profiling of human populations using a synthetic human virome George J. Xu, Tomasz Kula, Qikai Xu, Mamie Z. Li,  Suzanne D. Vernon, Thumbi Ndung’u, Kiat Ruxrungtham,  Jorge Sanchez, Christian Brander, Raymond T. Chung,  Kevin C. O’Connor, Bruce Walker,  H. Benjamin Larman,  and Stephen J. Elledge Science 5 June 2015: aaa0698 [DOI:10.1126/science.aaa0698]

The new technology was used to screen for antibody reactions to more than 1,000 strains of 206 viruses in over 500 people across the globe. It found that the average person had been exposed to about ten viruses but that some had been exposed to as many as 25.

Not surprisingly, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) lead the list. Almost 90% of the people tested had been exposed to this ubiquitous virus. Herpesviruses, rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, influenza viruses, respiratory syncytial virus, and enteroviruses were most commonly found viruses. Not surprisingly, the older you get, the more viruses you’ve been exposed to.

The test is not perfect – it misses some very low-level antibodies and may not pick up antibodies in people with depleted immune systems (such as some ME/CFS patients). Antibody responses that decline over time also make it more difficult to find antibodies to very early infections.  While the test was completely accurate for people exposed to HIV or hepatitis C, it uncovered evidence of chicken-pox exposure in only about 25-30% of those who’d had it.

Elledge said, however, that improvements to the test will enable it to pick up those antibodies.

He’s not stopping at viral antibodies. He’s working on similar tests to assess autoantibodies and antibodies to bacteria and fungi.

The Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) Connection

“That’s what happens when you invent technology — you can’t imagine what people will do with it. They’re so clever.” Steven Elledge

Autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis – long believed to have a pathogen connection – and cancer were the first diseases mentioned in connection with this technology. The test is so cheap, though – a mere $25 –  there’s no reason it can’t be run in many diseases – including those for which pathogens are not suspected. A virology professor at University of Nottingham, Dr. Will Irving, noted it could be valuable in any disease of “unknown etiology “.

“Indeed in any other disease of unknown aetiology – identifying specific virome reactivity could give a major clue as to a causative agent.” Dr. Will Irving

viruses

Antibodies to over 200 viruses scanned – in a drop of blood

Irving noted the test may be helpful in determining the cause of primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC), for instance. PBC is a liver disease that produces extreme fatigue, autonomic dysfunction and a symptom profile very much like ME/CFS. It’s one of the fatiguing disorders Dr. Julia Newton has been studying alongside ME/CFS.  Irving suggested the new test could help determine if PBC is triggered by viruses.

The recent antibody findings in postural tachycardia syndrome – and the infectious triggers commonly found in that disorder – make it another obvious choice. Fibromyalgia – which is often triggered by a virus – is another possibility.

As to ME/CFS – Elledge is already studying it. He’s one of the new researchers, Suzanne Vernon, a co-author of the new study, enticed into the ME/CFS field as Research Director of the Solve ME/CFS Initiative. Vernon got Elledge to study ME/CFS simply for the cost of shipping samples to him. (ME/CFS patients were in the Science study.)

The Solve ME/CFS Initiative announced Elledge was trolling ME/CFS patients blood for antibodies using his new technique last year. ME/CFS is obviously on the Harvard team’s minds. Tomasz Kula, a co-author of the study, highlighted chronic fatigue (syndrome) as a prime candidate for this technology.

Earlier Elledge talked about the ME/CFS research he’s been doing with the Solve ME/CFS Biobank samples

“We have developed a technology that reveals all the viruses targeted by the antibodies in a blood sample. We plan to use this technology to examine the blood from people with and without CFS in order to find viruses that are associated with CFS. We hope this study will identify a pathogen as a likely causative agent of the disease in order to focus future study.

We also have a related technology that reveals all the targets of autoantibodies in a blood sample.  We also plan to apply this technology to the sample blood samples to look for evidence of immune dysfunction in people with CFS.

In a recent Facebook post Suzanne Vernon talked about ME/CFS and the Science study.

“It was so fun to work with this remarkable team on this really cool approach to test for more than 200 viruses (and more than 1,000 virus strains!) in a drop of blood. Blood from ME/CFS patients was included along with blood samples from around the world. George Xu, Steve Elledge and I will continue to dive into the data to see if there are virus patterns unique to ME/CFS.”

In response to a query whether the technology would allow research to discern ME/CFS clusters based on enteroviral, herpesvirus, or mixed patterns of infection, Suzanne replied “Exactly”.

Stephen Elledge

 

“I have always wanted to make an impact on the world, to have my life on earth count for something,” he said. “By contributing to basic research, I hope my work can accelerate discoveries to improve the lives and health of people.” Steven Elledge

Stephen Elledge Ph.D., a geneticist, runs the almost 30-person Elledge Lab at Harvard Medical School. He’s co-authored almost 300 papers over the past thirty years.  He was drawn to biology and genetics early by the promise the work had to transform biology. ”

“The potential for transforming biology was very clear, even stunning. And I decided I wanted to be a part of that.” Steven Elledge

In 2012 he (and another ME/CFS researcher, Dr. Michael Houghton) were awarded the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Science.

Not Ready for Prime Time – Yet

The test has not been commercialized yet.  The study, published in one of the most prestigious science journals in the world, has gotten enormous publicity which will surely help develop the technology into a commercial product.

Cutting Edge Work From Within the ME/CFS Community

From Unutmaz to Elledge to Mark and Ron Davis the ME/CFS community is getting access to top researchers and their cutting-edge technology. It’s also in some cases getting access to technology  being developed specifically to understand this disorder.

Gordon Broderick’s modeling efforts at the Institute for Neuro-immune Medicine, Ron Davis’s development of ways to analyze the HLA regions of our genome, and the methods Julia Newton developed to analyze muscle cell activity were all developed in-house to better understand ME/CFS.

“Medical Game-Changer” To Shed New Light on Neuroimmune Diseases

“The discovery of the central nervous system lymphatic system may call for a reassessment of basic assumptions in neuroimmunology and sheds new light on the aetiology of neuroinflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases associated with immune system dysfunction.”

In what’s being touted as a “medical game-changer” researchers at the University of Virginia have uncovered a new way the brain interacts with the immune system.

The researchers were looking for ways immune cells recirculate within the meninges – the protective membranes that envelop the brain – when they stumbled upon an amazing finding in this day and age – a major new anatomical feature of the brain.

Structural and functional features of central nervous system lymphatic vessels. Antoine LouveauIgor SmirnovTimothy J. KeyesJacob D. EcclesSherin J. Rouhani, J. David PeskeNoel C. DereckiDavid CastleJames W. MandellKevin S. Lee, Tajie H. Harris, Jonathan Kipnis. Naturedoi:10.1038/nature14432

lymph system brain

The lymph system and the brain: before and after: from Univ of Virginia

First, they found high concentrations of immune cells around the dural sinuses – veins that drain blood and cerebral spinal fluid from the brain and empty into the jugular vein. A closer look revealed that high numbers of  T-cells were aligned linearly along endothelial cell structures along the sinuses.  That finding piqued their interest: endothelial cells line the two major transportation venues in the body – the blood vessels and the lymphatic system. Could they have stumbled on an undiscovered pathway between the body and the brain?

Further testing revealed the structures were part of a undiscovered section of lymphatic  system in the brain.  That was a shocker. The anatomy of the brain, they thought, had been fully mapped years ago.

“I really did not believe there are structures in the body that we are not aware of. I thought the body was mapped,” said Dr. Jonathan Kipnis, who runs the University of Virginia lab where the discovery was made. “I thought that these discoveries ended somewhere around the middle of the last century. But apparently they have not.”

Then again, the lymph system has historically been a bit of an odd man out.  First described by Hippocrates in 400 BC, it was rediscovered as the “milky veins in the gut of a well fed dog” in the 17th century but then was virtually ignored until 1937 when Howard Florey showed that lymph nodes become enlarged in inflammation.

Getting the Garbage Out

The finding helps to solve a longstanding mystery.  The brain is a busy place. That almost by definition means its going to produce a lot of byproducts.  But where did they go? Absent knowledge of any means of getting rid of toxins, the prevailing hypothesis for many years was that the brain broke down the toxins to their essential elements and then reused them.  That hardly passed the smell test but it wasn’t until 2012 that one part of the brains waste removal system – the glymphatic system – was identified.

Now we know that a traditional – and presumably much more efficient – lymphatic system also exists in the brain. (If I got it right, the authors believe the glymphatic fluids probably drain into the new lymphatic system.)

The location of this part of the lymphatic system – situated alongside a major blood vessel – was difficult to see.  Unless it was dissected in just right manner it was invisible.

The lymphatic network  found that runs from the eyes to over the olfactory lobe to the sinuses.

Filtration System

The lymphatic system transports immune cells to lymph nodes – central immune staging areas  packed with immune cells. Lymph nodes are also responsible for filtering out foreign particles and cancer cells. Disturb the lymphatic system and you can get a bollixed up immune response and a toxin laden system.

Two different types of lymphatic vessels exist: vessels with valves that collect fluid and vessels without valves which fluid passes through. The lymphatic vessels found in this study are valveless- they’re designed to let the lymph fluid pass right though the meninges into the neural sinuses and into the lymph nodes.

High Potential

The filtration part of the lymph system appears to be getting the most play right now.

garbage truck

How’s your filtration system doing?

The potential this system – or rather the potential a dysfunction of this system – could have on disease is large.  In fact one of the researchers went so far as to say that it was hard to imagine a neuro-immune disorder that was not impacted by this pathway.

“We believe that for every neurological disease that has an immune component to it, these vessels may play a major role. Hard to imagine that these vessels would not be involved in a [neurological] disease with an immune component.”

He hadn’t been drinking too much bubbly. Maiken Nedergaard, director of the University of Rochester Center for Translational Neuromedicine agreed saying that “Essentially all neurodegenerative diseases are associated with the accumulation of cellular waste products. Understanding and ultimately discovering how to modulate the brain’s system for removing toxic waste could point to new ways to treat these diseases.”

Picture central nervous system inflammation. Free radicals are punching holes in membranes. Cells are dying. Pathogens are wreaking havoc.  The  “garbage” that all this activity produces in the form of dead and damaged cells and pathogens needs to be flushed out of the system before more damage results.

The classic example of a bollixed up CNS lymphatic system causing disease could be Alzheimer’s with it’s accumulations of amyloid proteins. One researcher studying Alzheimer’s said

“Understanding how the brain copes with waste is critical. In every organ, waste clearance is as basic an issue as how nutrients are delivered. In the brain, it’s an especially interesting subject, because in essentially all neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, protein waste accumulates and eventually suffocates and kills the neuronal network of the brain.”

ME/CFS?

Chronic fatigue syndrome could fit in that picture. The high brain lactate levels and low glutathione levels Shungu found in ME/CFS patient brains suggest high rates of anaerobic energy production and its accompanying toxic by-products could be present.  The recent Japanese study suggested inflammation was present. Low blood flows to the brain could easily be producing high levels of “garbage”.   (Stroke is another condition the new findings could illuminate.)

breakthrough

The finding will provide new insights into neuro-immune disorders

Studies indicate that most of the glymphatic flushing that occurs in the brain occurs during sleep – a problematic time for many people with ME/CFS and fibromyalgia. Then there’s Dr. Perrin who swears that his lymphatic drainage techniques help people with chronic fatigue syndrome.  He believes the cognitive and other problems found in ME/CFS are due to too much sludge in the system.

It’s not clear how researchers will use this new knowledge but  it is clear that tools are present that can exploit this new finding and provide better understanding of neuro-immune disorders – perhaps at some point even ME/CFS.

A Father Responds: Riding Hard for ME/CFS Research

Everyone’s Nightmare

It was a nightmarish situation.  Struck down by ME/CFS at the age of eight after a series of staph/herpes infections and infectious mononucleosis, the Spearing’s formerly healthy and energetic daughter, Stephanie, was soon confined to her bed.

Then it got worse. Much worse.  As Stephanie’s illness progressed, severe sensory problems left her unable to tolerate bright light, sounds, smells and touch. Migratory nerve and abdominal pain left her in severe pain much of the time. Dysautonomia and muscle weakness left her unable to walk. Food sensitivities  and gut problems left her unable to tolerate many foods and her weight dropped precipitously.  The UK health authorities were – surprise, surprise –  no help at all. They didn’t even attempt to be polite in their denials.

Improvement

stephanie spearing

Stephanie has improved tremendously but is still far from being able to lead a normal life

It was a tragic story that could have easily lead to an even more tragic ending but Stephanie’s move out of the  damp UK into the colder but drier climate and more ME friendly health system in Canada helped  Rest and more rest, dietary changes, probiotics and immune supplements produced progress.

Seven years later Stephanie is still weak but she no longer experiences the severe sensory problems and pain she once did. She’s not in school but no longer needs her wheelchair and is able to go on walks. Stephanie’s reduced suffering is a great relief to her parents but they want their entire daughter back.

Riding for ME/CFS Research

They want real relief. They want mounds of research. They want their daughter well and they don’t want anyone else to go through what Stephanie and they went through. The awful nights. The walking on tiptoes in order not to cause their daughter – huddled in her bed upstairs – pain from too much noise.  The ugly comments from the medical authorities.

Everyone is affected by these severe illnesses. Some give up in the face of the opposition but Peter Spearing  has just gotten more determined.  In three days in his Ride For ME/CFS Research Peter is riding 100 kilometers in Tour de l’Île de Montréal cycling event  to raise funds for the Simmaron Research Foundation. He’s going to ride full out – as hard as he can.

Ride For ME/CFS research

The Institute’s collaborative efforts with top researchers and Dr. Peterson’s years of experience drew the Spearmans to the Simmaron Research Institute

When asked why they choose the Simmaron Research Institute Stephanie’s mother Suzy emphasized Dr. Peterson’s years of experience, and the close ties the Institute has forged with important research efforts across the globe.  One of the first articles they read about ME/CFS, she noted, involved Dr. Peterson’s efforts in the Incline Village outbreak over thirty years ago.

Created in 2012, the Simmaron Research Institute is dedicated to scientifically redefining how ME/CFS is studied and treated. It’s dedicated to giving people like Stephanie options. To breaking up the ignorance that is causing so many people to be cruelly treated. To producing an environment in which ME/CFS is given the resources that other chronic illnesses are.

The Institute is currently participating in and/or funding work on

  • The gut microbiome
  • Tick, mosquito borne and other pathogens
  • Determining subsets and defining ME/CFS
  • Epidemiology including the long term effects of ME/CFS
  • A genomic analysis of immune cell functioning
  • The cause of the natural killer cell dysfunction
  • The extent of severe T-cell abnormalities found
  • Autoimmunity, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cancer prevalence
  • Ampligen’s effectiveness in treating ME/CFS
  • Spearheading efforts to make immune tests a standard part of diagnostic protocols
  • Collaborating with Columbia University to train future doctors how to treat ME/CFS
Simmaron Research Foundation

The Simmaron Research Institute is dedicated to scientifically redefining ME/CFS

Peter, Suzanne and Stephanie request that you support Peter’s efforts to bolster ME/CFS research by donating to the Simmaron Research Institute here.  Everyone, young and old, deserves a shot at a normal, healthy life.  (Please reference Stephanie Spearing in the dedication box provided).

Dr. Pridgen on Doses, Fixing Broken Bodies and Why the Next Fibromyalgia Trials Will Be Better

If Dr. Pridgen is right, his protocol for treating fibromyalgia could end up turning the medical world’s conception of FM (and perhaps even chronic fatigue syndrome) on its head. The first treatment trial had good results but they didn’t exactly turn the FM world upside down. Geoff Langhorne asked him about that in an interview a couple of months ago and I followed up with my own questions.

A confident Dr. Pridgen explained why the first trials result were good but not earth-shattering and why the next trial results will be better. First some background.

How it Happened

“It was never my intention to be involved in Fibromyalgia” William Pridgen

Pridgen didn’t start out to treat fibromyalgia – he was simply trying to get at what was causing the diarrhea/constipation and abdominal pain in his patients.  Both he and his mother – a virologist – recognized that the pattern he kept seeing –stubborn symptoms which got better with treatment then got worse, and then better and then worse – could reflect a virus getting reactivated, then knocked down, reactivated then knocked down. Throw in the fact that his patients gut problems typically got worse during stressful events and a herpesvirus infection became a viable option.

herpesvirus

The pattern of remission and then relapse, particularly, after stressful situation, suggested herpesviruses.

Pridgen started off giving a couple of his patients a single antiviral herpesvirus drug. The fact that some of the patients did get better encouraged him, but it was not until he combined it with the anti-inflammatory Celexicob (Celebrex) that he really began to see results.

The big surprise was that his patients were reporting relief from a whole panoply of other symptoms. Their fatigue, their headaches, their muscle and joint pains, their sleep problems, their difficulty relaxing – all were improved. By the time twenty or thirty patients had reported this he really began to take notice.

“Holy crud!” in the interview he stated, “I discovered something.”

He switched gears and began offering the drug combo to people with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. He lambasted the idea that fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome are difficult diagnoses to make. As soon as he knew what these illnesses looked like, he said, anyone working in his office could spot them immediately.

Fixing What’s Broken

Patients tended to sporadically improve early with the full effects showing up after about three months. He wasn’t just treating herpesvirus infections, however. Asserting that these diseases “break things”,  he also worked on their treatment resistant sinusitis, acid reflux, thyroid issues, insomnia, anxiety, and depression.

fixing what's broken

Pridgen asserted it’s necessary to fix what else is broken for his protocol to have full effect.

In fact, his first step was to figure out what was broken and fix it and then put them on the drug combo “. He said “if you’ve done a good job with the first half” then 12 to 14 weeks into the treatment program a “switch” often gets flipped with people feeling a whole lot better.

Geoff then asked a great question – would you characterize this as a cure or a successful treatment?  Pridgen stated that you can’t “cure” or eliminate viruses, but that he did feel that his treatment protocol was getting at the core of the disease. Note, however, that Dr. Pridgen did put that qualifier – “If you’ve done a good job with the first half” – in. It’s important to treat the depression or generalized anxiety disorder, symptomatic gallbladder disease, severe reflux and chronic nonseasonal sinusitis, etc. for his combination treatment to optimally work.

His protocol, he believes, is much more effective at symptom reduction than the drugs currently approved for fibromyalgia. He does not feel those meds get at the core of the disorder: his does.

Herpes Simplex Virus-1

The predominant virus he believes that is causing the pain in fibromyalgia is herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1). HSV-1 has been put in the “fever-blister” category; it causes some unpleasant symptoms and nothing more. Pridgen believes that view and the accompanying attitude of benign neglect towards the virus HSV-1 are disappearing.

HSV-1, it turns out, isn’t always so benign, after all. Yes, the initial infection is usually mild. And yes, essentially everyone, including healthy people, is exposed to and carries HSV-1 in their body.

neurons HSV--1

HSV-1 hangs out in the neurons. In susceptible people that could be a problem.

Like the other herpesviruses, however, HSV-1 persists in the body hanging out in the neurons. After the initial infection, HSV-1 is able, in some people, to become reactivated, travel up the axon of the neuron to the nerve centers – waiting to be reawakened by a stressor.

Studies indicate that  almost any stressor including colds, eczema, menstruation, emotional and physical stress, stomach upset, fatigue or injury can reactivate it. It can cause encephalitis and blindness, and some evidence suggests it’s associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Vaccines for HSV-2, a close cousin to HSV-1, are being worked on. If HSV-1 does end up being the cause of fibromyalgia, Pridgen believes widespread HSV-2 vaccination could, just as vaccines have put an end to measles, chickenpox, hepatitis and other viral illnesses, help put an end to fibromyalgia. A vaccine, by the way, could also potentially help some people who already have fibromyalgia much like the shingles vaccine helps people with Varicella Zoster reactivation.

The First Trial

“We didn’t get a 60-70% efficacy, because it wasn’t our ideal dose and a lot of patients had other conditions they couldn’t get fixed in a trial like that.”

If you’ve been following the Pridgen story you’ve probably heard of people who’ve tried the Famvir/Celebrex combination who’ve done well and others who haven’t. Pridgen addressed the variability in results in his protocol by asserting that the doses aren’t set and that many of the participants had more than fibromyalgia to deal with.

The trial was less restrictive than most other phase 2 (FDA approved) FM trials where men or people with severe depression weren’t allowed to enroll. He said they pretty much let everybody with FM in.

He also stated that if the patients failed to commit to fixing the secondary problems they didn’t do as well. The FDA also required only one dose be used in the trial – and that dose was not their “favorite” one.

Fifty-three percent of the patients in the trial had at least a thirty percent reduction in pain. That’s a good but not great figure, but Pridgen noted that almost forty percent had at least a fifty percent reduction in pain – and that’s a very good figure for FM. Already their stats, he stated, may prove to be better than the three FDA approved drugs for FM – and he hasn’t been able to use the dose he ultimately intends to market. He stated that some of the world class experts on IMC’s scientific advisory board have said they had “never seen pain data like this” for FM before.

The Next Trials

The next phase three trials, though, will be slightly more selective as the fibromyalgia patients will not have as many “extra conditions”.

It’s going to take time to raise the money and then do two phase III trials – which can be run side by side. While there may be one dose that works best for the most people, Pridgen asserted that no dose is perfect for this variable population and they’ll probably do a dose-ranging study to get at the variability.

They’re trying to get FDA to fast-track the next trials. My guess is that patient enrollment will not be a problem; they expected it to take nine months to enroll the last study and they did it in three.

When asked how the phase three trials are coming Pridgen stated, “We’re moving as fast as we can….This is not an easy process.”

Confident

“I feel very confident that the next two trials will be far more impressive”.

Dr. Pridgen appears to be utterly confident he’s on the right track. He said he’s seen a 1,000 plus FM patients and an equal number of chronic fatigue patients.

recovery from fibromyalgia

Prigen asserts many people have gotten well using his protocol.

“If a patient does what we tell them to do and they jump through the appropriate hoops it’s unbelievable what happens to these people – they do so much better” Skip Pridgen

When the Blue Ribbon Project came to Tuscaloosa, it was the only place, he said, they saw people getting better.

He said he’s seen “countless” patients get well and go on with their lives, including very ill patients.  “I’ve had some tremendously ill patients who get their life back….get back to working again.”

They come from all over. He gets the protocol started and then refers them back to their physicians. His Canadian and Australian  patients have a good chance of continuing with the protocol because their physicians are more open minded, but the Brits often run into a wall so unless they can cross the Atlantic, presently they are receiving little support from their own medical profession.

Dr. Pridgen Talks

When do you expect the study to be published?

Dr. Carol Duffy is feverishly working on the manuscript and should be submitting it for publication this summer, hopefully in one of the premier pain journals.

How did you, a surgeon, end up treating people with gut problems?

Many general surgeons perform endoscopies in their practice of medicine.

How did you get the idea to combine the antiviral with an anti-inflammatory?

I was merely giving them a NSAID for their joint pains, and serendipitously noticed the two drugs when combined had unexpected benefits. I’d never heard of anti-inflammatories used to hit viruses before. Virologists have known for two decades, though, that NSAID had antiviral properties.

You presented a very different model of fibromyalgia at the Rheumatology Conference than rheumatologist are used to. I don’t know if anyone has looked at fibromyalgia as a herpesvirus disorder let alone treated people with antivirals. What kind of reception did your talk receive?

Lot’s of questions, none too difficult to answer and generally it was well received even if the attendance was not ideal.

neurons

Pridgen and Duffy believe three sites in the body may be particularly affected in fibromyalgia: the gut, the vagus nerve and the sinus area

I know someone who couldn’t tolerate the Famvir but did very well on Celebrex for six months when everything fell apart again.

There are other options, and if his physician had reached out to me, I would have given the physician everything they needed to help that patient.

What can you say about the gut tissue biopsy results?

The preliminary data was presented a little over a year ago at an international virology meeting, and for patients who have FM 100% of those patients have HSV-1 data in their biopsies and 80% have a protein that is found only in cells that are actively infected with HSV-1.

If HSV-1 is found in the guts of FM patients is it your guess that it’s probably reactivating elsewhere?

The vagus nerve is the nerve that controls the gut and the virus lives in its ganglion. We postulate that there are two other major sites, the sinuses, and the urinary bladder, that are also likely sites of chronic reactivation.

If it’s active in the gut would you expect to see an increased incidence of cold sores in FM?

Approximately 30% of the population suffers from cold sores. If you go to the innovativemedconcepts.com site you will be able to watch a couple of video’s that explain this better.

big fibromyalgia studies are next for Pridgen

Has Pridgen cracked at least part of fibromyalgia? Time will tell. The big studies are next…

You tried several different combinations of drugs and Famvir turned out to be the antiviral of choice for the fibromyalgia patients in your study. Do you have any idea why Famvir was more effective than the other drugs?

(Dr. Pridgen said that’s a trade secret for now.)

In your experience are people who improve dramatically able to get off the drugs and maintain their improvement for a considerable amount of time?

Absolutely not! The moment they stop the meds the next time they are severely stressed the condition returns. You can’t stop diabetes, hypertension, and cholesterol medications and you can’t stop these.

What is the timeline for the phase III study or studies?

Plans are underway for the near future.

 

CDC Tanks Toolkit In Response to Institute of Medicine Report

April 21, 2015

The reverberations from the IOM Report continue. In their first official response to the 300 plus page IOM Report (Beyond Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Redefining an Illness) the CDC stated it was archiving both its brochure on ME/CFS: “Recognition and Management of CFS: A Resource Guide for Health Care Professionals“and it’s much maligned Toolkit.

An anachronism from the day it was published, the 17 page, large-type Toolkit looked like a cartoon copy of how to identify and treat ME/CFS next to the 42 page, densely detailed IACFS/ME Primer released in 2012.  It was a Toolkit with decidedly few tools.

CDC toolkit gone

An anachronism from the day it was published, the Toolkit was finally knocked out by the IOM report

The limited recommendations in the Toolkit, and before that on the CDC website, have been a source of frustrations for patients and knowledgeable medical providers for many years. It’s been exhibit one for patients wishing to portray the CDC as being out of touch.

The Toolkit stated that a team of doctors and mental health professionals and physical therapists were best suited to treat ME/CFS. It emphasized therapies that addressed coping, symptoms and activity management.

Several assertions in the Toolkit that came out of the CDC’s randomly sampled population studies using the Empirical Definition  people were controversial. They included statements that people ME/CFS are more likely to be obese, experience insulin resistance and have metabolic syndrome.

To its credit, the Toolkit did note the need for lower doses of medication, asserted that antidepressants were effective only for those with clinical depression and, while promoting exercise, provided substantial warnings about it.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), graded exercise therapy (GET) and sleep, however, were the only treatments covered in any kind of depth.  While the Toolkit stated exercise programs should not increase patients symptoms, it also suggested that exercise therapy would ultimately enable people with ME/CFS to “go about their daily life(s)”.

toolkit buried

The Toolkit has been buried deep in the CDC’s website.

In contrast to the Primer which identified what are now accepted as core symptoms of the disorder, the Toolkit stuck with symptoms associated with the 20 year old Fukuda definition. The Toolkit identified seven co-morbid condition – several of which are questionable; the Primer – 48. The Toolkit identified ten illnesses that can mimic ME/CFS; the Primer – 55.

The Toolkit provided no specific recommendations on drug treatments; the Primer provided 49 recommendations. The Toolkit provided no recommendations for managing pain; the primer provided recommendations on both non-drug and drug approaches to pain. The Toolkit provided no recommendations on cognitive issues, orthostatic intolerance, gut problems, etc. The list goes on and on.

The Toolkit has influenced the treatment recommendations on many major medical websites. Now, in response to the IOM Report, it’s essentially gone. You can find an archived version of it on the website, but the CDC is clearly not standing by the Toolkit anymore.

It’s abrupt removal suggests major changes are in store. With the IOM report proposing new diagnostic protocols that was expected. It couldn’t have happened too soon.

Simmaron’s Spinal Fluid Study Finds Dramatic Differences in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

April 3, 2015

“Our results indicate a markedly disturbed immune signature in the CSF of ME/CFS subjects that is consistent with immune activation in the CNS.”

Dr. Mady Hornig, Director of Translation Research, Columbia University

The Hornig/Lipkin lab at Columbia University is involved in numerous ME/CFS studies

Columbia University just published groundbreaking results of the first spinal fluid study to compare ME/CFS with Multiple Sclerosis and healthy controls. For almost his entire career treating CFS patients, Dr. Daniel Peterson has been working toward this day.

Simmaron Research, founded by Dr. Peterson, was a key collaborator in this study, along with Konstance Knox Ph.D. of Coppe Healthcare. Drs. Peterson and Knox provided the spinal fluid samples, and Simmaron’s Research Manager Gunnar Gottschalk did clinical coordination. Drs. Mady Hornig (lead author) and Ian Lipkin (senior author), who run Columbia’s Center for Infection and Immunity, designed the study and led the sample and data analyses. Many thanks are due all the collaborators and especially  the Chronic Fatigue Initiative and Evans Foundation for funding this novel work.

Molecular Psychiatry. 2015 Mar 31. doi: 10.1038/mp.2015.29. [Epub ahead of print]Cytokine network analysis of cerebrospinal fluid in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. Hornig M1, Gottschalk G2, Peterson DL2, Knox KK3, Schultz AF4, Eddy ML4, Che X4, Lipkin WI5.

Cerebral spinal fluid is a colorless fluid that surrounds and cushions the brain and spine. Constantly being produced and absorbed it is fully replaced about four times a day. It provides immunological protection and removes metabolic wastes from the brain.

Lumbar punctures such as those used in this study are primarily used to diagnose neurological disorders.

cerebral spinal fluid

Cerebral spinal fluid protects and removes metabolic wastes from the brain

In several ways, this study distinguished itself from other spinal fluid studies in chronic fatigue syndrome. It examined a more comprehensive cytokine panel (n=51), did more sophisticated statistical analyses (logistic regression/network analysis) and included a multiple sclerosis group as a control. With ninety-one subjects, it was a large sample size for a spinal fluid study (32 ME/CFS patients, 40 MS patients, 19 controls) and it was suitably complex.

Highly Significant Results

Major differences were found. With all the central nervous system problems present in MS, we expect MS would be different from healthy controls. The levels of over half of the cytokines tested (26/51) in the MS group vs the controls were significantly different. An almost equal degree of difference, however, also occurred in the ME/CFS group. Almost half the immune factors tested (23/51) were significantly different in the ME/CFS patients relative to the healthy controls.

Highly significant differences in immune factor levels (p<.0003 or less) were found in 13 cytokines in MS group vs healthy controls, in 4 cytokines in ME/CFS vs healthy controls, and in 8 cytokines comparing ME/CFS to MS.

Immune Exhaustion

reduced immune factors in chronic fatigue syndrome

Most immune molecules were lower in both the ME/CFS and MS patients

The immune system is a complex place. Cytokines have a role in both producing and controlling inflammation. Some evidence points to ME/CFS being an inflammatory disorder, and there’s no doubt that multiple sclerosis is an inflammatory disorder. Interestingly, the cytokine levels in the MS  patients spinal fluid were even lower than those in the ME/CFS patients.

In general both MS patients and ME/CFS trended in the same direction – mostly reduced cytokine levels relative to the controls – but the immune dysregulation was very different. With twenty-three immune factors differing between the ME/CFS and MS patients, a case could be made that the ME/CFS and MS groups differed the most immunologically. The researchers stated ME/CFS patients demonstrated a “markedly greater degree of CNS immune activation” than the MS group.

People in the current study had had chronic fatigue syndrome for about seven years. The relatively low cytokine levels found parallel those found in the longer duration patients in the large blood cytokine study the Columbia researchers recently completed.

“I think what we’re seeing is an immune system exhaustion over time,” Dr. Hornig speculated in HealthDay.

Chemokines, Infections and CNS Damage

Scientists at Columbia … identified a unique pattern of immune molecules in the cerebrospinal fluid of people with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) that provides insights into the basis for cognitive dysfunction—frequently described by patients as “brain fog”

Chemokines are of special interest in neuroinflammation because these very small proteins regulate immune cell entry into the brain. When an infection occurs, they draw immune cells into the brain by increasing the permeability of the brain blood barrier. The microglia and astrocytes are the primary chemokine producers in the brain.

Infection or demyelination possible in ME/CFS

High CXCL10 levels have been associated with infection or demyelination

Two chemokines (CCL11 and CXCL10) were increased in both the MS and ME/CFS groups with much higher levels of both found in the MS group.

CXCL10 clears the way for the entry of natural killer cells and T lymphocytes into the brain. It is often prominently expressed in the CNS in response to viral infection.

As always the immune system walks a fine line. Too little chemokine expression and a deadly infection can take root. Too much chemokine expression and brain damage and seizures can result. While CXCL10 plays an important role in combating viral infections, excessive CXCL10 levels can cause neuron die off and trigger a immune-mediated demyelinating disease.

Demyelination is a major problem in MS but is only a possibility at this point in ME/CFS. A small recent Stanford study suggested myelin abnormalities along with white matter atrophy may be present in ME/CFS. .

Not surprisingly, CXLC10 clearly has an impact on symptoms. Neutralizing CXCL10 even during a persistent infection can greatly reduce symptom severity.

Allergic Response, Eotaxin and Brain Fog

“These immune findings may contribute to symptoms in both the peripheral parts of the body and the brain, from muscle weakness to brain fog.” Dr. Mady Hornig

IL1ra is supposed to tamp down an allergic response as well. The network analysis in this study suggests that it’s not working so well in ME/CFS patients. The inverse relationship between IL1ra and CSF2 (GMCSF) levels in the ME/CFS patients, indeed, suggested an allergic response was underway. Reduced CSF2 levels were found in a prior ME/CFS spinal fluid study as well.

Then there is eotaxin (CCLII). Eotaxin recruits white blood cells called eosinophils that are involved in producing an allergic response in the brain. The logistic regression suggested increased levels of eotaxin (and decreased levels of IL1b) are highly associated with “ME/CFS caseness”.

eotaxin chronic fatigue syndrome

Eotaxin has been associated with cognitive declines and reduced neuron growth in mice.

Eotaxin is not a chemokine one particularly wants to have around. Increased eotaxin levels have been associated with impaired learning, memory deficits and reduced neuron production in mice as they age. Introducing eotaxin into the CNS of young mice reduces neuron production. (At the last IACFS/ME Conference, the CDC reported reduced telomere length – another possible sign of increased aging – was present in ME/CFS.)

“…we now identify systemic immune-related factors (eotaxin) as potentially critical contributors to the susceptibility of the aging brain to cognitive impairments”. Villeda et. al. 2011 – From a mouse study published in Nature

One doesn’t think of allergy in terms of the central nervous system, but the authors reported that allergic processes could be indicative of a central nervous system infection. The chemokines upregulated in the ME/CFS patient’s spinal fluid have been associated with microglial activation and central nervous system infections.As the publication notes, “Persistent secretion of cytokines by activated microglia, brain immune cells of macrophage-monocyte lineage, may contribute to this pattern.”

Networks Awry

“The inverse relationship we found between IL1ra and CSF2 in the CSF of cases using a network analysis approach suggests that neuroimmune responses may be shifted toward allergic or Th2 (autoimmune) patterns in the CNS of individuals with ME/CFS.”

The Hornig/Lipkin team also found evidence of disturbed “networking” in ME/CFS; i.e. immune cells communicating strangely. IL-1ra is an interleukin that prevents cells with IL-1 receptors from producing the powerful pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-1A or IL-1B. It stops that part of the immune response in its tracks, but the network analysis suggested it wasn’t doing that in ME/CFS.

Summing Up

  1.  The fact that the alterations in the immune factors in the ME/CFS were almost as extreme as in multiple sclerosis – a disorder characterized by severe central nervous system dysfunction –  suggests a major pathology is present in the central nervous systems of ME/CFS patients.
  2. The low cytokine levels suggest that some sort of immune exhaustion –  caused by an infection or by immune upregulation – is present in ME/CFS.  These findings parallel those of the recent Hornig/Lipkin study suggesting that  immune up regulation early in the disorder may lead to immune burnout later on.
  3. Several of the immune factors in the ME/CFS patients spinal fluid suggest an allergic type of reaction may be occurring in their CNS. A similar finding is also found in some central nervous system infections; i.e. an infection could be driving this process.
  4. The immune factor most identified with the ME/CFS patients has been associated with cognitive declines, aging and reduced neuron production.

Moving Forward

“Diagnosis of ME/CFS is now based on clinical criteria. Our findings offer the hope of objective diagnostic tests for disease as well as the potential for therapies that correct the imbalance in cytokine levels seen in people with ME/CFS at different stages of their disease,” adds W. Ian Lipkin, MD, John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and director of the Center for Infection and Immunity.

Daniel Peterson

Dr. Daniel Peterson

Early on, MS didn’t have biomarkers or diagnostic tests, and it had skeptics like CFS does. Later it was diagnosed by specific proteins in spinal fluid. Now there are FDA-approved treatments.

ME/CFS patients often have central nervous system symptoms, like cognitive dysfunction, balance problems, and nerve and pain issues. Those symptoms convinced Dr. Peterson many years ago that spinal fluid may hold the key to understanding the disease. His perseverance helped make this study possible.

Columbia University’s press release stated:

“There is precedent for use of human monoclonal antibodies that regulate the immune response in a wide range of disorders from rheumatoid arthritis to multiple sclerosis. However, the researchers note, additional work will be needed to assess the safety and efficacy of this approach.”

We need more research to translate these unprecedented findings into diagnostics and treatments.

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

Major Study Suggests Early Immune Activation May Drive Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

“This study delivers what has eluded us for so long: unequivocal evidence of immunological dysfunction in ME/CFS and diagnostic biomarkers for disease” W. Ian Lipkin

big me-cfs study

Big study – big results

Distinct plasma immune signatures in ME/CFS are present early in the illness. Hornig. M. Monotoya, J, Levine, S., Felsenstein, D., Bateman, L, Gottshalk, G….Likpin. L. Sci Adv 27 Feb. 2015.

It’s a major study indeed – the first, I believe, to come out of the Hutchins Foundation’s Chronic Fatigue Initiative and the media is picking it up quickly. The Hutchins Foundation doesn’t mess around. They’re putting $10 million into researching chronic fatigue syndrome. They do big rigorous studies with top researchers.

This study with its carefully selected patients from across the country was loaded with ME/CFS expertise. Besides Mady Hornig and Ian Lipkin of Columbia, Dr. Montoya, Dr. Peterson, Dr. Klimas, Dr. Bateman, Dr. Levine and Dr. Komaroff were listed as co-authors.

The Simmaron Research Foundation and Dr. Peterson provided samples for this study. One of  Simmaron goals is to provide samples and data from well-characterized patients to major researchers and institutions.

It’s Biological

“These immune signatures represent the first robust physical evidence that ME/CFS is a biological illness as opposed to a psychological disorder, and the first evidence that the disease has distinct stages.” Columbia University Press Release

Once again we see claims made that finally, finally we have proof that ME/CFS is a biological illness. (The head of the CDC said something similar regarding their study about ten years ago at a National Press Club event.) This time the claim is a bit different, however. This time they have not just evidence but “robust” evidence that ME/CFS is a biological illness.

If the study size is any indicator of robustness – and in a well-designed study it is – their evidence is robust, indeed.

Big, Big, Big Study

This wasn’t just a big study – it was a huge study containing almost 650 patients and healthy controls (298 ME/CFS patients and 348 healthy controls).  (A similarly large study is underway at Stanford).

All the patients met both the Fukuda and Canadian Consensus Criteria.

The study wasn’t just big in size – the 51 immune factors it measured meant it was deep as well, and  leptin was one of the immune factors measured.

Different But Not Substantive

The study started off on a bit of a downer. Differences in immune factors between the ME/CFS patients and the healthy controls were present, but not “substantive”.

Note, however, almost all the immune factors are lowered – not increased –  in the chronic fatigue syndrome patients. We’ll come to a reason for that later.

  •  Pro-inflammatory – IL171A (p<.0043), CXLC10 (p<.04), TNF-B (p<.0028), Il-6 (p<.04), sFasL (p<.01)
  •  Anti-inflammatory – Il-10 (p<.024), CSF1 (p<.025)

The one immune factor moderately  increased in ME/CFS was leptin (p<.03).

That didn’t mean many in the group hadn’t experienced profound immune alterations, though. They had – earlier…

Hit and Run Attack Likely

“The immunopathology of ME/CFS is not static” the authors.

Further analyses uncovered something the authors freely admitted surprised them. The ME/CFS patient’s immune measures didn’t differ by triggering factor or age or even by sex – they differed by time.

chronic fatigue syndrome early immune findings

The key factor for the immune system – was time

Alterations in over half the immune measures found (combined with some very, very low probability factors that the results weren’t correct)  (p< >0002-.0008) indicated that “substantive” differences in immune functioning had existed at one point in time.  The short duration patients showed signs of intense immune activation not found in the other groups.

Both the pro and anti-inflammatory sides of the immune system were on high alert early on in ME/CFS.

Immune Differences Between Short-term ME/CFS patients and Healthy Controls:

  • • Increased levels in ME/CFS: IL1A, IL1B, IL-6, IL-12, IL-17a, Il-17f, IL-8, TNF-a, sFasL, TRAIL, IFN-y, CCL2, TGFa, CSF, resistin, CCL-11, CSF2, IL1RA, IL-13.
    • Reduced Levels in ME/CFS – PDGFBB, CD40L

Cytokine results have been spotty in ME/CFS and that’s been a problem.   A few up or down regulated cytokines just don’t raise many eyebrows in the research world. They’re looking for evidence of broad immune alteration – and here it is. I don’t think anybody has seen this kind of sweeping immune activation in ME/CFS before.

Viral Fighter Stands Out

A logistic regression suggested that IFN-y played a particularly significant role in the immune system activation. Produced mostly by natural killer and cytotoxic T-cells – two cells with similar problems in ME/CFS – IFN-y is both an immune stimulator and pathogen inhibitor. (Microglia are big IFN-y producers in the central nervous system).

The IFN-y findings suggest either a pathogen attack or an autoimmune shift may be triggering the immune upregulation seen early in the disease.

infection chronic fatigue syndrome

Bug alert! The early immune findings were consonant with a pathogen attack.

High IFN-y levels are associated with Th2 dominance in the immune system and an increased risk of autoimmune processes. Post-viral fatigue has been associated with high IFN-y levels, and alterations in the IFN-y gene have been associated with increased fatigue following infection as well.

IFN-y also showed up in Broderick’s small study examining 16 cytokine levels in adolescents in the first two years after coming down with infectious mononucleosis. Four cytokines IL-8, Il-23, IL-5 and IL-2 were significantly altered or nearly significantly altered.

IFN-y levels were not increased but a computer model suggested it and four other cytokines constituted an immune signature that differentiated people who came down with ME/FS after IM and those who recovered.

Mady Hornig on the Study

IL-5 levels were significantly decreased in ME/CFS patients but IL-5 did not, interestingly enough, make it into the computer model. Further analysis indicated that IL-5 levels were significantly correlated with Il-23 and IFN-y: two cytokines that did make into the model. These cytokines were essentially analogues for IL-5 in the body.

THE Pathway???

IFN-y also accelerates tryptophan degradation by activating the indoleamine-2,3 deoxygenase enzyme in the kynurenine pathway – Mady Hornig’s favorite pathway. That pathway produces neurotoxic substances that increase production of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate that some researchers believe is in play in both fibromyalgia and ME/CFS. Andrew Miller of Emory University has earmarked the kynurenine pathway in ME/CFS.

kynurenine pathway chronic fatigue

Could the kynurenine pathway be it for ME/CFS?

Cognitive problems and mood changes have been associated with up-r egulation of the kynurenine pathway in diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to depression. In fact, disruption of the one part or other of the kynurenine pathway occurs in many neurological and psychological disorders.

The authors were confident enough to hypothesize that lesions produced by high IFN-y levels early in the disease are producing the cognitive slowing and depression found in ME/CFS. Andrew Lloyd of the Dubbo project has been suggesting for years that high cytokine loads early in the disease process had disrupted brain functioning, but nobody has gotten this specific before. Now Hornig and Lipkin et. al are proposing a specific mechanism for that: IFN-y produced lesions.

“We propose that IFN-y mediated lesions in kynurenine metabolism may culminate in the depression and psychomotor tardiness (slowed information processing) that contribute to disability in some patients with ME/CFS”.

That kynurenine pathway gets more intriguing when we consider that IFN-y activation and tryptophan degradation has been associated with chronic Epstein-Barr virus infection. Epstein-Barr virus is often associated with infectious mononucleosis – a common trigger of ME/CFS.

CD40L

CD40L appears to be another early key immune factor. A clear driver of immune functioning in the healthy controls and longer-term ME/CFS patients, CD40l was found to be reduced and strangely disengaged from the immune system in shorter-term ME/CFS patients.

A B-cell maturation regulator, deficiencies in CD40L are associated with recurrent infections and unexplained cognitive issues and CD40 deficient mice exhibit major immune deficiencies. Citing the Fluge/Mella Rituximab study the authors suggested the collapse of this immune factor   early in this disease could be important.

One scenario proposed by this study – natural killer and cytotoxic T-cells pumping out IFN-y early in the disease only to collapse later on–appears to fill in some holes that smaller studies would have missed. If this study is correct then maybe 20% of the patients in any study have probably had ME/CFS for three years or less. That would mean that the typical low NK dysfunction will show up but the up-regulation early in the disease the authors believe may be contributing to that doesn’t.

Flipping the Switch

That suggests that somewhere around the 3rd year of illness major immune shift occurs. The immune system flips from being hyperactive not to being normal but to being somewhat under active.

Dr. Hornig described a condition of immune system burnout:

“It appears that ME/CFS patients are flush with cytokines until around the three-year mark, at which point the immune system shows evidence of exhaustion and cytokine levels drop.”

primed for burnout cfs

Does the immune system get burned out in longer duration ME/CFS patients?

There’s something very right about “immune exhaustion” being associated with this disease The fact that many cytokines  increased in the early stages of ME/CFS are  decreased in the later stages suggests a kind of burnout process is occurring.

Poor natural killer cell functioning in ME/CFS is often described as a type of immune system “burnout” and evidence is emerging of similar cytotoxic T-cell problems as well.

Leptin Again

It’s hard for me parse how leptin showed up in this study. The only immune factor increased in the whole ME/CFS group vs the controls, leptin was highlighted in one network analysis of early duration patients and showed up moderately in two others. The authors noted that it was tightly correlated with most of the immune factors later in the disease but not early.

Another cytokine called PDGFBB appeared to be the main driver of the immune reductions later in the disease.

Hit and Run Again

That suggests the disease has in some way moved on from the immune system. The authors of the paper didn’t have a great explanation for why people remained ill after their immune system activation had died down or had become decreased. If Younger’s findings pan out perhaps the lone elevated immune marker – leptin – found is enough.

hit and run me/cfs

The findings suggested ME/CFS is a hit and run disease.

A email to Jarred Younger gave a quick answer  and a warning that it was not based on a close reading of the paper. He suggested systemic inflammation may drive ME/CFS early on but sensitized microglia and astrocytes in the central nervous system drive it in its later stages. Because we don’t have good ways to test central nervous system inflammation at that point the disease mostly becomes invisible to testing afterwards.

In fact, the authors tantalizingly noted because ME/CFS appears at least in part to be a central nervous disorder cerebral spinal fluid may very well be a better medium to investigate than peripheral blood. That could suggest we’re due some more important findings in a couple of weeks when the Simmaron Research Foundation/Chronic Fatigue Initiative CSF study is published.

The High Cytokine- Longer Duration Patients?

The study doesn’t make any mention of longer duration patients ME/CFS patients with high cytokine levels. Anecdotal reports from patients indicate they are definitely out there, but this study – involving many quite ill patients being seen at ME/CFS practitioners – suggests that they probably constitute a relatively small subset of patients.

Conclusion

“We now have evidence confirming what millions of people with this disease already know, that ME/CFS isn’t psychological,” Mady Hornig, MD

This large study presents what appears to be almost novel finding in medicine: distinct before and after stages early in a chronic illness. In the early stages of ME/CFS (first 3 years) a distinct and impressive immune activation is present that is followed by modest immune deactivation.

The early immune activation is highly suggested of an infection or some other immune altering process.

The study may ultimately open up possibilities for treating patients with recent onset but provides no possible treatment options at this point for patients who have been sick longer. The  more modest immune deactivation found later in the disease suggests that the core causes of the disease are either found elsewhere or were not illuminated by the study.

A major question facing researchers now is finding ways to translate this hit and run immune activation or viral infection into long lasting central nervous system problems. Microglia sensitized by chronic immune activation/kynurenine pathway activity is one possible answer.

Ian Lipkin’s statement that they hope to find important answers in their microbiome study suggests he believes a permanently altered microbiome  could provide an answer to that question.

“The question we are trying to address in a parallel microbiome project is what triggers this dysfunction.”Ian Lipkin

The authors statement that cerebral spinal fluid may provide a better medium for understanding this disease could mean we’re in for some interesting findings in a couple of weeks.  The Simmaron Research Foundations rare  and extensive trove of cerebral spinal fluid samples from ME/CFS patients provided the foundation for that study.

Stay tuned!

The Biggest Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Treatment Trial Begins: Fluge/Mella On Rituximab

Doctor’s Fluge and Mella shocked the ME/CFS world with their 2009  case series and the 29-person 2011 study which found that about 2/3rds  of ME/CFS patients had a significant and positive response to the chemotherapy  and autoimmune drug Rituximab. With some patients achieving near miraculous recoveries, the results from Norway had the ME/CFS world buzzing.

rituximab-chronic-fatigue

The big question is – what percentage of ME/CFS patients will respond?

As encouraging as the results were, however, they were but a prelude to the big study ahead – the one that will definitively tell us how effective Rituximab is in this disorder.

As they begin the study, the doctors appear to be both cautious and optimistic. There’s no doubt now that Rituximab doesn’t significantly help some people with ME/CFS – the question is how many and how much – and that’s what this 152 person, multi-center study will tell us

Multi-dimensional in scope, it’s actually four studies in one – some of which are almost as exciting as the trial itself – that  could tell us much about ME/CFS. This very long study started up in the last quarter of last year – a bit later than expected. As  it did I asked the doctors some questions.

(Check  out the study on the ClinicalTrials.gov database).

How is the Rituximab (RituxME) study going? 

The RituxME study has just started recruiting patients. We plan to include 152 patients, in five centers in Norway. There will be 1:1 randomization between rituximab and placebo.

We will give the first two infusions two weeks apart (500 mg/m2, max 1000 mg, or placebo) followed by maintenance infusions 500 mg fixed dose (or placebo), at 3, 6, 9 and 12 months. The placebo solution with saline and some added albumin will look identical to the Rituximab solution. The study will be double-blinded and placebo-controlled.

The follow-up will be for 24 months, and the code for intervention will be revealed after the last included patient has been to 24 months visit and the database is locked.

measuring activity levels - me/cfs

Many measurements will be done – including activity levels.

Patients from 18-65 who have ME/CFS according to Canadian criteria (2003), age 18-65 ME/CFS for at least 2 years up to 15 years can be included.  People with severe, moderate/severe, moderate, mild/moderate and mild ME/CFS may be included.  If they have “mild” ME/CFS they need to have had the disease for at least 5 years. People with very severe ME/CFS (completely bedridden with need for help for all tasks) will not be included.

Self-reported symptom scores will be recorded every second week, and SF-36 questionnaires every third months. Activity levels will be assessed for seven consecutive days using the Sensewear armband at baseline, and repeated at the17-21 month follow-up.

Do you plan to publish the results of the open-phase trial? If not can you say anything about the results? (This was an open label (patients knew what they were taking) study with 29 patients using rituximab induction and maintenance treatment (six rituximab infusions over 15 months, with follow-up for three years, unpublished). This trial continued patients on Rituximab (a maintenance dose) for much longer, in a effort to reduce the relapses seen in some patients after they went off Rituximab.)

We have used the experience from our open-label phase-II study using rituximab maintenance. This study ended in February 2014, but due to all the work with the new study we have not had time to complete the manuscript. However, we are now completing the manuscript, and hope to submit soon.

We included 29 patients in the open-label phase-II study (KTS-2-2010). In this study there was no placebo group, and that will of course be the main criticism of the study. The reason for doing an open-label study was to gain experience on dose-response relationships in order to better design the randomized phase-III study. We also wanted to give patients who had taken the placebo in our first randomized study (Plos One 2011, KTS-1-2008) an opportunity to take part in a study without being randomized again (that was in agreement with the ethical committee approving the KTS-1-2008 study).

One patient had an allergic reaction at the first infusion and did not get further intervention, leaving 28 patients to receive rituximab maintenance treatment. The patients received two infusion with rituximab two weeks apart,  followed by maintenance rituximab infusions after 3, 6, 10 and 15 months (7 patients received further infusions according to an approved amendment in the study).

We will not give details on the results here, even though the study has been presented at some meetings the last year. For now we can state the response rate was quite similar to the first KTS-1-2008 study, and that the response durations seem to be much prolonged (as compared to the Plos One study) when giving rituximab maintenance treatment.

Rituximab-chronic-fatigue

Fluge and Mella’s data indicated that maintenance doses of Rituximab worked: i.e. they largely kept patients from relapsing

To us, the most important issue now is to do a proper phase-III study which will determine if the results of the first trial can be trusted. It is important to understand that our first phase-II study (Plos One, 2011) – the first to evaluate the treatment principle of B-cell depletion in ME/CFS – had several limitations.

We do not know how much selection bias was present in our first two studies. If the putative immunological disease that we have seen is commonly found in the broad groups of ME/CFS patients that fulfill the Canadian criteria, we have a chance to get a significant result in favor of rituximab in the ongoing study.

However, if our selection bias in the first studies is large (i.e. if we selected out patients that are not representative of ME/CFS patients as a whole) the new study might very well turn out negative (i.e. no difference to placebo). Should that happen we would then focus our efforts on figuring out how to select the subgroup that has an   immunological, rituximab-responsive disease.

The Substudies

Blood vessel, exercise and gastrointestinal substudies occurring alongside the major study could tell us much about ME/CFS as well. Some of the substudies are, to my mind, almost as interesting as the Rituximab study itself. I asked Dr. Fluge about them. 

For the RituxME study, we will perform three substudies. (We originally planned to use these in the main study, with some parameters as secondary endpoints, but because all centers could not perform the analyses they were designed as substudies.)

All three substudies will be performed at baseline and repeated at the 17-21 months follow-up, which is the time interval our previous experience suggests that the therapeutic effect of rituximab maintenance to be most evident.

Endothelial Functioning Substudy

Our substudy of endothelial function (Bergen Notodden) in 72 patients will use flow-mediated dilation to test large blood vessel endothelial functioning.  We will also test microvascular endothelial function in Bergin using skin laser-doppler measurements.

blood vessels chronic fatigue

Is a problem in the blood vessels triggering the sympathetic nervous system activation found in ME/CFS?

We believe that endothelial function is important in ME/CFS. Even though many symptoms can be ascribed to the central nervous system we are not convinced that ME/CFS is primarily a central nervous system disorder. We believe the sympathetic nervous activation seen in ME/CFS may be (partly) secondary to an underlying (peripheral) pathology.

It is important to get an understanding of which symptoms that are caused by the primary pathology, and those which may be ascribed to secondary (compensatory) mechanisms.  We are working to elucidate whether endothelial dysfunction, and subsequent inadequate fine-tuned autoregulation of blood flow to meet the demands of tissues, may be an important feature of ME/CFS.

A study from Dundee in 2011 showed endothelial dysfunction to be present in ME/CFS. Our pilot studies in a group of ME/CFS patients suggest it is as well.

In the substudy to RituxME, we ask if we can reproduce the endothelial dysfunction in a larger cohort of ME/CFS patients? Is there a relation between endothelial dysfunction and disease severity? Is there a relation between endothelial function and a later clinical response (in the rituximab group)? In patients that improve after B-cell depletion therapy (Rituximab) is there a relation between improvement in self-reported symptoms or in physical activity levels, and changes in endothelial function?

We have written a manuscript on our thoughts and hypotheses including the relation between immune response, endothelial function, and the possible effector system for symptom maintenance in ME/CFS. However, we still believe that we need more data to underpin out thoughts and have therefore not submitted the paper yet.

[Dysfunction of the endothelial cells lining the blood vessels in the circulatory system has been a subject of interest in ME/CFS since MERUK’s pioneering efforts in the early 2,000’s. These cells  – present everywhere from largest arteries to the small capillaries – control how dilated or narrowed the blood vessels are, affect inflammation, control blood clotting and more.  Each of these factors have been implicated in ME/CFS at one time or the other. In 2012 Newton et al.  reported both small and large blood vessel dysfunction was present in ME/CFS.

The finding last year that  autoantibodies to the adrenergic receptors found on endothelial cells are present in postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) suggested an autoimmune process was knocking out one group of POTS patients. Now Fluge/Mella appear to be proposing that a similar autoimmune process is messing up the blood vessels and producing the sympathetic nervous system activation in ME/CFS. If that’s so Rituximab’s efficacy could lie in its ability to restore proper blood flows (and presumably blood volume) to ME/CFS patients allowing them to exercise, think, digest, etc. as healthy people do.  This is a hypothesis that is pregnant with possibilities.

Fibromyalgia patients should note that Rice has found evidence of small blood vessel dysfunction in the hands that may also be impeding normal blood flows throughout the body. – Cort. ]

 Exercise Substudy

The cardiopulmonary exercise tests for two following days will be performed at baseline and repeated in the 17-21 months follow-up. We will do this substudy in Bergen, Notodden and Oslo, but only for patients with mild and moderate disease (not severe), The total number may be 50, perhaps more.

exercise chronic fatigue syndrome

The ultimate test of Rituximab’s effectiveness – an aerobic exercise test.

We want to see (in a double-blind fashion) if the performance (VO2max, VO2 at anaerobic threshold, workload at max and at anaerobic threshold) of patients who respond to Rituximab will improve on day two of the exercise test.

It may be a disadvantage that we exclude patients with a high symptom burden from this substudy, but we did not want to put patients with moderate/severe or severe ME/CFS through such physical exertion because they may worsen for many following weeks. They will also start the intervention (Rituximab or placebo) three weeks after these tests  – maybe too soon for some moderate/severe or severely ill patients to fully recover.

Gastrointestinal Functioning Substudy

The substudy on gastrointestinal function will only performed in Bergen, and only for patients with GI symptoms resembling functional dyspepsia or irritable bowel disease. Approximately 15-20 patients will be included.

Gastroenterologists in Bergen will evaluate the patients using several self-reported forms, and with a soup meal followed by ultrasound assessment, and also with endoscopy and biopsies from those willing to participate in this (in fact, most of those we have evaluated are willing to do the endoscopy!). The GI studies will be performed at baseline and repeated after 17-21 months.

Genetics Study

Dr’s Fluge and Mella will  also be looking at the genetics of ME/CFS patients and their families. Dr. Fluge wrote

genetics-chronic-fatigue

The list goes on…Fluge and Mella are also looking at genetics

To further elucidate possible clues, we are also working on exom-sequencing of families with many affected individuals among first- and second-degree relatives, sequencing all coding parts of the genome (with flanking introns) both from affected and healthy family members. We test candidate genes with targeted sequencing in all patients included in our studies. We hope to be able to link the genetic and clinical data, to underpin the hypotheses.

An Autoimmune Disorder?

I asked Dr. Fluge why they thought the patients responding to Rituximab may have an autoimmune  disorder?

Why we think this is a variant of an autoimmune disease? First, we have not shown that ME/CFS is an autoimmune disease. However, we believe that in a subgroup of patients an autoimmune pathogenesis involving B-lymphocytes and possible immunoglobulins (autoantibodies) makes sense.

The arguments are as follows:

  • The observed pattern of responses and relapses after rituximab treatment, with a lag time of several/many months from initial and rapid B-cell depletion until start of clinical responses. Such patterns are also seen in established autoimmune diseases after rituximab treatment, such as Wegener’s granulomatosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • A high proportion of women with ME/CFS
  • Our studies suggest a high occurrence of autoimmune diseases exists among relatives of ME/CFS patients (could also be a marker for a selected population in our studies?)
  • A moderate, but highly significant risk of B-cell lymphomas in elderly ME/CFS patients, shown in a large case-control study from National Cancer Institute in 2012. To me, this is an important study, showing that patients may have a chronically activated B-cell system.
  • Emerging data from a few other poorly understood diseases (POTS, Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome, CRPS) which have some common characteristics and possibly to some extent may overlap with ME/CFS, in which research groups have detected (functional) autoantibodies.

Long Lag Time Also Suggests Autoimmunity

Epstein-barr chronic fatigue

The different responses Fluge/Mella’s ME/CFS patients and their chronically activated EBV patients have had to Rituximab suggest to them autommunity, not EBV reactivation, is ocurring.

The long lag time from rapid initial B-cell depletion to start of the clinical response (2-8 months) is why we do not think elimination of EBV or CMV is the principle mechanism for symptom relief in our patients. In my work as a lymphoma oncologist, I have treated a few patients with chronic EBV infection, with moderate lymphadenopathy, night sweats and general symptoms for several years, and with no clear clinical benefit from valganciclovir.

In one patient, the B-cells in bone marrow and in lymph nodes were packed with EBV and she had a high EBV titer in her peripheral blood. When given rituximab, her symptoms waned in a few days after start of treatment – very different from what we see when treating ME/CFS patients.

Two Cautionary Notes

Dr. Fluge wanted to make two cautionary notes: 

caution rituximab chronic fatigue

Caution! Rituximab use in severely ill patients is not recommended…

Very severely ill ME/CFS patients – We are also conducting a study (KTS-3-2010), which includes very severely ME/CFS patients. Only four very severely ill ME/CFS patients have been at our hospital, and it is very difficult to give them the care they need in a very busy oncology ward. For these for patients, although rituximab has influenced their disease in a slightly positive manner for two, none of the four could be characterized as responders. We do not encourage treatment of patients with very severe ME/CFS with rituximab outside clinical trials!

In fact, until further scientific data and evidence are available, all patients receiving rituximab for ME/CFS should be treated within clinical trials.

Etanercept – We started a clinical open-label phase-II study on weekly subcutaneous etanercept (a TNF-alpha inhibitor). Only four patients were included, and we decided to stop the trial because two patients had a clear worsening of ME/CFS symptoms, while two were unchanged (no response). Ideally, we should have included additional patients to gain experience for a more solid conclusion; we however decided to stop the trial.

New Open Phase-II Trial

After observing a few pilot patients for one year, we have decided to begin another open-label phase-II study in Spring 2015 on another immunomodulatory drug, in three sets of ME/CFS patients:  ME/CFS patients who have not treated before with rituximab, in nonresponders to rituximab treatment, and in patients with a clear response to rituximab but with evidence of gradual relapse the last year. This study has been approved by the Ethical Committee, and will occur at a single center study in Bergen (Haukeland University Hospital)

Conclusion

In conclusion, we hope our efforts will help to increase our knowledge of ME/CFS, and that the results of the new randomized study will provide some important answers to aid further research, either by us or others in the research community. We need a better understanding of the disease with regards the genetic predisposition, the immune disturbances and the endothelial dysfunction present and the effector systems for symptom maintenance in order to develop rational treatments for this devastating and misunderstood disease.