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ME/CFS Seahorse Energy Production Study Shows Surprises

Dr. Maureen Hanson leads one of the three NIH funded ME/CFS research centers, but her ME/CFS research doesn’t stop there.  Using samples from Dr. Daniel Peterson provided by the Simmaron Research Foundation, she’s also been assessing the metabolism of one of the most important cells in our immune systems: our T-cells.

T-cells affect a large part of our adaptive immune response that clears out infections. They do this by regulating our immune response (CD-4 or Helper T-cells) and/or by killing off pathogens that have infected other cells (CD-8 or cytotoxic T-cells).

Hanson and Mandarano and Seahorse machine

Maureen Hanson, Alexandra Mandarano and the Seahorse machine

Prior to getting activated, T-cells are primarily on sentry duty.  Once activated by dendritic cells presenting little bits of pathogens to them things change dramatically, however. The T-cells rev up their cellular engines to order to start pumping out cytokines or clones en masse in order to stop the infection. Both parts of energy production – glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation –  have to jump into action.

In short, assessing the energy production of activated T-cells is a perfect way to determine if their energy metabolism has been affected in ME/CFS – and that’s just what Maureen Hanson’s group did.

Alexandra Mandarano, a graduate student in Hanson’s lab, took T-cells from 53 healthy controls and 45 pretty long duration (avg. a@ 12.7 years) ME/CFS patients and healthy controls and tricked them into going into high alert with antibodies plus IL-2. Then, using the Seahorse Flux Analyzer, she examined how well the two parts of their cellular energy production system did in both unactivated and activated T-cells:  glycolysis – the anaerobic part which takes place outside the mitochondria, and oxidative phosphorylation – the aerobic part which takes place inside the mitochondria (and produces far more ATP) .

Dr. Hanson presented on her results at the recent Open Medicine Foundation sponsored Harvard Symposium

Results

Whether they were activated or not, mitochondrial energy production; i.e. oxidative phosphorylation (the main ATP producer) was normal for both the CD4 and CD8 cells in the ME/CFS group. When pushed, the mitochondria in the ME/CFS patients’ cells quickly got energy production up to speed. That was a surprise. Usually when you push a cell or system in ME/CFS it fails- but, in this case, the T-cells responded normally.

Then came the real surprise.  Systems in ME/CFS often test out fine or at least not strongly abnormal at baseline or rest, but in this case Hanson found low glycolysis activity in both the T-helper cells (CD4) and the CD8 cells at baseline.  Simply prowling around the body, they had considerably lower levels of glycolytic activity.  When pushed, though, their glycolytic activity was normal.  The pattern was opposite to what we usually see.

That wasn’t all. It’s possible with the Seahorse to turn off different energy production pathways in order to assess how effectively the other pathways are at compensating.  When the oxidative phosphorylation pathways were turned off experimentally, the ME/CFS patients’ glycolytic pathways failed to compensate as effectively as did those of healthy controls.

Mandarano did not find problems with mitochondrial ATP production but did find issues with glycolysis

Thus no problems with mitochondrial energy production were found but three potential issues with glycolysis popped up: low glycolytic activity in both forms of unactivated T-cells, and poor glycolytic compensation with the oxidative phosphorylation pathways were turned off.

Hanson’s group next examined a critical part of energy production called the mitochondrial membrane potential. Our mitochondria need to maintain a certain membrane potential to keep up the flow of positively charged ions into the mitochondria. It does this by keeping more positively charged ions outside of the mitochondria and more negatively charged ions inside the mitochondria. Her group used a flow cytometer to assess the levels of mitochondria present and to determine how strong the membrane potential was.

The mass and membrane potential of the ME/CFS patients’ CD4 T-cells and the mitochondrial mass of the CD8 cells was normal, but the membrane potential of the CD8 T-cells – whether activated or not – were significantly impaired in the ME/CFS patients.

Four potential problems, then, were found:

  • low glycolytic activity in unactivated CD4 and CD8 T-cells
  • poor glycolytic compensation when the oxidative phosphorylation pathways were turned off
  • The mitochondrial membrane potential was impaired in the CD8 T-cells

Dr. Hanson left her presentation with the  encouraging statement that we are starting to put the pieces of the puzzle together in ME/CFS and the tantalizing suggestion that ME/CFS might be something different than what we think it is right now; i.e. keep an open mind, don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and be prepared for surprises.

Overview

Hanson and her co-authors have submitted a paper and we will get more details when their paper is published but, with these preliminary results, we have a few more data points on cellular energy production in ME/CFS. While noting that several study results are pending, maybe it’s time for a look at what we have.

It should be noted that measuring energy production is very complex. Different researchers are doing it in different ways, and I am no judge of any of them.  Researchers are using different instruments, different criteria, different kinds and numbers of patients, and they are reporting things differently. Solving those problems is one of the reasons for the NIH funded ME/CFS research centers where larger studies can use proven technologies and rigorously defined patient populations.

Check out some of the different protocols which have assessed mitochondrial functioning in isolation from the blood in ME/CFS:

Study protocols

  • Hanson’s group activated her T-cells using antibodies and IL-2 and then tested activated and unactivated cells in the Seahorse Machine
  • Tomas took PBMC’s and stressed them in the Seahorse machine
  • Stanford took PBMC’s and then used laboratory assays to test each of the complexes and flow cytometry to assess mitochondrial membrane potential
  • Fisher (unpublished) appears to have taken PBMC’s and stressed them in the Seahorse machine
  • Vermeulen measured ATP PBMC’s etc. in the lab
  • Smits measured ATP production rate in muscle biopsies

The Land of Mixed Signals

We seem to find ourselves in a familiar place – the land of mixed signals! One encouraging unmixed signal is that everyone seems to be finding something wrong – just often different things.

MITOCHONDRIA

Mitochondria Mass – Normal

  • Hanson – CD4 and CD8 (T-helper cells)
  • Fisher

Mitochondria ATP production – Normal

  • Hanson (T-cells)
  • Stanford study (not a Ron Davis study) (PBMC’s)
  • Fisher (PBMC’s)
  • Vermoulen (PBMC’s)
  • Smits (muscle biopsy)

Increased ATP Production Overall

  • Stanford
  • Preliminary results from NIH Intramural study

Reduced ATP production

  • Tomas – under both low and high glucose conditions

Functioning of Complexes – Normal

  • Stanford (I-IV)
  • Vermeulen (I-II)

Functioning of Complex V – reduced

  • Fisher
GLYCOLYSIS

Increased Glycolysis at Baseline (PBMC’s)

  • Stanford

Reduced Glycolysis at Baseline (T-cells)

  • Hanson

Reduced Glycolysis (low glucose conditions)

  • Tomas

Reduced Compensatory Glycolysis

  • Hanson
  • Tomas (?)

Glycolysis Stress Test (Glycolysis, glycolytic reserve, glycolytic capacity)- normal

  • Tomas
  • Fisher

It’s quite a muddle.  Surprisingly, though, the most consistent finding thus far is normal (or in two cases) increased mitochondrial production (!) Not many studies have directly measured glycolysis, but in these early days the results are mixed.

Isolation

cells in the blood

The most consistent result so far is normal (or increased) mitochondrial function but none of the above studies tested cells in the blood – where an inhibiting factor may lurk. (Seahorse machine cannot test cells in the blood.)

Note that all these studies are assessing the energy production of the mitochondria in isolation. None tested cells in the blood where Davis, Fluge and Mella and Prushty have found evidence that some sort of inhibiting factor may be present. The metabolomic findings which suggest problems with glycolysis are present have been assessing factors in the blood and urine as well.

Adding an exercise stress test would, of course, add another important factor. At the NIH ME/CFS Conference, Brian Walitt reported that the NIH is finding that exercise causes mitochondrial oxygen consumption (ATP production) to increase in the healthy controls but to decrease in about half of the ME/CFS patients. Several recent studies have validated that exercise impairs energy production in ME/CFS (blog coming up). Where and how the energy depletions are occurring is unclear. (Note that most of these studies examined immune cells not muscle cells.)

We obviously have long way to go to fit all the different pieces of the energy production puzzle in ME/CFS together but the good news is that an increasing amount of research is now being aimed at deciphering what’s inhibiting energy production in this disease.

The Simmaron Research Foundation’s collaboration with Maureen Hanson – which paired rigorously diagnosed patients with a respected researcher –  is just one way the Foundation is contributing to solving that puzzle.

A Former Doctor Goes Through the NIH’s ME/CFS Intramural Study

Robert’s Story

Robert, an MD, is board certified in internal medicine. After the worst flu-like illness he ever had, he ended up in the hospital.  A regular exerciser prior to becoming ill, his legs were so weak that he could hardly walk afterwards.

His path to a chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) diagnosis was rapid. Three months of testing left him no other conclusion – it was clear to him that he had ME/CFS.  He was able to work on and off for a few years, but his health has deteriorated. He’s been unable to work for the last three years.

ME/CFS diagnosis

Robert, a former MD, was able to rapidly diagnose himself but remains severely ill.

Thankfully, he had a wide array of doctor friends who knew him before he became ill and didn’t encounter the skepticism and invalidation so commonly experienced in our community. He noted that our current medical culture doesn’t offer much for the complex patient. Doctors are busy and often time-constrained and if you don’t fit into one of the medical pigeon-holes, they don’t have much to offer.

Rating his level of health on a scale of 1-10 at 2, he’s one of the sickest, if not the sickest, ME/CFS patient to participate in the grueling two-part intramural study at the NIH. He was the first patient to go through the second phase of the Intramural trial which involved, among other things, the exercise study and an extended stay in a metabolic chamber.

One theme – validation – cropped up several times during Robert’s week long stay at the NIH hospital in Maryland. It was clearly apparent from the gestures of sympathy from the occupational therapist during a test to assess functioning.  Given cards which identified an activity, Robert put them into two piles – activities he used to do and activities he still did. The occupational therapist – who has probably given this test hundreds if not thousands of times – registered dismay at the few cards left in his “still do” pile. Those few cards left made the extra level of devastation that ME/CFS is so good at causing clear. It’s rare for people who are not elderly to be so sick.

Given his abysmal level of functioning, Robert’s willingness to participate in a study that Dr. Nath thought few might be willing to undergo was a real testament to the courage and determination that so impressed Dr. Nath. Despite Robert’s low functional level (1-2 on a 10-point scale), he was disappointed that the NIH was not doing a two-day exercise test (!).

The second part of the study is centered around the exercise stressor. Participants do cognitive testing, blood tests, the Seahorse mitochondrial test, a functional MRI and transcranial magnetic stimulation before and after the maximal exercise test.  (The NIH communicated with the Workwell Foundation on doing the exercise test with ME/CFS patients).

Exercise is finally getting its due in ME/CFS, and over the next couple of years several large studies should tell us much. With its extensive blood draws and millions of data points, Dr. Klimas’s exercise studies have informed her models of ME/CFS and laid the foundations for her clinical trial.  With help from the Solve ME/CFS Initiative, David Systrom has added gene expression to his already complex invasive cardiopulmonary exercise testing.  Maureen Hanson has incorporated exercise into her large NIH Research Center studies at Cornell, as well.  None of these studies, though, can match the sheer breadth of this NIH exercise study with its brain scans, lumbar punctures, Seahorse data, blood draws, etc..

Metabolic Chamber

Robert spent about three days in the metabolic chamber – a sparse box containing a bed and a toilet that’s designed to produce precise measures of metabolic activity – before and after the exercise test.  (I will expand on the metabolic chamber).  He wore an EEG, blood pressure and Holter monitor, while in the chamber.

Only thirty metabolic chambers exist in the world, and three of them are at the NIH. With 400 metabolic chamber studies underway every year, they’re pretty much in use all the time. These airtight 11-by-11.5-foot rooms aren’t much to look at or stay in: they come with a bed, an exercise bike, a toilet, and nothing else. Precisely measured meals are delivered through a small, air-locked opening in the wall.

metabolic chamber NIH

An early metabolic chamber at the NIH in 1957

Metal pipes running along the ceiling that measure oxygen consumption and CO2 production allow researchers to precisely calculate an individual’s metabolic rate.  From the O2 and CO2 readings, researchers can calculate calories burned and what type of fuel (carbs/fats) was used to burn them. Urine is collected to assess protein oxidation.

Metabolic chamber studies have demonstrated how flexible the body is with respect to metabolism. One reporter wrote, for instance, that they’ve debunked the idea that ketogenic diets (high-fat/low-carb) cause the body to burn more fat than high-carb diets.

Energy is burned in our body in three ways. It turns out that simply staying alive is pretty energy intensive. Most of the calories we burn (65-80%) are used simply to keep our body running (basal metabolism). Digestion is no walk in the park either; digesting our food takes up about 10% of the calories we burn in a day, with physical activity accounting for the remainder (10-30%).

If ME/CFS patients’ metabolic production and ability to produce energy is altered by exercise – as Workwell’s and Dr. Keller’s tests suggest it is – that will hopefully be picked up by the metabolic chamber.

Robert noted that if they can pair the findings from the metabolic chamber – which is measuring the metabolic effects of exercise – with the Seahorse tests- which are measuring energy production on the cellular level, they may really be onto something.

Brain Scan

The functional MRI – which Robert said was combined with a cognitive test – will assess the impact of exercise on a) cognitive functioning and b) brain functioning. A similar study by the CDC suggested that exercise negatively impacted both cognitive and brain functioning.

People who do cognitive tests tend to improve the more they do them but not in this case – not in people with ME/CFS after exercise.  Familiarity did not breed more competence. Despite doing the tests multiple times, the people with ME/CFS did worse and worse on them after exercise and the brain scans indicated why. Exercise had knocked out one area of the brain devoted to sustained attention causing the brain – in a mostly futile attempt to compensate – to increase activity in other parts of the brain (devoted to executive functioning).

A Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Brain on Exercise – Not a Pretty Sight

The end result was that people with ME/CFS expended more effort during the cognitive test and yet did worse. By the end of the test they were making about double the errors of the healthy controls.

rTMS Test

motor cortex

The rTMS test appeared to be designed to stimulate Robert’s motor cortex to activate his muscles.

The repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) test proved enormously interesting but physically draining.  Robert reported that in a process that took hours, data from a previous fMRI was used map the exact location of his motor cortex in order to stimulate the muscles of his right hand/fingers.  The goal was apparently to determine the speed at which the signal traveled from the brain to the muscle of his finger before and after exercise.  A time delay after exercise would presumably indicate that exercise had interfered with the ability of the motor cortex to activate the muscles.

A 2003 study, in fact, suggested that reduced muscle recruitment due to reduced motor cortex output was occurring in ME/CFS. The motor cortex, it turns out, plans our movements in advance. The study, titled “Deficit in motor performance correlates with changed corticospinal excitability in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome“ suggested that problems in the “motor preparatory areas of the brain” might be hampering physical movements in ME/CFS. It has never to my knowledge been followed up on.

rTMS has relieved pain in fibromyalgia but it had the opposite effects in Robert. He wasn’t clear whether it was the effects of the rTMS or the rigors of setting up the test itself or both which triggered for him what turned out to be an extraordinary bout of PEM (post exertional malaise). The 2 hours it took – sitting up – to get the electrodes correct was in itself draining. (He suggested that they use a reclining chair for future patients if possible.)

At the end of test Robert felt exhausted and experienced transient vertigo, auditory disturbance, headache and sensitivity to light and noises.  His nurse was shocked at how poorly he looked.  He’d mentioned the documentary Unrest to her the day before. After seeing the movie, she said she could better appreciate what he was going through. (Hopefully she knows that watching the film will get her continuing medical education (CME) credits)

The rTMS test proved immediately much more exhausting than the exercise test, the effects of which took a day to kick in. The rTMS specialist/researcher was surprised at the effect the test had on Robert and its cause is unknown. Was it the long preparatory period or the activity of the rTMS machine on the muscle activation pathways or both?  It’ll be fascinating to see how other patients fare.

Robert was also tested for small fiber neuropathy via skin biopsy, underwent a post exercise lumbar puncture and quadricep muscle biopsy.  The possibility of integrating the brain scan, cerebral spinal fluid, Seahorse and metabolic chamber results after exercise – not to mention the immune tests – is an enticing one for sure.

NIH intramural ME/CFS study data collection

The study, which is going to generate an enormous amount of data, is still several years away from completion.

Plus there are the muscle biopsy results. Robert’s experience of a rather hefty muscle biopsy suggests that the NIH is not stinting on this area – which Dr. Nath believes may tell us much about ME/CFS.

Plenty of rest periods were provided during the study but at times the testing was lengthy, and the study, predictably, ended up being a rather grueling seven days for this courageous but very disabled ME/CFS patient. Participating in it wasn’t easy but the fact that Robert, even with his abysmal level of functionality, made it through it and recovered, was a good sign. Robert said he was touched by a chaplain who stopped by to see how he was doing.

He’s stayed in touch with the investigators from time to time alerting them of developments in the ME/CFS field.

Participating in the Study

The NIH needs more participants. If you’re interested in helping to further ME/CFS research by participating in the study, check out the study criteria below.

All participants must be 18-60 years old and have at least a 7th grade education. People whose ME/CFS started after an episode of infection and who have severe symptoms lasting from 6 months to 5 years are eligible to participate in the study.

Find out how to participate here.

Learn more about the Intramural Study

Dr Nath Talks on the ME/CFS NIH Intramural Study

Immune Study Adds to Evidence Of Body-Wide Problems With Energy Production in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)

Increased expression of CD24 …could thus reflect abnormalities in maintaining appropriate ATP generation (in ME/CFS). The authors

Numerous studies suggest problems with energy production exist in chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). The huge energy needs exertion places on the muscles and brain suggest they’re an obvious place for energy production problems to show up. Ramping up to fight off pathogens also places extreme demands on energy production in immune cells. Now comes a study which suggests that energy production problems in a subset of B-cells could be setting people with ME/CFS up for problems with inflammation and autoimmunity.

B-cells and ME/CFS

The first couple of successful Rituximab trials brought renewed interest in the immune cells most effected by the drug – the B-cells. The last, large Rituximab trial unfortunately failed – the drug does not work in ME/CFS – but the Rituximab effort succeeded in other ways.

First off, it brought two creative and dedicated researchers, Oystein Fluge and Olav Mella to the field and energized ME/CFS research in Norway.

B-cell

A B-cell producing antibodies to fight pathogens

Secondly, the B-cells – which play a huge role in immunity (and autoimmunity) – finally got some study in ME/CFS.  Keeping with ME/CFS’s time-honored tradition of falling between the cracks in medicine, several studies found no indication of altered levels of “classical B-cell markers”.

Something unusual did, however, pop up, in an extended analysis, which went well beyond the classical markers usually explored. In 2015 a study found that a molecule called CD24 was highly expressed in a group of B-cells.

CD24 is an adhesion molecule which turns on various signaling networks – it basically tells cells what to do. It is most highly expressed on early stage or transitional B-cells as they emerge from the bone marrow.

During the normal transition from immature to mature metabolically active B-cells, early B-cells are tested again and again for evidence that they may be turning into autoantibody producing cells and many are removed.  Over time, as these cells transform themselves into mature B-cells, the CD24 molecule gradually disappears from their surfaces. High levels of these molecules in people with ME/CFS suggested that a problem with B-cell maturation might be present.

Since antibody producing B-cells play a major role in fighting off infections, having a bunch of immature B-cells hanging around the immune systems of ME/CFS patients could constitute a problem.

Plus there’s evidence that the CD24 molecule plays a role in several diseases.  CD24 polymorphisms (genetic variants of CD24) have been associated with increased risk for and accelerated progression of autoimmune diseases including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematous. CD24 can also be over‐expressed in many cancers, including B cell lymphomas.

In short, it’s not a molecule you want to ignore.

Energy Production Problems in the Immune System

Front Immunol. 2018 Oct 22;9:2421. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2018.02421. eCollection 2018. CD24 Expression and B Cell Maturation Shows a Novel Link With Energy Metabolism: Potential Implications for Patients With Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Mensah FFK1, Armstrong CW2, Reddy V1, Bansal AS3, Berkovitz S4, Leandro MJ1, Cambridge G1.

In a 2018 study, a UK and Australian group took B-cells from ME/CFS patients and healthy controls, stimulated them and then monitored what happened.  As before, they found an increased frequency of CD24+ B-cells in ME/CFS patients.

What made the increased frequency of these naïve CD24 packed B cells in ME/CFS so interesting, though, was their mode of energy production.

Examining the metabolism of the ME/CFS patients’ cells, the researchers found a “strong(ly) positive” association between the amount of glycolysis and lactate produced and the expression of CD24 molecules on ME/CFS patients’ B-cells. Put another way, the more glycolysis was used to produce energy and the greater the lactate production (a by-product of glycolysis) – the more the CD24 molecule showed up on ME/CFS patient’s B-cells.

energy production me-CFS

Findings suggesting that a body-wide problem with energy production are present in ME/CFS are piling up.

Lower levels of mitochondria in these cells suggested one reason ME/CFS patients’ B-cells may be stuck in this mode.  Not surprisingly, the authors found this more prominent B-cell subset in ME/CFS was also largely unresponsive to stimulation.

That suggested that not only do the energy problems in ME/CFS extend to the immune cells but that they could be impacting immune functioning – in this case by keeping ME/CFS B-cells in a naïve state – that may be associated with disease.

Plus increased levels of the CD24 molecule have also been associated with a damaging state called “senescence”.  Instead of undergoing a process called autophagy during which a cell’s contents are safely recycled, during senescence – which is often associated with aging –  damaged mitochondria cause cells to slowly deteriorate while producing scads of pro-inflammatory factors.

An exercise physiologist, Graham Salmun, recently reported that his exercise study results suggest senescence is indeed occurring in ME/CFS.  He believes problems with aerobic energy production are a) impairing ME/CFS patients ability to produce energy and b) creating a senescent state that is causing chronic inflammation.

Anaerobic Thresholds, Fatty Acid Problems and Autophagy: Dr. Klimas’s Exercise Study

Conclusion

This study provided an intriguing metabolic snapshot of the immune system. The fact that increased expression of the CD24 molecule has been associated with autoimmune disorders and cancer makes the CD24 finding in ME/CFS interesting, but the metabolic connection the researchers found may be more important.

Their findings suggest that the same problems producing energy found elsewhere in ME/CFS may also be occurring in their immune cells.  Plus the findings suggest that a state of senescence, chronic inflammation and cellular unresponsiveness may be present as well. The possible penalties of having an immune system with a broken aerobic energy production system could go beyond fatigue and pain and extend to problems with autoimmunity, and perhaps in rare cases, cancer.

Studies finding an increased reliance on anaerobically produced energy in the muscles, the brain, in neutrophils and now in some of the B-cells all suggest that a body-wide disruption in energy production may be present in ME/CFS.