All posts by Cort Johnson

EBV I: A Deficient Immune Response, Increased Levels of Epstein-Barr Virus Opens Up EBV Question in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Again

A Long History

Although altered EBV-specific antibody titers have been repeatedly demonstrated in CFS, no clear evidence for chronic EBV replication has been obtained so far. Authors

Perhaps the most common viral trigger for chronic fatigue syndrome (infectious mononucleosis, aka glandular fever) or Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) is a herpesvirus almost all adults have been exposed to and carry, usually in latent form in their cells.

conflicting signs

Conflicting results have made it difficult to determine the role EBV plays in ME/CFS. Will this German study signal a change?

EBV infection was proposed as the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome not long after the disorder became prominent in the 1980s, but inconsistent study results in the 1980s and 1990s followed by Straus’s 2000 paper (which suggested the search for herpesvirus infections in ME/CFS was over) put a damper on EBV research efforts.

From 2000 to the present only Dr. Lerner with his stream of positive studies (but sometimes challenging study designs) and Dr. Glaser published fairly consistently on EBV in ME/CFS. Recently Dr. Lipkin stated (unpublished) he found no evidence of active EBV infection using high throughput sequencing in the plasma of hundreds of ME/CFS patients.

Despite study inconsistencies, EBV has remained a pathogen of interest in ME/CFS. Both Lerner and Glaser have produced evidence suggesting that a defective form of the EBV virus may be causing the symptoms in some people with ME/CFS. Recent studies suggesting that EBV triggers autoimmune disorders are intriguing given the successful ME/CFS Rituximab treatment trials.

EBV’s ability to reactivate during stress and in hypoxic conditions may have implications for its possible role in ME/CFS as well. A recent laboratory study suggesting that high rates of oxidative stress can reactivate EBV and that antioxidants (including NAC, catalase, and L-glutathione) might be helpful in reducing EBV reactivation is intriguing given the high rates of oxidative stress found in ME/CFS.

Now, in a surprising turn, German researchers have not only put the spotlight back on EBV, but have dug deeper into EBV, ME/CFS, and the associated immune response than any group has before.

The Study

“Taken together, our study provides clear evidence that deficiency of EBV-specific immune response is present in CFS” The authors

The adaptive part of the immune system, the one that takes time to kick in, comes in the form of B-cell produced antibodies that lock onto proteins the virus produces and cytotoxic T-cells that attempt to the kill the virus. (B-cell’s attack the virus in the blood and cytotoxic T-cell attack virally infected cells.)

broken

Ohio State researchers believe a defective form of EBV that is spewing out proteins may be causing ME/CFS

Noting some unusual findings in their lab, these researchers looked at these antibodies and T-cells to see if people with chronic fatigue syndrome were mounting an effective immune response against EBV. They also looked for direct evidence of an active EBV infection.

EBV replication occurs when the virus produces proteins in a sequence that allows it to build another virus. One theory, developed by Dr. Lerner and a group at The Ohio State University (that includes Drs. Ariza, Glaser, and Williams), proposes that EBV undergoes ‘abortive replication’ in some people with ME/CFS. In abortive replication, a defective form of EBV produces early proteins, but is unable to produce later ones. The Ohio State group believes continual production of these proteins is causing a chronic inflammatory state in some people with ME/CFS.

Results

First, the German researchers found evidence of primary EBV infection or reactivation (increased IgM antibodies to a late EBV protein in @15% of patients vs 3% of controls) in significantly more ME/CFS patients than controls. The fact that this could be a ‘primary infection’; i.e. it represents the first time these patients are exposed to the virus is intriguing. A primary infection of EBV early in life usually leads to nothing more than a cold; a primary infection later in life can have serious consequences including infectious mononucleosis.

Having found evidence that an active EBV infection was more common in people with ME/CFS than controls, they looked to see if a reduced immune response was responsible for that.

The first hint of a reduced immune response to EBV in ME/CFS came in the form of a lack of antibodies to EBV-produced proteins VCA and EBNA1.

But first, a short antibody primer:

antibody

Antibodies attack pathogens in the blood; cytotoxic T-cells attack them in the cell

Antibody Types

  • IgG antibodies are ‘memory antibodies’ that travel through our system looking for evidence that a pathogen is present. Once your B-cells have mounted an attack against a pathogen, they are always present in our system. Therefore, IgG antibodies are not evidence of an ongoing infection.
  • IgM antibodies are attack proteins associated with a pathogen. High IgM titers to a viral protein generally reflect a primary infection.

With two types of antibodies being manufactured against a range of viral proteins the situation becomes complicated, but a healthy immune system should produce an array of both IgG and IgM antibodies that can detect (IgG) and inhibit (IgM) pathogens (found outside cells) at different stages of their lifecycles.

As they dug deeper, the German researchers found holes in the immune response to EBV in ME/CFS patients.

Immune Holes to Epstein-Barr Virus Found

Immune Hole #1 – reduced antibody response

Evidence of a impaired B-cell response to EBV first came in the form of missing IgG antibodies to VCA and EBNA in 13% of ME/CFS patients compared to 4% of controls. This indicated that 13% of their ME/CFS study population did not have some of the memory B-cells needed to detect an EBV infection.

Increased IgM antibody responses in ME/CFS (17.5% in ME/CFS vs 4% in controls), on the other hand, suggested active and perhaps primary EBV infections were more commonly found in ME/CFS patients.

All told, 30% of the ME/CFS patients either had reduced IgG (EBNA-IgG) or increased IgM (VCA) responses to EBV.

That finding prompted a deeper look, and a much larger study that found no IgG response to a protein expressed during latency by EBV (called EBNA-1 protein) in 10% of IgG positive ME/CS patients. This indicated that the immune systems of approximately 10% of the ME/CFS group were unable to detect a very early stage of EBV latency.

EBV

The EBNA-1 protein featured in many of the tests helps EBV maintain its latency in B-cells

Latency – For EBV to maintain itself in the body over time, it needs to be able to maintain itself in B-cells in a process called latency. EBNA-1 is a protein that helps maintain EBV’s viral genome in the earliest stages of latency.

The authors noted that people with severe infectious mononucleosis and chronic active Epstein-Barr virus disease have similar findings (although it’s not clear why, given that EBNA-1 is not involved, so far as we know, in replication).

That brings up the question of how many people with ME/CFS would have fit into the category of severe mononucleosis at the time they got ill. The Dubbo studies found that more severe infections greatly increase the risk of coming down with ME/CFS.

Immune Hole #2 – reduced frequencies of two B-cell antibody producing cells

Intrigued by the findings, the German researchers dug deeper into the immune response to EBV. They took blood (PBMCs) from ME/CFS patients and then stimulated it with CpG, SAC, and PWM for seven days, and found reduced frequencies of B-cells producing antibodies against VCA and EBNA-1, and for the first time they found evidence of immune deficiencies in most people with ME/CFS.

No less than 59% of ME/CFS samples had a diminished response to a later stage EBV protein (VCA) produced during the late stage of lytic replication, and a whopping 76% of ME/CFS samples had a diminished response to the EBNA-1 protein. With the VCA finding we have evidence suggesting many people with ME/CFS may have trouble controlling EBV replication.

Calling the findings ‘remarkable’, the authors suggested that either the memory B-cells associated with these EBV antigens had been lost or had failed to develop into antibody-secreting cells.

Immune Hole #3 – Reduced T-cell response to EBNA-1

A similar deficiency in the T-cell response to EBNA-1 indicated that both arms of the adaptive immune response to Epstein-Barr Virus, the B-cells and the T-cells, had difficult recognizing and responding to this protein.

Citing other disorders such as HIV, they suggested that persistent EBV reactivation in ME/CFS had driven the T-cell response in ME/CFS into ‘exhaustion’. (A similar suggestion has been made with regard to natural killer cells that attack pathogens early in an infection, which use killing methods similar to those employed by T-cells.)

Further analysis suggested that T-cell suppressor cells which decrease B-cell responses were not responsible for the B-cell suppression found. Normal B-cell responses to herpes simplex and cytomegalovirus suggested that the deficient B-cell responses were associated with EBV and not other herpesviruses.

cytotoxic T-cell

Lower cytotoxic T-cell responses to EBNA-1 could be associated with an increased risk of autoimmune disorders

Immune Hole #4 – reduced T-cell response to EBNA-1, reduced T-cell responses to EBV

Next they explored T-cell induced cytokine production. The T-cells should produce an array of cytokines against EBV. About 20% fewer ME/CFS patients (70% of controls vs 50% of ME/CFS patients) were able to mount an IFN-y response against EBV.

Looking specifically at the latency associated EBNA-I protein, they found the startling result that no ME/CFS patients mounted an IFN-y response against it.

They also found that ME/CFS patients produced significantly lower amounts of the pro-inflammatory cytokine TNF-a in response to EBV. Finally, a lower percentage of patients produced IL-2 as well. The reduced cytokine production suggested cytotoxic T-cells, one of the big guns of the adaptive immune response, were not being strongly activated in response to EBV.

Immune Hole #5 – Reduced frequencies of EBNA-1 specific T-cells

The researchers dug deeper still. Next they stimulated the blood (PBMCs) of ME/CFS patients and healthy controls (n=40) with the EBNA-1 protein, expanded the cells in the presence of IL-2 and Il-7, and then checked the T-cell response to them. Specific types of T-cells should be produced to attack EBV, but reduced frequencies of EBV-specific T-cells occurred in about 50% of the ME/CFS samples. That again suggested the cytotoxic T-cell response to the EBNA-1 protein was substantially reduced in ME/CFS.

Direct Evidence of Active EBV Infection

“Remarkably, in line with this finding we could provide evidence of enhanced viral load of EBV by detection of EBV DNA in a significantly higher proportion of patients compared to healthy controls.” The authors

Using a real-time PCR test in the whole blood that looked for ‘low-copy’ numbers (<1,000-2930 copies/ml) they found evidence of increased EBV viral load in 7.2% of 290 ME/CFS patients. When they dug deeper and did the same test in PBMCs in a subset of patients, they found that a whopping 55% of patients (vs 13% of controls) tested positive for EBV.

The viral loads were far below those found in other EBV associated illnesses such as infectious mononucleosis or post-transplant EBV infections, and there was no evidence of lytic replication (i.e., full replication of the virus), but something the authors called ‘latency-associated replication’ was common in people with ME/CFS, yet not in healthy controls.

The Lipkin Study

Using PCR the German researchers found much higher rates of EBV infection in PBMCs vs whole blood and no evidence of EBV infection in plasma.

plasma-blood

Was looking for EBV in plasma somehow a mistake?

Neither the Lipkin CFI ME/CFS pathogen study nor the CFIDS Association of America BSR study found evidence of EBV infection in ME/CFS. According to Russell Fleming’s transcript of the Lipkin talk, the CFI study looked in the plasma of both the Montoya and the ME/CFS experts’ samples.

Whole blood contains plasma, red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Plasma makes up 55% of blood volume and contains water (90%), proteins, nutrients, waste products, clotting factors, hormones and carbon dioxide. It does not contain red or white blood cells or thrombocytes.

EBV DNA has certainly been found successfully in plasma before and plasma has been used to track EBV activation. Serum/plasma EBV PCR kits are available for purchase. Researchers search and find EBV in plasma frequently.

Dr. Chia, however, reportedly stated he believes the use of plasma rather than blood was a serious mistake, and the Germans were able to find evidence of EBV activation in blood but not in plasma.

EBV (and CMV and HHV-6) are ‘cell-associated viruses. The only times their DNA escapes the cells is when the cell dies (and the DNA goes into the plasma) or when the virus is replicating. Otherwise the virus sits in a latent or semi-latent state in the cells
Medical dogma states if you can’t find EBV in the plasma, the infection is not active. EBV DNA can be found in the plasma when EBV replication rates are high, as sometimes occurs in transplant patients, but it’s not likely to be found in the smoldering infection believed present in ME/CFS. Many researchers do not accept the idea of a smoldering infection that pumps out proteins which trigger an inflammatory response.

The German researchers are deepening their study of EBV and ME/CFS and currently evaluating antibody responses against a broader variety of EBV peptides derived from 8 different proteins. They are also quantifying the levels of memory B-cells targeting EBNA-1 and VCA.

Conclusion

“We think the altered pattern of the specific immune response to EBV may be suitable as a diagnostic marker for CFS.” Authors

ball of string

The harder they looked, the more they found …

It was if these researchers kept pulling a string that got longer and longer. First their interest was piqued by some paradoxical antibody findings, then they found widespread deficiencies in some antibody responses and T-cell responses, and finally they saw evidence of an active EBV infection in the blood of 55% people with ME/CFS (vs 7% of controls).

Much is still unclear. The EBNA-1 protein that the immune systems of ME/CFS patients had trouble responding to is associated with ‘early latency’, not EBV replication. The authors’ reference to ‘latency associated replication’ is unclear given that latency is not usually associated with replication. When asked what importance their findings have for EBV reactivation or EBV survival or  more severe casesof infectious mononucleosis in ME/CFS, the authors stated they can’t answer those questions yet.

Some researchers believe, however, that reduced cytotoxic T-cell responses to EBV increase the risk for autoimmune disorders. (We’ll be covering that possibility in the next blog.) These findings also suggest that the proposal by Lerner and the OSU group of Drs. Ariza, Glazer, and Williams that an abortive lytic process (smoldering EBV infection) is present in many people with ME/CFS may be correct.

While it will take more work to determine what these findings mean for ME/CFS,  the broad range of dysfunction  found and the high rate of active EBV infection (in plasma) would appear to put this pathogen back into play in a meaningful way in ME/CFS.

Simmaron’s Immunology Workshop at IACFS/ME: Redefining How Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Is Diagnosed and Treated

Immunology Primer For Practitioners

I’ve been going to IACFS/ME conferences for eight years now and I’ve never seen a Workshop like this. This is a Workshop that could change how Chronic Fatigue Syndrome patients are tested and treated in the upcoming years. Called the “Immunology Primer for Practitioners“, it’s chaired by Dr. Daniel Peterson.

key

Standard immune tests for ME/CFS patients could change viewpoints and unlock new treatment opportunities for many.

It’s mission: to produce bulletproof recommendations for immune tests that will guide both the diagnosis and treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome. Doctors are interested, patients are surely interested, and Dr. Unger from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is interested, so Simmaron Research is seizing the moment.

Recognizing the opportunity and realizing that a consensus recommendation of experts would carry the most weight, Simmaron gathered 12  experts (sponsoring half of them), including nine immunologists, to produce ironclad recommendations.

Redefining ME/CFS Indeed

The Simmaron Research Foundation is committed to ‘Scientifically Redefining ME/CFS’ and  few things could change the landscape more rapidly for patients than the CDC including immune tests in its ME/CFS management guidelines.

We know common blood tests reveal little or nothing about ME/CFS, but  immune tests may not only be very revealing, but may open the door to a new conception of ME/CFS in the medical community, and to a whole swath of treatments most MD’s know little about.

Producing Real Change

vision

Simmaron is committed to funding work that alters how the medical profession sees and treats ME/CFS

In order to produce real change you need to get at the ‘levers of power’ and, like it or not, the CDC is one of those levers. The CDC is trusted by gatekeepers in the medical field. It’s recommendations matter. As we know, for better (in this case) or for worse (in the past), they get spread around.

Dr. Unger’s interest in immune test recommendations from ME/CFS experts is just the latest in a series of transformative moves at the CDC.  Instead of holding ME/CFS experts at arm’s length, Dr. Unger has embraced them. She has visited many of the experts’ centers, and her multi-year, multi-site clinical assessment study is bringing the insights of ME/CFS experts to the fore at the CDC and other agencies for the first time.

The Latest in Immune ME/CFS Research

Besides the recommendations, the Workshop will provide education for clinicians on the immune system in ME/CFS, overviews of immune findings, and insights into cutting-edge ME/CFS immunological research. We will hear highlights from the Australian NCNED teams intense focus on natural killer cells, learn what the  CDC is currently researching, uncover what very severely ill ME/CFS patients’ immune system looks like, understand how herpesvirus infections might be linked to autoimmunity and more.

The immune system features prominently in this years IACFS/ME Conference

The immune system features prominently in this years IACFS/ME Conference

Underscoring the strong immunological focus in this IACFS/ME Conference, Dr. Peterson’s session follows an opening presentation by Dr. Ian Lipkin.  Dr. Lipkin described evidence of “ongoing stimulus to the immune system” and a different immune profile  patients ill less than 3 years have compared to long term patients last fall on a conference call hosted by Dr. Unger.

Dr. Klimas’ panel the next day will go deep on “The Latest Research in Immunology”, including results from Dr. Lipkin’s collaborative research, the CDC’s genomic study, and Dr. Marshall’s natural killer cell research. Her panel follows the Plenary Session with Dr. Noel Rose, Director of the Center for Autoimmune Research at Johns Hopkins.

It is a pivotal time in ME/CFS, and immunity and autoimmunity are coming into focus. Simmaron seeks to take these groundbreaking sessions into clinical practice with consensus.

Simmaron Research Foundation Moving Forward

Yes

Redefining ME/CFS step by step

This is just one of the Simmaron Foundation’s efforts to redefine Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by taking advantage of the expertise and experience of Dr. Peterson and his fellow practitioners.

That effort began with Dr. Peterson’s retrospective analysis of treatment success using Vistide in selected patients and will continue with further analyses of the effects of other immune-based treatments, like IVIG and Ampligen.  Dr. Peterson will also be participating in the B-12/MFTHR trial this spring.

In order to address a critical need for more expert  ME/CFS clinicians the Simmaron Foundation has also funded a practitioner to learn from Dr. Peterson. Bringing expertise and research to patient care is Simmaron’s mission.

Support the Simmaron Research Foundation’s Work to Scientifically Redefine ME/CFS

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“Immunology Primer for Practitioners” Panelists

  • Daniel Peterson, M.D., Owner, Sierra Internal Medicine, Incline Village, NV, Simmaron Research Scientific Advisor
  • Sonya Marshall – Gradisnik, BSc (Hons), Ph.D. , Professor of Immunology, Director, National Centre for Neuroimmunology & Emerging Diseases, Griffith University, Australia
  • Sharni Hardcastle, Ph.D., Research Assistant and Practical Demonstrator , Bond University, Gold Coast, Australia
  • Nancy Klimas, M.D. Ph.D., Professor of Medicine and Director, NSU COM Institute for Neuro-Immune Medicine Director, Miami VAMC Gulf War Illness and ME/CFS Research Program
  • Paula Waziry, Ph.D, Assistant Professor, Neuro Immune Medicine, COM, Nova Southeastern University, Miami, Fl
  • Konstance Knox, Ph.D., Founder, CEO, Coppe Healthcare Solutions
  • David Baewer, M.D. Ph.DMedical Director, Coppe Healthcare Solutions
  • Isabel Barao, Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor, University of Nevada, Reno, Simmaron Research Scientific
  • Gunnar Gottschalk, B.S., Simmaron Research, Incline Village, NV
  • Troy Querec, Ph.D., Associate Service Fellow, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA
  • Dennis Mangan, Ph.D., Former Chair, Trans-NIH ME/CFS Research Working Group, Office of Research on Women’s Health, U.S. National Institutes of Health
  • Mary Ann Fletcher, Ph.D., University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Professor of Medicine, Microbiology/Immunology and Psychology
  • Elizabeth Unger, M.D. Ph.D., Chief, Chronic Viral Disease Branch, Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA

 

 

 

Michael VanElzakker Ph.d Talks – About the Vagus Nerve Infection Hypothesis and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)

 An Interview with Michael VanElzakker Ph.d

light bulb

Van Elzakker’s hypothesis could explain several of the mysteries associated with chronic fatigue syndrome

Michael VanElzakker’s Vagus Nerve Infection Hypothesis (VNIH) for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome may be the most intriguing hypothesis to come along in the last twenty years.  If it’s correct it could explain several mysteries including how a virus might trigger the disease and then seemingly disappear, why the Lipkin study failed to find an active infection, why cytokine studies have trouble finding evidence of the ‘never-ending cold’, why when antivirals work they often take so long to do so.

It’s raised a lot of interest. Now Michael VanElzakker ‘sits down’ and answers some questions about it.

Background

What is your background? When did you get interested in this subject and start  developing this hypothesis? 

I am a neuroscientist. I mostly focus on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which I consider to be very different from CFS and a separate arm of my research interests (although there are many interesting overlaps between the views of CFS and PTSD within our culture).

sick person

A sick friend prompted his interest in this disorder

However,  I got my bachelor’s and master’s at the University of Colorado – Boulder, at a time when the Psychology & Neuroscience department there was very focused on psychoneuroimmunology-related phenomena. Some of the many research programs there related to neuropathic pain, cytokines, and the vagus nerve. All it took was for someone who was thinking about CFS to be exposed to these different literatures and to start fitting them together.

I started thinking about CFS because I have a sick friend. She got sick back when CFS was viewed even more skeptically than it is today – I remember one MD referring to it as “yuppie flu.” I knew that my friend was not malingering – why would she be? She had to put her life on hold. It was pretty devastating.

The focus on the vagus nerve is simply because that organ is responsible for symptoms during “normal illness” that strongly overlap with CFS symptoms.

Testing the Theory

Apparently imaging techniques are not able yet to find localized infections in the vagus nerve. How far are they from being able to that? Is there interest in developing those kinds of techniques?

You reported that  PET scans have shown ‘promise’ in identifying activation of the microglia – a prominent part of your theory. (The VNIT proposes chronic microglial activation causes the vagus nerve to send signals to the brain that result in flu-like symptoms.)  It seems that we could settle the VNIH theory right now if PET scans showed clusters of infected areas around the vagus nerve. How effective are PET scans at doing something like this now?

I’ll answer these two questions together. As far as the effectiveness of PET scans finding local vagus infection: We don’t know. That’s part of what my group is trying to work on. There are a lot of technical problems that will require pilot testing.

PET Scan

Most PET scans are done of the brain. VE would like to do one further down in the vagus nerve area

One of the big problems is that PET scans cost thousands of dollars per hour. It’s difficult to convince funding agencies to give us money to pilot test a method so that we can even begin to ask questions about a hypothesis that may or may not be accurate. But I’ve got some really good people on my team and we’re working on it.

There’s interest because of this hypothesis, but most imaging of the vagus nerve thus far has been at the level of the brain, trying to understand the mechanism of vagus nerve stimulation for epilepsy or depression. We’re trying to image it farther down.

If someone made an animal model of the hypothesis, that would help raise interest. I laid out a protocol in the paper for creating an animal model; I hope somebody with a rat lab takes the idea and runs with it. I’m not jealously guarding these ideas, I put them in the paper in the hopes that other groups would work on them too.

You suggested that future CFS research  use radiolabeled antibodies to localize clusters of specific virus types. This is done to find tumors. Is it possible to radiolabel antibodies so that they pick up clusters of infection in the body?

Yes, it is. But there are several problems to this with regards to the VNIH of CFS. One is that antibodies are specific, but CFS could be caused by a number of different pathogens. So, we could flood someone’s body with radiolabeled antibodies against HHV-6, but maybe in that specific case, their symptoms are caused by HHV-4 (Epstein–Barr).

Another problem is that some of the pathogens that might be most likely to cause CFS are found in the vast majority of humans. So, radiolableled antibodies against HHV-1 would find a signal in most people, but only cause CFS if the viruses are in a vagus (para)ganglion. And the vagus nerve is so highly branched, that could be all over the trunk. Another problem is that antibodies cannot always get inside ganglia, which are immunoprivileged. But despite all of that, I still think it’s a research program that is worth pursuing.

Treatment

Herpesviruses apparently love to set up house in the sensory ganglia, but you suggest that antiviral drugs might have trouble getting to them and destroying them there. Why is that?

drugs

Antivirals may take much longer to work in ME/CFS because they have difficulty accessing the vagus nerve where the viruses are present

Similarly to how the central nervous system has a blood-brain barrier (BBB), peripheral nervous system ganglia are immunoprivileged. According to the hypothesis, the frequent failure of drug therapy and also one’s own immune system to eliminate infections within vagal ganglia and paraganglia is just like how some drug doses and antibodies do not penetrate the BBB.

You noted that behavioral/stress management therapies such as CBT are moderately effective in about 30% of people with chronic fatigue syndrome, and that CBT resulted in lower viral loads and improved immune functioning in HIV. Why would this be?

Stress causes a cytokine response. So, if someone who doesn’t like public speaking is giving a presentation, their immune system is generating a cytokine response. If such a person even thinks about giving a presentation, they are likely to generate a cytokine response.

People with CFS have an authentic reason to be concerned about any activity that requires physical exertion, and it’s called post-exertional malaise: worsened symptoms after exertion.

According to the vagus nerve infection hypothesis (VNIH), there is a physiological reason behind post-exertional malaise: Exercise provokes muscle tissue to produce the proinflammatory cytokine IL-6, which would then exacerbate the ongoing  local cytokine response within vagus nerve ganglia or paraganglia. That’s the hypothesized mechanism behind post-exertional malaise.

The CBT practitioners in the infamous PACE study were focused on avoidance/fear of activity because they began with the assumption that CFS is psychological. They think the fear of activity itself is the cause of CFS; I’d say that fear of activity is justified, but like all fear, it can become dysfunctional. For the vast majority of their patients, CBT did not help. The three out of ten that found some slight improvement may have used CBT to figure out exactly what level of activity they should be worried about. So, the moderate improvements they reported in a minority of patients were probably related to stress reduction.

In patients with HIV, reducing something like stress that taxes the immune system is bound to help a little bit.

I understand that this is a really charged topic among CFS advocates, and there is a lot of misinformation out there. Just to be clear, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) does not get at the root cause of CFS. CBT offers coping strategies and is not a cure. But I can’t think of a single medical condition that isn’t exacerbated by stress. CFS is no different. Having a chronic illness is stressful and it makes one’s life complicated and there’s a grieving process. CBT is for those parts of the illness. It’s intended to help people solve problems and to challenge dysfunctional patterns. If you’re seeing a CBT practitioner who views CFS as a psychologically-based illness and is approaching your CBT that way, fire them. Find someone else.

While CBT can help people with serious and chronic medical problems, it should be used as an adjunct and not a primary treatment. It would be crazy, for example, for a doctor to prescribe CBT instead of chemotherapy for cancer. But chemotherapy is a known, empirically tested treatment for cancer. CFS doesn’t have such a thing yet.

stress

Behavioral practices like CBT that reduce stress can be helpful in immune mediated diseases such as HIV and ME/CFS, but are adjunct, not primary therapies

Without a cure, the next best thing is to focus on quality of life. I am very much focused on finding an explanation for CFS, which would then lead to a cure. I have hypothesized that CFS is a neurological illness triggered by a foreign pathogen infecting the vagus nerve. But the fact is that stress has profound impact on immune system function. CBT for CFS patients can reduce stress, which is one mechanism of action to improve symptoms.

I should also say – CBT sometimes gets conflated with graded exercise therapy as well. Some studies have combined these two techniques but they are not the same thing. In the paper I gave an example of a treatment regimen that included graded exercise therapy.

Again, to be clear, if the VNIH is correct and some combination of glial inhibitor, antivirals and vagus nerve stimulation can be used to quell symptoms, then and only then does it make sense to begin graded exercise therapy. At that point, the root cause of CFS symptoms has been dealt with, and the next priority is to deal with muscle deconditioning which is not an insignificant factor in ongoing symptoms.

I absolutely do not condone forcing still-sick patients to exercise if it’s making their symptoms worse. This should be obvious.

Others

The heart rate variability evidence suggests the parasympathetic nervous system (vagus nerve) is under-activated in ME/CFS while the sympathetic nervous system is over-activated.  The SNS activation, in fact, may be due to the PNS’s inability to rein it in.  The increased heart rate at rest, for instance, could be due to be due to the inability of the vagus nerve to slow it down. In your theory, though,  the vagus nerve appears to be activated by the localized infection.  I’m a bit confused.

ANS

Is an infection contributing to the autonomic nervous system problems in ME/CFS?

This has to do with the fact that the vagus nerve is a mixed cranial nerve, meaning it has both sensory (afferent, or towards the brain) and motor (efferent, or away from the brain) divisions. Its parasympathetic influence over the body results from efferent activity; its function in detecting peripheral infection and triggering sickness behavior results from afferent activity.

However, terms like over-active and under-active are a bit too simplified – what matters is that the nerve is able to respond and signal appropriately, to be able to create a functional signal-to-noise ratio.

Researchers have been looking for cytokines in ME/CFS for decades. Sometimes they find them, sometimes they don’t. When they do find them sometimes research groups find similar cytokines and sometimes they don’t. The one constant is that they keep looking. You mentioned that lung infections are also not associated with increased cytokine levels in the blood.  Are there many other infections like this?

Well, to be more accurate, it’s not necessarily that lung infections won’t show a cytokine response in the blood. It’s more that we cannot be certain to find a cytokine response from a local infection – that is, any local infection. If a lung infection were severe enough, you might find cytokines in the blood. Cytokine studies are quite prone to false negatives, and it’s a mistake to infer from a negative cytokine blood test that there is no cytokine response happening anywhere in the body.

In studies that look for cytokines in blood, there are 3 relevant questions:

  1. Is there any cytokine response in the first place?
  2. Did that cytokine response diffuse into peripheral blood?
  3. Did the method of detection work?
IL-1B

VE notes the difficulties present in finding a cytokine response in an infectious disease

The question we’re interested in is #1, however it’s a big assumption that the answers to #2 and #3 are “yes” when we infer from a negative blood test that there is no cytokine response.

Those of us who think that CFS is not psychologically-based tend to think there’s an immune dysfunction of some sort. People have been looking for cytokines because they are an obvious potential link between the immune system and CFS symptoms, but a lot of studies have ignored how cytokines work.

If a research group is unfamiliar with the cytokine literature they may have also made some easy mistakes in the cytokine assay – the actual lab methods for looking for these proteins.

For example, cytokines are relatively labile, meaning unstable. If someone who didn’t know any better stored their blood samples in a refrigerator instead of a -80° freezer, you can bet they did not find cytokines. If blood samples went through freeze-thaw cycles, the cytokines will also start to denature (break down). There are definitely a lot of really good researchers who have looked into cytokines, but the literature can get muddied pretty easily by bad studies. And because the symptoms are systemic, most people have been thinking in systemic terms (i.e., not thinking about a localized infection causing CFS).

In general, I’m skeptical of any attempts to find a “cytokine profile” for CFS or any other infectious disease. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it’s difficult. Cytokine responses are very complex, they interact with each other and they change in daily and hourly rhythms. You could study one individual and not find a “cytokine profile” unless you took several samples a day for many days.

Response to the Hypothesis and the Future

This is a really intriguing theory. Kristin Loomis of the HHV-6 Foundation was excited by it.  Have you gotten much response from it? 

I’ve actually been really pleasantly surprised by the response. I’ve had the idea for quite a long time, and spent a lot of time and effort trying to set up a collaboration with a rat lab, to create an animal model. To make a very long and frustrating story short, nothing worked out.

people networking

The response to VE’s hypothesis has been very positive; he is working on putting a study together to test his hypothesis

I’ve been telling anybody who would listed about the hypothesis. It’s not like doors were getting slammed in my face, but most people simply didn’t have a background in the different literatures that the hypothesis ties together.

It wasn’t until recently that I discovered this unique journal, Medical Hypotheses, so I made some time to write up the idea. It gave me a forum to really give people the background they needed to understand the idea, and allows people to check the citations themselves. Based on past experience, I thought I’d have to keep cold-calling researchers to push the hypothesis. But it really took off right away.

I put it up online for free, and it’s been downloaded over 1000 times there; I don’t know how many people have downloaded it from the publisher through a university or hospital subscription. I’ve heard from researchers from 5 continents. Somebody translated the paper into Dutch and put it up online.

The week the paper came out, Anthony Komaroff contacted me, we’ve been in contact since. He finds the hypothesis to be “provocative and plausible” and shares my hope that functional imaging can help to shed some light on it. I’ve been in contact with a lot of other well-known CFS researchers, and I think the idea is at least changing the way that some people think about the problem.

VanElzakker

Van Elzakker will be at the IACFSME conference with a poster presentation of his hypothesis

I also know that the paper is already being taught at some universities and medical schools, so hopefully it will at least get young scientists to start thinking about CFS. I hope people start to think about new CFS findings through the lens of this hypothesis because in my experience, it explains a lot of phenomenology.

Even if the hypothesis doesn’t turn out to be accurate, or is only partially accurate, I hope that it gets us closer to effective treatments that are actually attacking the root causes of CFS symptoms and not just helping people cope with them.

Some reports suggest you’re engaged in a pilot study. Can you comment on that?

On the record, I’d just say that I’ve put together a really great team to pursue the VNIH and that Dr. Komaroff is part of it. There are a lot of technical issues but we’re hoping to use functional imaging to gain enough preliminary data that we can pursue it further.

 

 

One Theory To Explain Them All? The Vagus Nerve Infection Hypothesis for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Big Theory

It could explain the Chronic Fatigue Initiatives pathogen study results.  It could show how an infection could cause chronic fatigue syndrome, and then seemingly disappear.  It integrates two of the biggest players in ME/CFS; the autonomic nervous system and the immune system. It focuses on the herpesviruses. It includes sensory nerves, an increasingly hot topic in ME/CFS/FM, and it follows an  established model of fibromyalgia.

light bult

If it’s correct VanElzakker’s hypothesis could explain a lot about chronic fatigue syndrome

It’s the Vagus Nerve Infection Hypothesis (VNIH) for chronic fatigue syndrome, and it could change how this disorder is viewed, researched and treated.

Created by Michael VanElzakker, a Tufts neuroscientist,  the VNIH proposes that nerve loving viruses trigger a difficult to detect  immune response which produces the fatigue and other symptoms present in chronic fatigue syndrome.

Location, Location, Location

VanElzakker proposes that an infection triggers ME/CFS, but if his theory is right the most important thing about that infection is not what it is but where it is.   That ‘where’  is the biggest nerve in the body; the vagus nerve – a ‘wandering nerve’ that stretches over much of our torso and sends its roots into most of the organs of the body.

The vagus nerve isn’t just any nerve; it’s the nervous system’s immune conduit to the brain. VE believes that an infection there doesn’t need to be large to cause havoc in the brain; it just needs to be present.

In some ways, vagus nerve appears, in fact, to be ripe for infection in ME/CFS. As it ‘wanders’ through the body it comes into contact with virus havens such as the esophagus, stomach, lungs and spleen, all of which have likely at one time or another harbored the herpesviruses (HHV6, HHV-5 [cytomegalovirus], HHV-4 [Epstein-Barr virus]) that have been thought to be associated with ME/CFS for decades.

Most humans carry several of these herpesviruses in latent form unless some stressor or biological event allows them to become reactivated.

virus

Van Elzakker suggests ME/CFS is caused by localized infections associated with the vagus nerve

VanElzakker believes that upon reactivation these viruses replicate and move outside the nerves where they run into glial cells that attempt to gobble them up.  The glial cells perk up remarkably in the presence of viruses, releasing all manner of pro-inflammatory and neuroexcitatory compounds (proinflammatory cytokines [IL-1B, IL-6, TNF-a], glutamate, prostaglandins, nitric oxide and free radicals. )

Receptors on the vagus nerve that sniff out these alarm signals tell the brain an infection is present, which then shuts the body down by sending out  signals  (fatigue, flu-like symptoms, pain, etc.) that slow the body down, tell it to stop moving, stop eating, stop thinking.

Because these infections are localized right on the main immune conduit to the brain, VanElzakker believes they don’t need to produce the outsized cytokine response researchers have been looking for.   All they need to do is tweak the vagus nerve and let it and the brain the do the rest.

You don’t need a ‘big’ infection to produce ME/CFS; all you need is a little infection  in the right place.

The Key Component – Glial Cells

The glial cells that surround and protect the vagus nerve are the key. Once thought to be mere structural scaffolding for the nerves, these cells  (e.g., astrocytes) are  now known to regulate nervous system signaling, a fact that’s been borne out in chronic fatigue syndrome’s sister disease,  fibromyalgia.

Immune system

VE believes pathogen triggered,but localized immune system activation around the vagus nerves may be causing ME/CFS

Glial cell  release of cytokines, glutamate, free radicals, etc.  in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord causes  increased pain sensitivity and allodynia in susceptible individuals. At some point the constant production of these excitatory substances  causes  a switch to get flipped sending the pain response spiraling upwards instead of shutting down.

At its most extreme (allodynia), the nervous system can interpret even the slightest touch as eliciting pain.   The pain response  system at this point, as VanElzakker, puts it,  has become, ‘pathological’.

That model of pain production has been solidly documented. VanElzakker proposes the same process  causing pain sensitization in the dorsal horn is  causing fatigue and other symptoms in chronic fatigue syndrome, except this time it’s associated with glial cells surrounding the vagus nerve.

A New Model of Fatigue

There is no  reason to suspect  that vagus-nerve associated glia would function any different than pain associated glia. VanElzakker

Nobody knows what a herpesvirus infection  of the vagus nerve would look like,  but VanElzakker doesn’t see any  reason it should look any different  from an infection in other parts of the body.

shingles

Herpesvirus infections of the trigeminal nerve cause shingles. Do herpesvirus infections of the vagus nerve cause chronic fatigue syndrome?

We know a  herpesvirus infection of your trigeminal nerve gets you shingles and chronic pain.  Researchers believe a chronic infection in the dorsal horn of your spinal cord will can  get you fibromyalgia and allodynia.  Would  an  infection of the vagus nerve get you sickness behavior and  chronic fatigue syndrome?

There’s a good chance it might.  Animal studies indicate that fatigue/flu-like symptoms go gangbusters when the vagus nerve gets infected. In fact, it’s  possible  the flu-like symptoms associated  with infections wouldn’t even exist without the vagus nerve.  Rodents with their vagus nerves cut don’t act sick even after they’ve been infected with a pathogen; the fevers, fatigue, the desire for isolation – are gone.

What if the vagus nerve receptors were…ceaselessly bombarded with these cytokines?  The symptoms of sickness behavior would be severe and intractable.

If the glial cells surrounding the vagus nerve function the same way they do in the dorsal horn, a lingering or even a ‘smoldering’ infection (aka Dr. Lerner’s theory), could trigger the similar type of hypersensitive reaction in the vagus nerve. In this ‘immune sensitization’ model, it takes only very small amounts of cytokines to trigger fatigue and flu-like behavior.

In fact, VanElzakker suggests chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia could both be ‘glial cell diseases’.

How to Have an Infection That Doesn’t Show Up in the Blood

“Cytokines Responding to a Local Infection Stay Local” VanElzakker

If VanElzakker is right, the  same group of viruses are wreaking  havoc in different locations in different ME/CFS patients.  The problem is it’s just darn hard to get at them.  You can’t find them in the blood and you sure as heck can’t biopsy the vagus nerve.

A series of fascinating studies exploring how central nervous system infections cause chronic nerve pain may, however, illuminate what’s happening in ME/CFS.  First, researchers mimicked a localized nervous system infection by dropping an HIV protein known to activate glial cells  into rodents’  spinal cord.

mouse

The vagus nerve is the immune conduit to the brain; mice studies suggest it plays a key role in producing ‘sickness behavior’

They found that the glial cells  reared up and starting producing pro-inflammatory cytokines to take care of the intruder. Not surprisingly,  the rodents looked and acted sick – the cytokines were doing their job to keep the animal down and isolated – but  no trace of those cytokines could be found  in their bloodstream.  Only if the animal’s spinal cord was sampled near where the ‘infection’ was  it possible to find any evidence of increased cytokine levels.

If VanElzakker is right, then blood  cytokine levels in ME/CFS are a function of where your vagus nerve is infected. If it’s infected in your  abdominal area, you might find cytokines in the blood, but it might be hard to find them in your spinal fluid. If your vagus nerve is infected near your brainstem you might find cytokines  in the spinal fluid, but you probably won’t find them in your blood.

Wherever the infection is there’s a good chance you may not find cytokines in the blood  at all.  This isn’t a  completely surprising fact or even restricted to the vagus nerve infections; cytokines in  mice with lung infections, for instance, showed up only when the lungs themselves were sampled.

Next Steps

VanElzakker suggests animal studies to better understand infections of the vagus nerve and to ultimately to build a chronic fatigue syndrome rodent model would be helpful.  Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be able to detect viral lesions in central nervous system tissues. It is not yet known if  PET scans can detect the activation of a different type of glial cells; the satellite glia that are in vagus nerve ganglia and paraganglia, but special PET scans might be able to be used to assess microglial activation.

Cadaver studies of people who had ME/CFS definitely aren’t his first choice, but they could find activated glia, inflammation and viral infections of the vagus nerve and associated structures.  Finally,  novel protocols should be developed to assess the vagus nerve and brainstem functioning in ME/CFS.  The severely ill should be given a prominent place in future studies.

 

prescription drugs

If VanElzakker is correct different treatments could be in store for people with ME/CFS

A New Treatment Approach

“Glial cell inhibitors could become standard treatment for CFS (caused by CNS vagus nerve infection)” VanElzakker

Glial Cell Inhibitors

If VE’s theory is correct then glial cell inhibitors to stop the immune activation, antivirals to attack the pathogens, vagus nerve stimulation and surgical alteration of the vagus nerve might be possible treatments sometime in the future.

Glial cell inhibitors have a good safety profile, have been helpful at curbing neuropathic pain and are not used much in chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia.

ibudilast

If VanElzakker is right then Ibudilast, a drug in clinical trials now for another disorder, is a possibility.

Ibudilast (AV411/MN166), a drug used mostly in Japan, knocks down glial cell activation by inhibiting the production of a proflammatory cytokine called macrophage-migration-inhibitory factor (MIF)  and TNF-a.  Reduced levels of TNF-a could provide a bonus by increasing the breakdown of  a excitatory neurotransmitter called glutamate that may be helping to keep your central nervous system on edge.

Ibudilast is also  known to have neuroprotective and vasodilative effects and is usually used to treat asthma and stroke. It’s ability to suppress glial cell activation has made it useful in the treatment of neuropathic pain, and it’s currently undergoing clinical trials to treat neuropathic pain in Australia.  Ibudilast can also prevent viral activation of the microglia.

The NIH is funding Ibudilast trials in the US to see if it’s effective against drug addiction. If successful the drug could be available here for off-label use in ME/CFS  in three or four years.

Other general microglial inhibitors exist (minocyline, pentoxyfilline, propentfylline) but have undesirable side effects.

Antivirals

Stopping glial cell activation may be easier than getting at the viruses themselves.  Herpesviruses living in the sensory ganglia may be protected from antiviral drugs and antibodies.  (One new herpesvirus drug may be coming on the market soon, however.) Alternately, viruses other than the herpesviruses could be infecting the vagus nerve.

Behavioral Therapy

VanElzakker also notes that while behavioral therapies are not curative and may only apply to a subset of patients, they can help moderate symptoms and improve quality of life in some.

Conclusion

The VNIT may be able to explain more puzzling aspects of chronic fatigue syndrome than any other.  Next up we talk with Dr. VanElzakker about how he got interested in ME/CFS and what his theory may mean for this disorder.

 

Big Antiviral Trial Could Usher in New Treatment Era for Fibromyalgia

 A New Approach to Fibromyalgia

Infections are a common trigger for fibromyalgia (FM), and fibromyalgia patients are experience many ‘sickness behavior’ symptoms, but we haven’t usually associated FM with viruses or immune system problems.

woman questioning

So it’s going to be Fibromyalgia that gets the really big antiviral trial ….

That’s been changing  recently. A immune biomarker has been proposed. Small fiber neuropathy - possibly caused by immune dysregulation – has been found. Dr. Dantini has been treating FM with antivirals for years.  The immune system’s starting to get some respect in FM.

Now, in a surprising twist, it’s going to be fibromyalgia rather than chronic fatigue syndrome, that’s getting the big, placebo controlled, double-blinded multi-center antiviral trial.

Last year we heard that Dr. William Pridgen in  Alabama was getting his ducks in a row for a major antiviral trial. Four weeks ago in an email exchange he confirmed that the money – $3.3 million dollars – all gathered from ‘angel investors’ is in  hand, and the four-month 143 patient trial began  in early October.

Pridgen’s Innovative Med Concepts biotech startup is producing the study.

A Different Path

The pathways researchers and doctors take to get to disorders like FM or chronic fatigue syndrome are nothing but diverse, and it’s worth taking a look at how Dr. Pridgen, a surgeon, came to fibromyalgia. (Dr. Julia Newton’s pathway to ME/CFS was through elderly people experiencing dizziness and, to her surprise, a great deal of fatigue.) Dr. Pridgen’s pathway to fibromyalgia was through the gut.

Pridgen saw a pattern emerge in his  treatment of thousands of patients with chronic gastrointestinal issues that intrigued him. A patient would get better, but then experience a stressful event that would send him/her back into the soup.  They would get better, but during the next relapse they would stay sick longer and their recovery period would be shorter. Eventually they would be sick all the time.

virus

Shorter and shorter relapses over time in his patients lead Pridgen to conclude that a virus must be involved.

The problem, he thought, had to be some sort of pathogen that was steadily increasing with every recurrence. Giving his patients antivirals helped, but problems remained. Then he found that adding an anti-inflammatory (which also had anti-viral properties) reduced their fatigue, gastrointestinal complaints, depression and anxiety markedly and improved their energy.

An observational study indicating that the combination drug approach had a 90% ‘efficacy rate’ led Pridgen to start a company, enlist investors and create the large treatment trial.

Pridgen’s theory fits glove and hand with several other fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue syndrome theories. As with Van Elzakkers’ vagus nerve infection theory for ME/CFS, Pridgen’s theory begins with a nerve loving virus that takes up residence – for life – in nerves in the sensory ganglia found across the body.

Instead of HHV6 or EBV Pridgen believes herpes simplex viruses, are the key in FM/ME/CFS. Other than a 1993 theory proposing herpes simplex virus was at play in ME/CFS, interest has been scanty. HSV-1’s ability to affect many of the genes and gene pathways suspected of playing a role in nervous system disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome and autism, however, lead one researcher to propose it could play a role in all of them.

HSV-1 has been found in the esophagus, stomach and duodenum of the gastrointestinal system. In fact, HSV-1 was proposed to  cause ‘recurrent functional gastrointestinal disorders’ such as IBS, as far back as 1996.

Pridgen’s patent application indicates that he believes that stressors and  peptides and hormones released by the sympathetic nervous system and HPA axis  set the stage for herpes simplex-1 reactivation. Pridgen proposes that repeated HSV reactivation can  kill the sensory nerve cells ( small fiber neuropathy?) and destroy part of the nerve ganglion.  (Stress induced HSV-1 reactivation has been documented in laboratory animal studies.)

Once  these neurons and ganglia are damaged, Pridgen believes they send out signals that ultimately muck up the pain processing centers in the central nervous system. The over-generation of neurotransmitters such as glutamate, Substance P, serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) involved in this process then causes central sensitization.

Antiviral Plus

Pridgen proposes to stop the viral reactivation and the central sensitization with antivirals; an approach that’s been tried before in chronic fatigue syndrome, but not in the way Pridgen’s doing it.

connections

Are two ‘antivirals’ better than one? We’ll find out sometime next year.

One of Pridgen’s patent applications suggests that one of his unique insights has been to combine valacyclovir (valtrex) with an anti-inflammatory, Celecoxib (Celebrex) that has antiviral properties.  Other combinations are being tested and Pridgen stated  they have not released the make-up of IMC formulation used in the trial. It’s not clear, then, what drugs at what doses were used in the study or which will prove most effective. 

Celexcoxib (Celebrex) is a non-steroidal antinflammatory (NSAID) COX-2 inhibitor usually used  in the treatment of osteoarthritisrheumatoid arthritisacute pain, painful menstruation and menstrual symptoms. It down regulates the activity of inflammation producing  cells.

Pridgen proposes that the  two drugs hit the virus at different stages of its life-cycle. Pummeling the virus with that one-two punch, he believes, will finally stop the virus from reactivating.

Pridgen and Duffy are looking for herpes simplex virus, but other herpes viruses could be affected by this treatment. We won’t know if they are until further studies are done.

Inflammation Gone Awry

Pridgen and his partner, molecular virologist, Carol Duffy will also attempt to develop a diagnostic test for fibromyalgia using cytokine arrays they believe will document high levels of  pro-inflammatory cytokines and low levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines.

Like VanElzakker, Pridgen believes the body is over-reacting to the virus.

“It’s basically exaggerating its reaction to the virus. Any little stress reactivates the virus, and, rather than the body saying, ‘Oh, this is just a virus I’ve been living with this since I was five,’ the body keeps saying, ‘Oh, my God,’ and throws on all this inflammation, and that gives these people this pain.”

“There is a theory that all pain, one way or another, is inflammation,” Duffy says. “It’s inflammation gone awry.”

Not just Fibromyalgia

Pridgen and Duffy have their eyes on more than Fibromyalgia.  Pridgen’s provisional patent proposes this treatment will work for chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, chronic headache, chronic neck pain, chronic back pain, chronic depression, chronic clinical anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), brain fog, cognitive dysfunction and chronic interstitial cystitis.

Celebrex – The Antiviral?

We don’t hear anything about Celecoxib as a virus fighter in ME/CFS, but some evidence suggests it could be efficacious against herpes simplex virus. The ability of COX-2 inhibitors to decrease prostaglandin production is believed to push the immune system towards a Th1 (antiviral) response and away from the Th2 response often found in ME/CFS.

stop sign

Pridgen believes Celexicob’s antiviral properties, in concert with Valtrex, will knock down the herpes viruses causing FM and ME/CFS

Celebrex was shown to reduce stress induced herpes virus reactivation in the nervous systems of mice.  Another study found that reactivation of HSV-1 in mice was associated with upregulation of COX-2 gene expression in their nerve ganglia.  HHV-6 can also induce COX-2 expression.  Both COX-1 and COX-2 are needed for viral replication.

(One mother found that VIOXX (now off the market) reduced her daughters IL-6 levels and eliminated the ‘panic attacks’  she’d experienced following a central nervous system infection.)

(Aspirin and flavanoids, vitamin E and fish oils also inhibit COX-2. The efficacy some ME/CFS patients experience from using omega-3 fatty acids could be due to antiviral effects.)

Tissue Biopsies

Along with treating the virus, Pridgen and his partner, molecular virologist Carol Duffy, will be using PCR to test for the virus, not in the blood, but in gut tissue samples.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Pridgen-Duffy study is the search for HSV-1, not in the blood, but in the tissues. We know the Chronic Fatigue Initiative’s Pathogen study  failed to find evidence of viral infection in the blood. Now, Pridgen and Duffy are testing gut samples for herpes virus simplex in their study.

First PCR will be used to search for herpesviruses in both the control and FM gut samples. Then antibodies will be used to determine if an active infection is present.  In subsequent studies, electron microscopy will look for the herpesviruses particles themselves.

In preliminary studies 18/19 fibromyalgia patients with gut issues contained herpes simplex virus DNA in their gut tissues. No other herpesviruses were found. Immunoblot testing indicated that an active infection was present in eight of nine positive biopises.

Dr. Pridgen reported in an email they are still trying to determine  the optimum doses and cautioned everyone to wait until the results of the phase three trial are done before starting this treatment.  He also stated he feels  they are ‘very close’ to helping many people with this condition.  The results of trial will be released mid-year, 2014. 

Conclusion

breakthrough arrow

A successful trial could usher in a new era of treatment for fibromyalgia and perhaps chronic fatigue syndrome

Pridgen and Duffy’s big multi-center antiviral trial in Fibromyalgia is nothing if not exciting in its scope and approach. Pridgen’s ability to come up with over $3,000,000 in startup funding suggests he and Duffy have got some solid data backing their trial up. .

If they results are positive, Pridgen and Duffy could usher in an entirely new way of treating both fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Aussie Immune Study Raises Questions About Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Research Definition

December 12, 2013

The more specific requirements of the ICC however, may select patients that are less clinically diverse. This could improve detection of immunological findings in CFS/ME.      

Study authors.

How much of a difference the International Consensus Criteria (or any definition) makes is a major question in chronic fatigue sDr. Marshall-Gradisnikyndrome.

Dr. Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik’s team in Australia, who just celebrated the grand opening of the National Centre for Neuroimmune and Emerging Diseases at Griffith Univeristy, examines this question in a recent study. Dr. Marshall is a leading ME/CFS researcher, as well as a member of Simmaron’s Scientific Advisory Board.

Proponents of using a more restrictive definition such as the CCC/ICC believe that winnowing out a homogeneous group in research studies  could be the key to figuring out ME/CFS.  Once ‘non-ME/CFS patients are eliminated, core factor will pop out and be quickly replicated.  It’s an enticing vision.

netOthers worry that a more narrowly focused group might miss some legitimate ME/CFS patients. The ‘wider net’ approach, may have been embodied in the ‘empirical definition’, which grabbed a large set of ‘CFS’ patients, from which subsets could conceivably have been winnowed.

This strategy would have the benefit of applying to a larger population (up to 4 million in the US), and might work well if the funds and will had been available. Without that commitment that  strategy runs the risk of producing almost meaningless results.

A recent publication by Dr. Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik’s team compares the immune functioning of ME/CFS patients meeting the International Consensus Criteria vs. those meeting the Fukuda/1994 CDC definition, giving us a start on determining the pros and cons of a more narrow vs. a broader approach to ME/CFS research.

Fukuda/1994 CDC Definition

The fact that few research papers in the last twenty years used something other than the 1994 Fukuda definition to define their participants means that virtually all the findings in ME/CFS from the natural killer cell dysfunctions to low blood volume to exercise intolerance, etc., have all been found using the Fukuda definition. By putting all researchers on the same playing field, the Fukuda definition has played an important place in the history of ME/CFS research, but its vagueness and its inability to highlight what many believe to be the key symptom in ME/CFS means it almost certainly allows several questionable subsets into research studies.

The Study

Sixty-three participants including 41 people with ME/CFS and 22 controls answered questionnaires and gave blood samples. The blood samples were assessed for immune functioning. All patients had been previously diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome at the National Centre for Neuroimmunology and Emerging Diseases, a top ME/CFS research lab (and soon to be clinic) led by Dr. Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik in Australia. (Dr. Marshall-Gradisnik serves on the Simmaron Research Foundation’s Board).

Results

The breakdown was fascinating. Seventeen people met the Fukuda criteria but not the ICC, and 18 people met both the ICC and the Fukuda criteria. Five people — over 10 percent — of the ME/CFS patients met neither criteria. This was one small study, but it did suggest that a large percentage of people that doctors identify with ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ may not meet the ICC, and another substantial subset may not meet either criteria. It does not bode well for a more restrictive approach to ME/CFS.

Natural Killer Cells

It was no surprise to see reduced NK cell functioning show up in both the ICC and Fukuda groups. This reduced natural killer cell functioning is believed to inhibit the ME/CFS patient’s ability to clear new infections and/or stop recurring infections. (Interestingly, reduced NK cell function was not associated with alterations in the cytotoxic factors – granzymes and perforin – that NK cells use to kill cells, as has been seen in the past. The authors suggested, however, that this might have been due to the small sample size.)

Immune Suppression Enhanced in the ICC Group

Both groups demonstrated immune suppression, but the immune suppression was significantly increased in the ICC patients. The increased prevalence of two inhibitory or suppressive immune factors in the ICC group suggested a) they were a distinct group, (b) the promise of more abnormalities showing up when a more restrictive definition was used was fulfilled and c) that their immune system was having more trouble than the Fukuda group’s in becoming properly activated. Treg or T regulatory cells or ‘suppressor’ T-cells are rather new to the scene in ME/CFS, but this is the third study showing significant increases in these cells. That suggests they may play an important role in chronic fatigue syndrome. High levels of Treg cells could be suppressing natural killer cell functioning in ME/CFS.

the word reduced

Both groups exhibited reduced immune activity, but more immune suppression was found in the ICC group

KIR Receptors – High levels of ‘KIR’ receptors on the NK cells of the ICC group (but not the CDC group) could further suppress NK cell function. The presence of two ‘profoundly’ inhibiting factors suggested the ICC group’s immune systems were getting particularly hammered. (Increased levels of an ‘activating’ NK cell receptor were also found. The authors felt this resulted from an attempt to balance the ‘overwhelming’ inhibitory signals from the two inhibitory receptors.) (Receptors on the surface of a cell greatly influence what the cell does. NK cells that are dotted with inhibitory receptors, for instance, can be easily turned off. Conversely, NK cells with few inhibitory receptors will be difficult to turn off.) The authors suggested, but could not prove, that the ICC group carried genes that promoted a tendency towards NK inhibition.

Hitting Home – Physical Functioning Affected

One of the vital questions regarding the abnormalities in ME/CFS is how much they matter. Ironically, THE immune finding in ME/CFS, poor NK cell functioning, didn’t pan out in this regard. While low NK cell functioning was associated with poorer health in the healthy controls, it didn’t appear, at least in this small study, to be correlated with poorer health in the ME/CFS groups. Decreased CD39+ and altered KIR receptors were, however, ‘strongly’ associated with poorer health in the ICC (but not the Fukuda delineated patients). This  suggested that immune suppression was having an impact in the ICC delineated patients.

Touchy Situation Ahead

The increased  amount of immune suppression in the ICC group suggested that the ICC criteria did select a more immune-challenged set of patients and that group should be set apart for separate study. The immune findings in the Fukuda group (low NK cell functioning/increased Tregs) were nothing to sneeze at, however. Plus, the high percentage (almost 50%) of patients meeting the Fukuda criteria, but not the ICC criteria indicated that group cannot be ignored. The ten percent of people with ME/CFS that met neither criteria suggested an important subset of people who are sick, but don’t meet either criteria, may be present. The fact that all the study participants were identified by ME/CFS researchers/doctors working at an ME/CFS lab suggested they were indeed ME/CFS patients. These researchers proposed that both groups should be included in studies. Since all the people that met the ICC also met the Fukuda/1994 CDC criteria, starting off with the Fukuda criteria and then examining the ICC criteria patients could achieve this.

Conclusion

“These findings are highly suggestive of a need to incorporate both the 1994 CDC and the ICC in future clinical research”

Study authors

With a new research definition coming up on the docket, it was good a see a study examining a prominent candidate — the International Consensus Criteria.

casting a net

With this study suggesting both definitions have merit, determining how wide or narrow of a net to cast in the research definition will not be easy.

The IOM contract for a clinical definition was really just a prelude to the big problem looming ahead, which is creating an appropriate research definition.

Since the research definition defines what types of patients participate in a study, its use can fundamentally alter how a disorder is viewed or researched.

The suppressive nature of the immune dysfunctions found in the ICC group suggested, to my mind, that they might be ‘Fukuda plus’ patients dogged by increased levels of immune suppression.

This study gave no clear answers. It suggested that patients that meet the Fukuda criteria but not the ICC criteria are an important subset of ME/CFS, but it also suggested that segregating patients meeting the ICC criteria could help uncover more immune abnormalities.

A Talk with Dennis Mangan, New Member of Simmaron’s Scientific Advisory Board

 Communication was central to all of our activities

My first memory of Dennis Mangan came at the end of a long day at a Federal Advisory Meeting for ME/CFS (CFSAC).  As the meeting broke up, Dennis strode over, pulled up a chair and motioned for everyone to gather around.  He asked what we thought needed to happen.  For the next hour  or so he sat and quietly, listening to stories of distress, frustration and hope.  Never had anyone from the National Institutes of Health attempted to get so close to the patient community. Changes, I thought, were surely in the wind.

Dennis-Mangan pci

Dennis Mangan created the State of the Knowledge Conference, created a Listserv, re-vitalized the CFS Working Group, changed the name and communicated, communicated, communicated during his time working on ME/CFS at the NIH

After that he started to act. He redid the NIH website, and they became the first federal agency to call chronic fatigue syndrome ‘ME/CFS’.  He started a Listserv to be in better communication; he enlarged and revitalized  the NIH Working Group  (they had their first meeting in a year). Soon we had State of the Knowledge Workshop – put together in collaboration with patients.   Throughout, Dennis was open and in communication, and the ME/CFS community embraced him.  It was like day and night at the NIH.

Dennis Mangan ended his career at the NIH as the head of the CFS Working Group at the NIH. You could argue that everything in his career lead him there, and that his experiences there have continue to inform his current activities.

With a Ph.D. in biology (dissertation – “Mannose sensitive interaction of Escherichia coli with human peripheral leukocytes in vitro“), Dennis did hard-core immune research for 15 years, before moving to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Resarch (NIDCR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

As director of the  Infectious Disease Program NIDCR Dennis engaged in numerous activities including identifying key research areas, designing major trans-NIH efforts on mucosal immunity, biofilms and the microbiome, leading the Human Microbiome Project, liasing with professional groups, developing funding opportunities, etc. A member of  Information Technology Advisory Committee, Dennis produced the first Listserv to provide infectious disease researchers with up to date  funding opportunities.

At the Office on Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) in 2009 Dennis developed strategic plans, identified opportunities for growth, etc., and chaired the NIH Working group on ME/CFS.   His commitment to open and effective communication was put to the test with a frustrated and often suspicious ME/CFS community that ended up embracing him.

Family issues prompted Dennis’s retirement, but he promised to stay engaged with the ME/CFS community, and he has. Now, as he joins the Scientific Advisory Board of the Simmaron Research Foundation, I asked him about the federal government and his work with Simmaron and the ME/CFS community.

Interview

“I never left” 

When you retired in late 2011 you promised to stay engaged with the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome community and you have. Since then  you’ve chaired a session at the FDA Workshop for ME/CFS, become an Advisory Board Member for the Stanford Chronic Fatigue Research Group, a Board Member for the IACFS/ME, and now the Simmaron Research Foundation.  That’s a lot of stuff. Am I missing anything?

That pretty much covers it.  In addition, since 2011, I took a variety of communication classes so that I might help scientists talk about their work with the public they serve and the people who support their research.  Public interactions, of course, have direct application to increasing the awareness of CFS and related disorders.

I give workshops in which the researchers learn to be more conversational, boil down complex data, explain their research briefly (elevator pitches), and talk about research in the form of stories instead of cold facts.  Improved communication will, I hope, help science become more transparent to everyone, including news media, legislators, funding agencies, administrators, donors, students, patients, family and friends.

I’m not sure helping out the sometimes surly ME/CFS community would fit into many people’s retirement plans.   You could surely have found easier subjects to be engaged with, yet you’ve committed a good chunk of energy to supporting this community.  Why? What has made you come back?

figures collaborating

Dennis Mangan’s forte has been bridging the gap between patient and researcher and bringing people together to work on disease.

I never left.  Helping connect the research scientists with the public has been my career for 30+ years.  There is much excitement and promise in what is happening in science right now (e.g., genomics, high throughput technologies, regenerative medicine, the microbiome, systems biology) and I see opportunities for that science to have direct impact on our understanding and treatment of CFS.  When I retired from civil service as an advisor to the NIH, I continued to talk with patients as well as researchers.  By learning more about how to communicate science to the public, I found a way to contribute to the progress in the CFS field.

You’re a past researcher, you’ve checked out the research on ME/CFS as well as disorders allied with it. Is there anything that really pops out for you? That says to you – this is what ME/CFS is all about?

Like many others, I am impressed with the findings related to disorders of the neuro-immune system and infectious diseases studies.  They seem to point to an abnormal response of the body to microbes (viruses or bacteria) that might ultimately serve as both biomarkers of disease and targets for treatment.   The similarity of some CFS features with other diseases suggests there might be common pathways.

My NIH colleagues and I strived for transparency in order to increase awareness for CFS at all levels of NIH leadership

You were the NIH representative and Chair of the ME/CFS working group at the NIH from 2010 to 2011 – a short time! – but you made a big impact. You enlarged the NIH Working Group on ME/CFS, created a Listserv, changed the name to ME/CFS, remade the NIH website, and communicated, communicated, communicated.  It seemed to me that you really had a vision that you wanted to accomplish and a big part of that involved communication. Can you speak about that?

NIH State of Knowledge cover pic

The State of the Knowledge Workshop on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was the first ME/CFS focused Workshop sponsored by the DHHS in almost 10 years.

Communication was central to all of our activities.  My NIH colleagues and I strived for transparency in order to increase awareness for CFS at all levels of NIH leadership, among researchers and within the patient/advocate communities.  We all wanted to advance the science of CFS and to translate basic laboratory research into clinical practice.

As experienced program directors at NIH, we knew that exchange of ideas and scientific debate moves research fields forward.  To that end, in cooperation with leadership at the Office of Research on Women’s Health and the Office of the Director, the Working Group designed a unique State of the Knowledge workshop on CFS in April 2011.

The intent was to bring together basic and clinical researchers from many disciplines to share their knowledge and help point to where future research was headed.  It truly was a workshop.  The meeting generated great discussions and some collaboration.  It also emphasized the need for access to common data that spawned the goal of a shared database of clinical information.

The database, which we referred to as the CASA (i.e., home) project, is currently under construction.  Simmaron Research, with its wealth of clinical data, is a participating contributor.

Simmaron’s openness to working with other researchers makes them a great partner in studying and treating CFS.

Why did you chose the Simmaron Research Foundation to work with?

The CFS groups that I work with have common features.  They all have a passion to solve the mysteries of CFS using the best scientific principles.  They all value collaborative and cross-disciplinary research.  Simmaron incorporates these values in all their work.   The group has limited resources but leverages what they have with other laboratories.  In particular some of their biospecimens reach back almost 30 years and when shared with others can have spectacular impact on medical discovery.

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Mangan cited Simmaron’s professionalism and willingness to creatively collaborate with other groups as two reasons for joining their board.

Although a small organization, Simmaron offers extensive clinical expertise and biospecimens for medical research.  Moreover, their clinics are designed to capture important information about CFS patients that could lead to better diagnosis and treatment.  I greatly admire their creative administrative structure, and the connection with a non-profit umbrella organization that maximizes resources and reduces operating expenses.

Simmaron’s openness to working with other researchers makes them a great partner in studying and treating CFS.  Simmaron is also committed to developing the next generation of CFS clinical researchers and has established an advanced training fellowship program for physicians.  Moreover, Simmaron has helped increase public awareness for CFS in many public sectors.

 

To my knowledge, never before has CFS taken such a front stage position within the Department.

Dr. Wanda Jones told me earlier this year that significant shifts in the federal governments attitude towards chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) have occurred, but that we, for the most part, don’t see them, in part because of the ongoing budget situation. Is that your experience? Did you see shifts in how ME/CFS was viewed when you were there?

Wanda Jones was a terrific resource and a friend to me.  She worked tirelessly to connect the various DHHS agencies’ efforts to address the needs CFS patients and researchers.  She was always down to earth, direct and honest with me, and did not pander to anyone.  I used her passion as a building block for my efforts at the NIH.  We all wanted more funding for CFS research and to encourage more scientists from multiple disciplines to enter the field.

My guess is that the changes I saw happening at the NIH are also happening at the DHHS now.  Deputy Secretary Howard Koh and Nancy Lee, Director of the Office of Women’s Health, are keeping CFS on the “radar screen” at the DHHS.  Sometimes even within the government we don’t know what is happening at all the agencies.  Koh is working to increase transparency within the DHHS  (e.g., when I was there he hosted monthly teleconference calls among the heads of key agencies involved in CFS.)   To my knowledge, never before has CFS taken such a front stage position within the Department.

People with ME/CFS look at NIH funding and they, honestly, want to scream. They feel abandoned and angry at the little support the federal government gives to this disorder. It’s not as if we’re alone, though.  Fibromyalgia, IBS, interstitial cystitus and other ‘allied disorders’ also get funding that is out of sync with their prevalence and the degree of suffering they cause.  These are all complex disorders that primarily affect woman and cause a lot suffering but don’t usually cause death.  Why do you think these types of disorders receive low amounts of funding relative  to other chronic illnesses?

I know…I received a few of those screams directly…but they did not land on deaf ears!  We might be one experiment or observation away from a breakthrough in CFS and every experiment is important.  The key to scientific credibility is to have validated biomarkers and targets for treatment.

This is why the XMRV story went viral: we finally had a target.  As a result, funding for CFS spiked in 2009 and several grants were awarded to study aspects of XMRV.  If we could reduce the scientific complexity of CFS (e.g., by having good biomarkers and targets for treatment), I suspect that more researchers would want to invest a career in studying it.  Such knowledge breeds an intellectual feeding-frenzy for research, new researchers and more funded grants.

 The NIH never moves as fast as I would like.

microbiome project

Dennis Mangan played a key role in launching the Human Microbiome Project to study the microbial populations present in humans. If Dr. Ian Lipkin is correct, the the gut microbiome may play a crucial role in ME/CFS.

If there’s one thing you’d like people with ME/CFS to know about federal government and its approach to chronic illness what would it be?

Patience and persistence is necessary.  The NIH never moves as fast as I would like.  For example, in the late 1990s, I recommended NIH support more projects on high-throughput sequencing of microbes in order to advance our understanding of both pathogens and the microbes that normally colonize our healthy bodies.  NIH leadership, many of my colleagues and some researchers were reluctant to support such projects, labeling them as fishing expeditions in which massive amounts of data would overwhelm existing computer technology, and waste funds and resources.

It took me six years working with likeminded colleagues at the NIH and other agencies to finally see the Human Microbiome Project (HMP) get funded ($173+ million to date).   Today, the HMP project is generating new technologies (e.g., faster computing software and hardware), new hypotheses of diseases and conditions (e.g., a better understanding of how gut microbes are involved in allergies and obesity), and a new generation of infectious disease researchers (e.g., Ian Lipkin.)

What could the chronic fatigue syndrome patient community be doing better to get its needs satisfied?

I have found the patient communities to be thoroughly engaged and eager to learn more about the pathophysiology of CFS.  Past history makes it hard for some patients and advocates to have hope for government support for their illness.   “Hardliner” skeptics are eager to create conspiracy theories for everything.

However, many patients and I understand the value of scientific principles and debate.  We saw science work with XMRV.  Yet, while the debate was ongoing, theories of the government hiding data abounded as scientists worked on replicating experiments and getting the truth out about XMRV.

What patients might not realize is that researchers also need hope and encouragement to move forward.  I encourage all of us to offer researchers a few kind words of support and to inspire them to keep working on the illness.

Besides more funding, what could the federal government be doing better to satisfy the needs of the ME/CFS community?

Resources for scientific discovery come in various forms.  My colleagues on the Trans-NIH ME/CFS Research Working Group understand this very well.  Although funding is always at the top of our list, we recognize other ways to support CFS research.  This includes support for research conferences; increasing awareness of the illness in the government, the medical communities and general public; support for training and career development; and public-private ventures to leverage limited financial resources.

The reasons for the Institute of Medicine and NIH evaluation of case definitions still puzzle me

Diagnosis

Dennis Mangan hopes the IOM projects are laying the ground for larger future initiatives

How important would having a federally recognized clinical or research definition be? Would that open doors that are now closed?

I think clinical and research definitions are extremely important for the future of the study and recognition of CFS.  Having a diagnosis take months, and needing to exclude so many other diseases and conditions, stifles understanding of the etiology and pathogenesis of CFS.  The current definitions could greatly be aided by a biomarker, and, with more research, these are gaining validation.

The reasons for the Institute of Medicine and NIH evaluation of case definitions still puzzle me.  However, I do know that the government as a basis for larger initiatives sometimes uses such evaluation reports.  I remain hopeful that the DHHS has such initiatives awaiting the outcome of these reports.

Foremost Virus Hunter Finds Biomarkers, Few Viruses in Big Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Study

Dr.Ian Lipkin collaborated with Dr. Peterson, Dr. Klimas, Dr. Bateman and others

A Surprise Presentation

We will publish data very soon on biomarkers of cytokines. Our evidence now suggests there is ongoing stimulus to the immune system. Dr. Ian Lipkin

You don’t usually get study results in talks like the one put on by  the CDC yesterday but this time Dr. Ian Lipkin spilled the beans on the results from the big pathogen studies sponsored by the Chronic Fatigue Initiative (n=200) and Dr. Montoya (400).  (From notes taken on the talk)

Virus Study Results Revealed

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The Simmaron Foundation provided a rare resource: sixty cerebral spinal fluid samples

Viruses have always been the elephant in the room in ME/CFS; everybody has wondered about them but until the Chronic Fatigue Initiative came along, few major studies had been done.  This landmark  study, using the one of the top virus hunters in the world and epidemiologist  Mady Hornig, and containing hundreds of patients from ME/CFS specialists (Dr. Peterson, Klimas, Montoya, Levine, etc.) from across the country, sets a benchmark for pathogen research in ME/CFS.

A special feature of the study involved Simmaron Research’s spinal fluid samples. Called a ‘unique resource’ earlier by Dr. Mady Hornig, these samples allowed the researchers to get as close to the brain – long thought to be a key area in chronic fatigue syndrome – as they could.  And the spinal fluid results were spectacular.

The Studies

virus cartoon

This study funded by the CFI, using top labs, and involving hundreds of people with ME/CFS, is a benchmark in ME/CFS research.

The studies looked at both pathogen presence and  the immune response in hundreds of people with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Pathogens

  • First Phase – Screens for 18 specific pathogens already implicated in ME/CFS (herpesviruses, HTLV, enteroviruses, West Nile Virus, etc.) were done on blood from Montoya’s patients and the CFI’s group (Dr’s Peterson, Klimas, Bateman, Levine, etc.).  Dr. Lipkin was looking for the virus, not a indication it was present, but the virus itself. Any finding of a virus in the blood would indicate it was active.  The same screen was done on Dr. Peterson’s sixty spinal fluid samples.
  • Second Phase – The second phase involved sequencing all the DNA/RNA in the blood to identify  known and unknown viruses. Dr. Lipkin’s lab has been able to identify hundreds of novel viruses using this technique.
  • Third Phase – Any finds in the second phase are confirmed/denied by more accurate testing.

Immune Response

A ‘multiplexed immunoassay’ looked at 50 proteins associated with immune activation/inflammation and oxidative stress.

Active Viruses Strike Out

Four of the 285 ME/CFS blood  samples tested positive for HHV-6B.  One of the sixty spinal fluid samples tested positive for a virus (HHV-6B).  None of the other viruses commonly associated with ME/CFS (Epstein Barr-Virus, enteroviruses, the cytomegalovirus, etc.) commonly associated with ME/CFS showed up in the first pathogen screen.

The high throughput screening designed to look for any viruses including novel viruses drew a blank as well. Dr. Lipkin was confident in his results stating his lab had found over 500 new viruses using this technique.

Infections

Lipkin’s search for 18 viruses and for novel viruses in hundreds of people with chronic fatigue syndrome largely turned up empty

The  news – that fewer than 2% of patients  with infectious onset – tested positive for viruses in the blood was stunning but not without precedent.  Dr. Unger reported earlier that  the first stage of the CDC’s BSRI pathogen study  drew a blank.  A spinal fluid study also turned up no viruses, and PCR analyses done by the Dubbo group were unable to find evidence of a virus in their post-infectious cohort.

With two large sample sets turning up negative in the lab of one of  most acclaimed virus hunters on the planet, it’s probably safe to say that the hunt for an virus in the blood of people with ME/CFS is over.

(Lipkin did report 85% of pooled samples possibly showed evidence of a retrovirus but believes they will not be related to CFS. He also dismissed earlier rumors that a novel infectious agent had been found.)

Infectious Agent Still Proposed

That doesn’t mean an infectious agent is not involved. In  fact, Dr. Lipkin stated he didn’t doubt that an infectious agent was involved.  He didn’t say where and he didn’t say it was still present.  His allusion to the importance of finding evidence of a past infection (“researching the shadows”) suggested  he could  be leaning to the ‘hit and run’ hypothesis where a pathogen sweeps in, does its damage, and then gets removed by the immune system.

The Dubbo studies’ finding that high cytokine levels early in the infection were strongly associated with getting ME/CFS later on suggested an overactive immune system may have a blown a few fuses somewhere.

On the other hand, Dr. Lipkin specifically alluded to an ‘agent’ driving the immune activation he found in both the blood and spinal fluid of ME/CFS patients (but not the healthy controls).

Localized Infections Still Appear to Be a Possibility

Dr. Lipkin didn’t discuss this possibility. The blood is the most convenient place to search for an virus and active viruses usually do travel through the blood but central nervous system or localized infections may not show up in the blood or the spinal fluid.

Some evidence of localized infections in the gastrointestinal tract has been found in ME/CFS. A De Merileir team found evidence of HHV-6, EBV and parvovirus B-19 in 15-40% of gut biopsies. Eighty-two percent of stomach biopsies tested positive for a protein associated with enteroviruses in Dr. Chia’s 2008 study. Dr. Chia reports enteroviruses are found much more readily in the stomach than the blood (but he is able to find it in the blood). No enterviruses were found in the present study.

Vanelzakker proposes that a localized vagal nerve infection is causing the symptoms in ME/CFS.  It’s not clear what these results mean for Dr. Lerner’s theory that an aborted EBV infection is spilling viral  proteins into the blood that are sparking an immune result.

The Three Year Breakpoint 

Data suggests there may be substantial differences in biomarkers in people with less than 3 years of disease and those with more than 3 years of disease. Dr. Lipkin

subsets

Two recent research findings suggest the immune systems of people with recent onset and longer duration ME.CFS are significantly different.

Echoing similar recent findings from the Broderick/ Klimas team at NSU, Dr. Lipkin stated the immune system in ‘newbies’  (patients with recent onset), and patients with a longer case of  ME/CFS was different.  Dr. Lipkin’s ability to independently differentiate ‘newer’ from ‘older’ patients using  cytokine results is pivotal, and points to the central and progressive role the immune may play in this disorder.

With Broderick suggesting that two distinct illnesses emerge over time, and Lipkin proposing treatment options should reflect illness duration, it was clear these changes were significant indeed.

Natelson, on very different track, is finding changes over time as well with more POTS in his adolescents and a different kind of orthostatic intolerance in older patients.  Studies are underway to understand why this might be so.

An Early Allergic Response

Allergy is not usually mentioned in association with ME/CFS but eosinophils and other markers suggested to Dr. Lipkin that  the allergic response was enhanced in ME/CFS early on. The cast of immune characters Lipkin’s biomarker search fleshed out was refreshingly familiar with IL-17, IL-2, IL-8 and TNF-a leading the list.

IL-17

Levels of Il-17 were raised in recent onset ME/CFS patients. Lipkin suggested immunomoculators able to bring IL-17 levels down might be a treatment option at some point.

No mention, interestingly, was made of autoimmunity, but Lipkin, pointing at the high IL-17 levels in the newbies,  embraced the idea (only after further validation) of using immunomodulators in some ME/CFS patients  to turn down the fire in the immune system.  Immunomodulators exist now, he said, that can bring that IL-17 cytokine  down.  (He stressed, however, that there is not enough research to start using them on patients.)

The spinal fluid, interestingly enough, showed a very different pattern. It showed a consistent profile of immunological dysregulation in CFS, regardless of duration of illness. Dr. Lipkin identified increased IL-10 and IL-13 levels suggesting enhanced Th2 activation and increased IL-1B, IL-5 and IL-17 suggesting Th1 (proinflammatory) activation. Dr. Lipkin was obviously intrigued by the differences in cytokine findings between spinal fluid and blood.

A Focus on the Gut

I think the gut microbiome is going to be where the action is (in chronic fatigue syndrome). Dr. Ian Lipkin

Lipkin’s prime focus at this point is the gut and fecal matter. He  believes the gut microbiome is going to play a, perhaps the key role in ME/CFS.

The Hornig/Lipkin team has had considerable experience with the gut microbiome. They’ve been successful  finding gut abnormalities in autism, a disorder that shares some intriguing commonalities with ME/CFS, including low natural killer cell functioning.  Noting that the gut can modulate immune functioning, not just in the gut, but across the body he asserted the gut is going to be ‘where the action is’ in ME/CFS.

gut picture

Lipkin believes ‘the action’ in ME/CFS is going to take place in the gut microbiome (flora)

Unfortunately, the fecal samples originally collected didn’t provide enough material for analysis so they’re restarting that part of the study.

Even more unfortunately, characterizing the bacteria in fecal matter is extremely expensive and with Lipkin, with just 10% of the money needed to do the job, evidenced considerable frustration at having his hands tied  by lack of money.

Stating that he was not pointing fingers, he then proceeded to point  them everywhere:  at federal politics of funding, at NIH budget cuts, and at the paucity of research funding in our field. As at his last public talk, he urged patients to get active and enlist their congressman in  their cause.  Oddly enough, he also said Dr. Fauci, long considered a kind of ME/CFS nemesis by patients, was supportive of more work in this area.

Reiterating his belief that chronic fatigue syndrome has pathophysiological roots, Lipkin noted his history with it. Dr. Lipkin’s 1999 ME/CFS  study did not find the virus he was researching but it did find a great deal of immune (polyclonal B-cell) activation, a pattern that was recently repeated when he didn’t find XMRV but was impressed by the evidence of immune activation he did find.

Next Up

Lipkin, in close collaboration with his ME/CFS experts, Dr. Peterson, Dr. Montoya. Dr. Klimas, Dr. Komaroff, etc. is following these results with deep sequencing of samples, completion of fecal matter analysis and larger studies to confirm and deepen the understanding of cytokines as biomarkers. Protein analysis was not mentioned but it was part of the original project. Tracking down evidence of past infection was also on the agenda.

Conclusion

The Chronic Fatigue Initiative’s pathogen study set a benchmark for rigor and size in the ME/CFS research field, not the least because of Dr. Lipkin’s leadership. Surprisingly few viruses were found in the blood of ME/CFS patients, yet Lipkin asserted that an infectious agent was likely driving the immune activation he found in the blood and spinal samples.  Cytokine analyses of the blood suggested a different pattern of immune dysregulation was present in  newer onset patients (<3 years) and patients with a longer duration of illness.

Dr. Lipkin believes the “primary cause is likely to be an infectious agent” and the gut microbiome is where ‘the action’ will be in ME/CFS.

Viral Finding May Open Treatment Possibilities for 15-20K Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Patients in the U.S.

More Viral Funny Business in ME/CFS

Persistent human herpesvirus-6 infection in patients with an inherited form of the virus. Pantry, S, Medveczky, M, Arbuckle, J, Luka, J, Montoya, J., Hu, R. Renne, H., Peterson, D., Pritchett, J., Ablashi, D. and P. Medveczky. Journal of Medical Virology.

A lot of interesting viral possibilities have been raised in chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) over time, but this virus, possibly found in every cell of a persons body, might just take the cake.

ciHHV-6 – The Wrong Kind of Integration

Most people are exposed to HHV-6 early in life and carry a latent form of the virus in their body. Usually benign, immune suppression can allow HHV-6 to become reactivated causing fever, seizures, encephalitis, cognitive problems, heart disease and more.

gene model

Some people have HHV-6 integrated into every cell of their body

ciHHV-6 is different though. Two HHV-6 viruses (HHV-6A and HHV-6B) that probably jumped into the human germ at some unknown point several hundred thousand years ago, now some people carry a copy of it in the DNA of every cell of their body; that’s right – every cell of their body.

Does the thought of having a potentially harmful herpesvirus genome present in the DNA of every cell of your body send a little shiver up your spine? It certainly does mine, but before anyone panics let’s recognize that our DNA is larded with all sorts of weird stuff including many old (mostly beaten up) viruses. (Fragments of retroviruses make up about 8% of our genome) Almost all of us have also been infected by 5-8 of the 9 herpesviruses that can smack us hard if our immune systems let them get out of line. We carry toxic species of bacteria in our guts. We’re full of surprises, but the idea that a potentially damaging herpesvirus exists – fully intact – in some people’s DNA calls for more research.

Studies of approximately 6,000 blood and cord blood donor tests indicate 0.8% or slightly less than 1% of the US population, most of whom are in good health, have ciHHV-6. Tests on people with chronic illnesses are less extensive, but early studies suggest increased rate of ciHHV6 integration are present in numerous neurological disorders including children suspected of encephalitis (3.26%), non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (3.13%) and multiple sclerosis (2.86%).

The first of its kind in chronic fatigue syndrome, this study, led by a respected herpes virus researcher (and in collaboration with Dr. Jose Montoya  of Stanford University and Dr. Dan Peterson of Simmaron Research), determined whether a kind of human herpes virus 6 infection called ciHHV-6A or ciHHV-6B was present in a subset of patients diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Misdiagnosis Presents Dangers

Even in its benign, unactivated state ciHHV-6 can produce lab test results that make it look like you have roaring HHV-6 infection when you do not. The high viral loads that are a distinctive feature of ciHHV-6 present a danger when physicians, believing the patient has a raging HHV-6 infection, prescribes unneeded and potentially dangerous antivirals.

stethoscope with question mark

Misdiagnosing ciHHV-6 as an active HHV-6 infection can lead to unneeded and possibly dangerous antiviral -treatment

In fact, high levels of HHV-6 (> 5.5 log10 copies/ml of HHV-6 in whole blood) on quantitative PCR tests are considered a definitive indication that ciHHV-6 is present unless a patient is acutely ill. HHV-6 appears to be largely localized in the tissues in ME/CFS, and therefore doesn’t leak a lot of HHV-6 into the blood. (Very high levels of HHV-6 DNA can be found during primary (or first) infections, but this type of infection is not usually seen in ME/CFS).

Even in primary infections HHV-6 loads will diminish over time in the blood. That doesn’t happen with ciHHV-6.

Since a latent ciHHV-6 infection is contained within the cellular DNA, the result on a serum or plasma PCR test is much lower because the cells are separated from the plasma and only DNA from cells that die in the process will show up.

The Study

Three hundred and thirty seven people suffering from neurological problems and long-term fatigue were tested using quantitative PCR for the presence of ciHHV-6. Very, very high levels of HHV6 indicated that two percent (7/337) had chromosomally integrated HHV-6. mRNA tests indicated the virus was actively replicating in their blood.

Two percent (2.1%) of the ME/CFS population translates into about 15-20,000 people with ME/CFS in the US.

Findings

Not Homegrown After All

This study suggests that, in symptomatic ciHHV-6 patients, infection with an exogenous HHV-6 virus may be a frequent occurrence.

The second part of the study involved four ciHHV6 patients suffering from symptoms consistent with ME/CFS including debilitating fatigue, headache, blurred vision, cognitive impairment, pain, etc. who were given further testing to determine the type of HHV-6 present. All had an active infection of different strain of HHV-6 virus than found in their genome. That suggested their illness was not due to ciHHV-6 reactivation but to another strain of HHV-6 they’d been exposed to.

It also suggested that people with ciHHV-6 and neurological symptoms such as fatigue and cognitive problems may very well have two HHV-6 infections; the ciHHV-6 in their DNA and an outside infection.

Long-Term Antiviral Treatment Provides Hope 

The good news…Is that antiviral drugs improve the severe neurological symptoms, including dysfunction and long-term fatigue, suffered by a certain group of patients with CFS. Dr. Peter Medveczky

Two treatment regimes, a short-term regime (900 mg/valganciclovir 2x’s/day) lasting 3 weeks and a longer term (900 mg/valganciclovir 2x’s/day for first three weeks then 450 mg twice daily for three weeks or more) lasting greater than or equal to six weeks. The short-term treatment had no effect on viral load (U100 RNA) or symptoms while the long-term treatment eliminated both. A blood test five weeks after the end of the treatment for one patient, however, indicated the virus was back in full force.

(Note that Valtrex, an antiherpesvirus drug commonly used in ME/CFS, is not effective against HHV-6)

valcyte molecule

Valganciclovir (Valcyte) is effective against HHV-6; (valaciyclovir) Valtrex is not

Kristin Loomis, the Executive Director of the HHV-6 Foundation, suggested patients with active ciHHV-6 infections may also benefit from supplements that enhance their cellular immune response such as AHCC, ImmunoPro, and Avemar, or the prescription drug Immunovir that can be ordered legally from Canada with a prescription.

Last year Medveczky and Montoya reported successfully resolving the neurological symptoms and fatigue of two ciHHV6 patients experiencing cognitive problems, depression, fatigue, and abnormal qEEG readings. Their qEEG readings normalized and their DNA load declined although, (as expected), it did not disappear. According to the Pantry study they remain symptom free.

Kristin Loomis suggested one reason these patients may need longer than normal treatment regimes is a long lasting immunosuppression caused by HHV-6. She noted that the beta herpesviruses (HHV-6, 7 and CMV (HHV-5)) found in ME/CFS all cause immunosuppression that can last up to six months. Until the immune system is restored, these virsues will continue to reactivate during stressful periods or in response to another illness.

She also encouraged patients with ciHHV6 to join the CIHHV6 registry.

ciHVV-6 Opens The Door?

Why the ciHHV-6 patients were infected with a different HHV-6 strain than they were harboring isn’t clear, but several possibilities exist. Findings of reduced antibody rates to an HHV-6 protein suggest ciHHV-6 may somehow have switched off some immune factors that target HHV-6, thereby opening the door for new HHV-6 infections.

kicking door open

Some preliminary evidence suggests ciHHV-6 could open the door for more HHV-6 infections

Kristin Loomis, the President of the HHV-6 Foundation that helped fund the study, noted that many people with recurring herpesvirus infections (ciHHV-6 or not) probably have an undiagnosed immune deficiency such as hypogammaglobulinemia, impaired CD4 or NK cell responses, reduced lymphoproliferative response and/or low NK cell counts. The following tests at a lab such as Quest can identify these some of these immune ‘holes’.

  • IgG Subclasses Panel
  • Lymphocyte Subset Panel (CD4, CD8, CD3, CD19 and CD16/56)
  • ImmuKnow Immune Cell Function (measures CD4 cell response)
  • Natural Killer Cell Functional Assay, FC

Other causes of viral reactivation include stress. (Hydrocortisone activates virus in the laboratory.)

Drugs Open the Door?

Laboratory cell culture studies suggest the possibility that in some cases drugs may have opened the door for ciHHV-6 reactivation. Antibiotics such as Amoxicillin, Minocycline, Vancomycin, Dapsone, Trichostatin; NSAIDS such as ibuprofen and naproxen; immunosuppressants such as hydrocortisone; anti-inflammatories such as sulfasalazine, anticonvulsants such as carbamazepine, phenobarbital, valproic acid and HDAC inhibitor Trichostatin A have all been found in laboratory culture tests or in case reports, to enhance the risk of HHV-6 reactivation. (Click here for more drugs – Table Four).

Extreme drug allergies (also known as Drug Induced Hypersensitivity Syndrome or DRESS) result in HHV-6 reactivation in about 85% of cases. Steroids can also activate HHV-6; it is unknown if they present a unusual risk to individuals with ciHHV6, however.

Tested Positive for HHV-6? You Probably Have ciHHV-6

A team of ciHHV-6 experts does not recommend routine screening for ciHHV-6 for the general population but does recommend that patients with ‘suspiciously high’ serum or plasma HHV-6 levels get screened using quantitative PCR using whole blood or PBMC’s.

Kristin Loomis suggested ME/CFS patients who’ve tested positive for HHV-6 (via quantitative PCR) probably have ciHHV-6. The question then becomes whether they also have an active infection or if your test merely reflected the fact that you have ciHHV-6.

This is the tricky part. ciHHV-6 infection can result in false positives for active HHV-6 infection but this study involved four ME/CFS patients with inherited ciHHV-6 infection. This suggests ciHHV-6 infected ME/CFS patients may be at greater risk of succumbing to an outside strain of HHV-6.

The Missing Test

We have two questions here. If you’ve tested positive for HHV-6 do you actually ciHHV-6?  And if you have ciHHV-6, do you also have another HHV-6 infection?

Question mark

Since tests to determine if active HHV-6 infections are not available commercially, doctors will have to make informed judgments regarding treatment

The first question is relatively easy to answer. Quantitative PCR tests offered by commercial laboratories can suggest you have ciHHV-6. Since ciHHV-6 is expected to produce high DNA copy numbers, and CFS patients with persistent low-level HHV-6 infections almost always test negative (or fall below the level of detection) for HHV-6, any quantitative PCR DNA lab tests indicating high HHV-6 loads very strongly suggests that you have ciHHV-6.

(Note: This does not apply to persons testing positive on the qualitative nested PCR tests at VIP Laboratories or Redlabs.)

Unfortunately, no commercial laboratories offer tests that can tell if you have an active HHV-6 infection.

Physicians will need to rely on their clinical assessments (ie do your symptoms suggest you  have an active infection? Do immune lab tests suggest your body is fighting off an infection, etc.)  to determine if antivirals are indicated.

Kristin Loomis suggested that those with a positive plasma test in the past should send blood samples to the clinical lab University of Washington to confirm CIHHV6 status, using a form that can be downloaded from the HHV-6 Foundation page on CIHHV6 testing. The University of Washington has a new third generation PCR test that is highly accurate and designed to identify ciHHV6 samples.

Testing Must Be Done on Whole Blood (Not Plasma)

Alternatively, samples can be sent to Viracor or Quest but physicians need to contact the lab director at each lab in advance to request that the testing be done on whole blood instead of plasma.

The test used in this study, a real-time PCR assay for HHV-6 U100 mRNA, can differentiate between latent and active infections but is not available in commercial labs.

A New Subset 

An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 patients with this CFS-like disease in the United States alone may ultimately benefit from … this research including antiviral therapy. Dr. Peter Medveczky

pie chart with subsets

Researchers propose subsetting out a category of ME/CFS patients with ciHHV-6 and HHV-6 infections.

The authors proposed to call ciHHV-6 with an outside HHV-6 infection “inherited herpesvirus six syndrome” or IHS. When asked why the ‘syndrome’ tag, Kristin Loomis replied that too much is unknown to pin the disorder down more. Several different HHV-6 scenarios, it turns out, could be causing similar symptoms. An abortive HHV-6 infection, reactivation of the integrated genome even if it is not fully replicating, or even ciHHV-6’s interference with genetic functioning of the chromosomes its found in, could all potentially cause similar symptoms.

Medveczky explains that IHS patients are:

  1. ciHHV-6 positive
  2. suffer from an illness similar to ME/CFS,
  3.  have HHV-6 mRNA  (late mRNA) present in their blood indicating the virus is active
  4. respond to six weeks of antiviral treatment with the disappearance of the active virus and experience symptom improvement

Since ciHHV-6 is found in all the cells of the body it’s potential to wreak mischief either genetically or through reactivation is high. It will take future studies to determine if it does, however. Medveczky found that HDAC inhibitor Trichostatin A activates CIHHV6 in the test tube. Many of the new cancer treatments, such as Vorinostat, are HDAC inhibitors.

Good Pedigree

The senior author of the study, Dr. Peter Medveczky, has been publishing herpesviruses papers since the 1980’s. HHV-6 Foundation president, Kristin Loomis, noted that Medveczky was completely skeptical when he first heard about ciHHV-6 but he’s now convinced, and he’s actively linking a subset of ME/CFS to a viral disorder. With his long stint of herpesvirus research behind him, Medveczky is the kind of researcher other researchers listen to – a vital need.

Conclusion

Doubled rates of ciHHV-6 in ME/CFS relative to the general population suggest ciHHV-6 could contribute to ME/CFS. The high viral loads in laboratory tests, present in people with benign ciHHV-6 infections, can lead to unneeded courses of antivirals. On the other hand, some evidence suggests ciHHV-6 associated immune dysfunction may open the door for further herpesvirus infections.

This early study indicates new HHV-6 infections may be commonly found (and effectively treated) in ME/CFS patients with ciHHV-6. Further study is needed but the success of long term antiviral treatment regimes (@ 6 weeks)  in these patients suggests from 15-20,000 ME/CFS patients in the U.S. could ultimately benefit from appropriate courses of antivirals. Shorter-term courses are not effective.

Since persistently high levels of HHV-6 are associated with ciHHV-6 status but not chronic HHV-6 infection, further testing, while not definitive, can help determine whether ciHHV-6 is present. Physicians will need to decide on a case-by-case basis if antiviral treatment is warranted. Quantitative PCR tests done on whole blood can suggest whether ciHHV-6 is present. No commercial laboratory tests at this time can determine if an active HHV-6 infections are present.

Further Studies

All one study can do is open the door; it takes confirmatory studies to make the findings stick. If a sub-category of ME/CFS called Inherited Human Herpesvirus Six Syndrome is to take hold substantial research is needed. Small research foundations like the HHV-6 Foundation can only do so much. Thus far the work has been done on a shoestring; now it needs full funding and that means NIH funding.

The Simmaron ME/CFS Physicians Roundtable Pt. II: Talking Treatments

Round-Table

meeting of the minds picture

Some of the top ME/CFS practitioners had a meeting of the minds on how best to treat ME/CFS at the Simmaron Roundable

Simmaron Research likes to get people talking. At the FDA Workshop earlier this year, they booked a room, invited patients and physicians and then held a physicians round-table with some of the field’s top doctors.

Part II of a three-part series focuses on Dr. Peterson of Sierra Internal Medicine /Simmaron Research Institute, Dr. Klimas  – the director of the Center for Neuroimmune Studies at Nova Southeastern University, and Dr. Enlander, the Director of the Mt. Sinai ME/CFS Research Center talking about chronic fatigue syndrome treatment.

Dr. Peterson – Simmaron Research Institute

Dr. Peterson started off the treatment section with some hopeful news. Powerful new immune drugs such as immune modulators and cytokine blockers), he said, that have been and are being developed, can have dramatic effects in the right patients.

upward slope

Immune therapies under development in other fields may be able to help ME/CFS patients in the future.

(Rituximab is an example of a new approach that paid off. The first of its class of drugs (monoclonal antibodies), Rituximab (Rituxan) opened up a new arena of drug development. Similarly, Ampligen and other Toll-like receptor affecting drugs offer new approaches to immune modulation. Drug repurposing efforts that are finding new uses for old drugs present some intriguing possibilities. An abortifacent, mifepristone, for instance, boosts natural killer cell functioning.

Breakthroughs in other fields are providing other opportunities. Studies documenting the role natural killer (NK) cells and the innate immune system play in preventing cancer have piqued drug developers interest enough the  several NK cell boosting drugs are in development.

A Treatment Philosophy

Some ME/CFS patients, believe it or not, are relatively easy to treat. Patients with easily characterized viral infections have a clear treatment protocol waiting for them. If a parvovirus infection is found, for instance, it can be easily treated. Dr. Peterson has found that the ‘wait and see’ approach so often prescribed by doctors with ME/CFS in hopes that the patient will just get better is a mistake.  He’s found that, in his group of patients, treating aggressively early is more effective.

cascade effect

Dr. Peterson proposes more aggressive approaches to ME/CFS early may forestall problems later if the disorder progresses.

(This brings to mind the story of someone I know whose doctor used a less strong antiviral (Valtrex) for a significant period of time only to switch to a stronger but potentially more toxic antiviral (Valcyte) after his patient deteriorated significantly. The patient then experienced a dramatic and lasting recovery.)

We’ll see that fighting pathogens in ME/CFS is not a cut-and-dried, one-size-fits-all process, and that physicians differ somewhat in their approach. In more complicated cases, for instance, Dr. Peterson is experimenting with combining immune and anti-viral treatments, and thus far is getting some encouraging results.

Dr. Peterson’s use of the antiviral Cidofovir (typically used to fight eye infections caused by cytomegalovirus in AIDS patients) demonstrates how differently even this small group of physicians sometimes approaches infections.

Cidofovir (Vistide)

“Cidofovir is not a panacea for this disease, but I think it demonstrates clearly how we should be subsetting and treating the treatable people,” Dr. Peterson.

Dr. Peterson uses Cidofovir regularly in patients with documented HHV6 and cytomegalovirus (CMV) infections.  (Since he employs more spinal taps than the other doctors at the Roundtable, he probably also finds more HHV6/CMV infections.)

Gunnar Gotschalk

Gunnar Gotschalk, Dr. Peterson’s research assistant, reported on Vistide’s results in ME/CFS patients with HHV6/HMV infections

Gunnar Gottschalk, Dr. Peterson’s research assistant, gave an overview of  the Vistide results seen in Dr. Peterson’s practice. Vistide is an expensive drug with potentially serious side effects that requires a rather complex infusion process.  Most patients need to relocate to the Reno/Lake Tahoe area to get at least 12 infusions.  Once they start the infusions they need to get three blood tests a week.  Vistide is difficult to administer, and its no surprise that most ME/CFS docs are not using it.

Gunnar reported, however, that a retrospective analysis indicated that 70% of ME/CFS patients with HHV6/CMV infections achieved a positive response.  He highlighted three patients: two achieved substantial gains in VO2 max and their viral titers dropped to zero, and all three returned to work after being disabled.

The retrospective analysis indicated significant drops in viral titers, increases in VO2 max (but not to normal) in full responders, and increased NK cell functioning in the group as a whole. Of the full responders Gunnar estimated two-thirds were able to maintain their health and one-third had to restart the treatment after 6-8 months.

When asked to compare Valcyte’s side effects with Vistides, Gunnar said that his experience was that people appeared to have a harder time on Valcyte than Vistide.

CMX001

Then there’s CMX001, the lipid-based analogue of Cidofovir produced by Chimerix that appears to be both more potent and better tolerated and which is beginning phase III (final) trials.

herpesviruses

If CMX001 passes muster at the FDA it will present new possibilities for herpesvirus treatment in ME/CFS

Simmaron believes it has patients that will fit Chimerix’s criteria and is trying to get them into the trials.  (Chimerix, by the way, generated $118 million dollars in gross proceeds when it went public a couple of months ago. Chimerix projects Phase III trials for CMX001 treatment of CMV infections in stem cell transplant patients will be finished in 2015. Since the drug is on fast-track status, the FDA will rule on it more quickly than usual once the data is in). Exactly what Vistide is doing (besides knocking down the virus) is unclear.

On the immune end, it’s possible Vistide is relieving pathogen-associated NK cell dysfunction (although Dr. Peterson thinks more than that is going on) but it’s unclear why the VO2 max readings in his patients go up.  Gunnar did allude to the fact that some deconditioning probably was present in these very disabled patients, but Dr. Peterson thinks cytokine induced mitochondrial dysfunction may be occurring.

HHV6 and Chromosomal Integration

The tricky problem of HHV6 chromosomal integration should be noted. People who have HHV6 integrated into their chromosomes will always, whether the virus is active or not, test positive for HHV6 via PCR. Retrospective studies are never proof of a drug’s effectiveness; you need a placebo-controlled, double-blinded study for that. But retrospective studies do provide the pilot data that could support a trial. (I was told that Dr. Peterson’s Paris presentation generated a lot of interest.) This retrospective study is an instance of a doctor combing through and analyzing their past data, and hopefully we’ll see more of it in the future.

Graded Exercise and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

“I wish graded exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy worked,”said Dr. Peterson. After mentioning the CDC toolkit (which emphasizes CBT and GET and does not suggest ANY laboratory testing be done) Dr. Peterson said he wished CBT/GET worked, and then said it might be helpful for patients who’ve gotten well enough, but that even if it was, it’s simply not available. For all the talk on CBT and GET, Dr. Peterson knew of no trained practitioners in the US, except for one associated with Dr. Klimas’ clinic.

Dr. Nancy Klimas – Director of the Center for Neuroimmune Studies at Nova Southeastern University

“I’m a splitter not a lumper. I try very hard to find …intervention points,” Dr. Klimas

An  Autonomic Nervous System Focus

Earlier this year Dr. Klimas reported that gene expression tests done during and after exercise suggested that the autonomic nervous system ‘tanks’ first in ME/CFS during exercises, and then drags down the immune system with it.  Her research suggests autonomic nervous system problems trigger an ‘inflammatory cascade’ which then causes much of the post-exertional malaise that occurs in this disorder.

autonomic nervous system

Dr. Klimas exercise studies suggest the problems in the autonomic nervous system trigger problems in the immune system

It was no surprise, then, to hear her say that she spends a great deal of time early on with her patients trying to get that ‘volatile’ autonomic nervous system under control.  (This is an example of translational medicine; i.e., translating research results (gene expression findings) into practical applications in the clinic.) This ANS-immune cascade problem, by the way, appears to be independent of pathogen or antibody results; it’s a core issue present in many patients.

Pathogens and Immune Modulation

With regard to pathogens, Dr. Klimas said most of her patients with high antiviral loads/antibodies will be on antivirals, but generally more gentle ones such as Famvir (famciclovir). She noted, though, that a danger lurks when less-strong drugs inadequately control the virus: it can then ‘break free’ and develop resistance not just to that drug but to others in its class.  A virus that develops resistance to Famvir, for instance, will probably also be resistant to Valcyte. Dr. Klimas then made a plug for controlled clinical trials of Vistide in ME/CFS.

“We don’t really know how to distinguish which group is autoimmune and which group has chronic viral activation”

One has the feeling that the only thing keeping Dr. Klimas, an immunologist, from tinkering more with the immune system in her patients was lack of sufficient data. Referring to the weird immune ying/yang often seen in ME/CFS (some parts of the immune system being over-activated and some parts under-activated), she said she’d love to be able to knock down the immune activation present and build up immune cell functioning, but that building up cell functioning in a patient whose immune system is already overcharged could trigger an autoimmune response. Since no autoantibodies have been associated with ME/CFS, it’s difficult to tell if an autoimmune response is already present.

Some indirect tests can help; high CD4/CD8 ratios, for instance, are suggestive of autoimmunity, and high CD8 levels suggest a pathogen is present. If her flow cytometry tests show high CD4/CD8 ratios, she’s ‘very nervous’ about doing anything to bump up the immune system.

Immunovir (Isoprinosine)

Isoprinosine structure

Dr.; Klimas has had good success with Isoprinosine in ME/CFS

Dr. Klimashas seen an 85% response rate to Immunovir biologically, and it can generally double up NK cell functioning. She obtains pharmaceutical grade Immunovir from Canada Newport Pharmaceuticals and a similar and cheaper over-the-counter preparation called Inosine is available in the US.  Anecdotally she doesn’t think she’s getting as good a response from Inosine. Equilibriant – includes mushroom extracts that enhanced NK function in Chinese studies. Got lots of stuff in there.

Monoclonal Antibodies

A group of patients with extraordinary immune readings; i.e., TNF-a levels hundreds of times above normal, are prime targets for monoclonal antibody drugs (such as Etanercept) that target specific immune factors. In these patients, Dr. Klimas usually brings in a rheumatologist to get the drug.

Expect more news on this in the future, as a great number of monoclonal antibodies coming out of cancer research should be hitting the market, some of which may be able to assist NK functioning. Dr. Klimas said there’s “Some pretty cool stuff in the pipeline”.

“I want to make a plug for Low Dose Naltrexone” Dr. Klimas

Low Dose Naltrexone

Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN), not Lyrica or Cymbalta, is Dr. Klimas’ first line treatment for fibromyalgia-type pain.  A recent study found that it reduced FM pain by roughly 60% without the toxicity of Lyrica and Cymbalta.  She called the science behind LDN (which is not produced in a low-dose form by drug companies but is readily available at compounding pharmacies) ‘riveting’. That’s pretty strong endorsement of an ‘underground drug’ that is getting more and more attention despite its Achilles heel of not being marketed in low-dose form by Big Pharma.

Dr. Enlander – Mt Sinai ME/CFS Research Center 

GcMAF

Dr.  Peterson asked about GcMAF. Dr. Klimas said she hasn’t used it, but Dr. Enlander’s been using it for two years–first by injection and now mostly in his own yogurt mixture. Dr. Cheney probably may have started the GcMAF saga in ME/CFS first with a trip to Italy several years.  A yogurt mix was available, but when one of Dr. Enlander’s patients tried to make it the cost was  $3,000. In the end, Dr. Enlander’s bacteriologists at Mt. Sinai produced the mixture (MAF878) (and at a cost of $120!). Dr. Enlander does believe the injections are probably more effective, but he’s gotten good results for both.

Next Up: the Future! Dr. Peterson started off with hope, and in the next section we take a look at the future for ME/CFS physicians, what their three organizations are pursuing, and what they’re looking forward to in the future.