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

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

The Subset Makers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

atypical subset

The atypical group turned out to be quite different

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

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

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

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

 The Atypical Subset

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

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

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

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

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

Immune “Exhaustion”?

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

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

autoimmune diseases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor Networking

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

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

Pro-inflammatory Markers Down

pathogen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cause(s)

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

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

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

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

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

How Common are Atypical Patients?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Similar Issues Showing Up in Other Neurological Diseases

subsets chronic fatigue

Subsets are common in neurological diseases.

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

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

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

SR_Donate_6.9.14_5

Next Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 A Foundational Approach To ME/CFS Proposed

foundational study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Shift: Top Science Journal Asserts Shift in Attitude Towards ME/CFS Has Occurred

“Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a biological disease” Dr. Ian Lipkin’s Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University

From NIH Director Francis Collins’ high profile blog “Moving Toward Answers in ME/CFS“, to the New York Times Opinion piece “Getting It Wrong on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” exposing the failures of the PACE trial, to the coverage of the Australians’ search for a biomarker, the chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) community has been treated to some excellent press lately.

difference-maker

Influential journal suggests a shift is occurring in how researchers are viewing ME/CFS

Now comes a piece “Biological underpinnings of chronic fatigue syndrome begin to emerge” from the news section of Nature, one of the world’s most read and most prestigious scientific journals. The article, written by Amy Maxmen, proclaims that a “shift” from viewing ME/CFS as psychosomatic to viewing it as a real disorder has occurred.

The article is a far cry from some of sentiments of the “Life After XMRV” piece Nature did in 2011 in which Simon Wessely asserted that the patients’ reactions to that finding would lead another generation of researchers to avoid ME/CFS research.  (He rather memorably suggested that researchers would rather “work on images of Mohammed” than study it.) Even advocates for the disease, though, worried that the controversy would turn off researchers.  Others, however, felt that the XMRV finding would galvanize researchers to use new technologies to understand ME/CFS.

They were right. Wessely, it appears, was wrong.

World-Class Researchers Beginning to Take ME/CFS On

The Nature article makes it clear that a major cause for the shift occurring is the presence, for the first time ever, of world-class researchers willing to take ME/CFS on.

Dr. Ian Lipkin, an immunologist with an unmatched resume, has not only lent his name and prestige to this disease, but his Columbia team’s published findings  – two of which have outlined dramatic changes in immune functioning in ME/CFS –  have been at the center of this shift. The Columbia team’s findings have been built on collaborations with expert clinicians, including Dr. Daniel Peterson and the Simmaron Research Foundation he advises. (Check out the slideshow that dominates the website for Lipkin’s Center for Infection and Immunity (CII): one of the slides simply says, “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a biological disease”.)

Ron Davis, with his many awards and the stunning story of his son’s illness, is also reaching deep into the scientific world to find answers. The stunning picture of Davis holding the printed circuit he’s using to decipher ME/CFS could be a metaphor for the search for the answer to ME/CFS itself.  The answer is there in that maze somewhere, and it’s going to be technology – probably new technology – that uncovers it.

These two men, with their willingness to publicly take bold stands for this disease, have been at the forefront of the “shift” that appears to be occurring. Both men have had the ear of the NIH Director, Francis Collin.  Their credibility has gone far in helping the National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of biomedical research in the country, take a reinvigorated approach to ME/CFS.

Dr. Avi Nath

Dr. Avi Nath, National Clinical Center, NIH

Next, Nature cites the conclusion from the IOM report’s “expert panel” that  chronic fatigue syndrome is an under-studied physiological illness. Then comes mention of the intramural study led by Avindra Nath, the widely published and respected clinical director for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders (NINDS). An infectious neurologist, Dr. Nath is conducting the first intramural study in ME/CFS in decades at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. Dr. Lipkin and Dr. Peterson are advisers on this intramural study.

Others could have been mentioned: Mark Davis of Stanford, Derya Unutmaz of the Jackson Laboratory, Lasker Award winner Michael Houghton of the University of Alberta, Patrick McGowan of the University of Toronto and others new to the field.  As the names line up, you do get the idea that, as Dr. Nath told Nature, “Researchers are thinking deeply about how to build the field.”

Building the field, of course, is what the NIH’s recent decision to fund three ME/CFS research centers is all about. Yes, much more is needed, but this article, showing up in a highly cited journal, suggests that the tide may be slowing turning where it needs to turn the most – in the research community.

Ian Lipkin and the Center for Infection and Immunity Step Forward

 Ian Lipkin is featured twice in the article, first stating:

“We now have a great deal of evidence to support that this is not only real, but a complex set of disorders. We are gathering clues that will lead to controlled clinical trials.”

Lipkin has been a vocal advocate for ME/CFS

Lipkin has been a vocal advocate for ME/CFS

Three studies from Lipkin and Hornig at Columbia are expected to be published shortly with one to be published next week. Don’t be surprised if, based on Lipkin’s comments, the CII lays the groundwork for something the chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) community has been waiting for a long time: evidence of biologically determined subsets, or in Lipkin’s words, direct evidence that ME/CFS is made up of a “complex set of disorders”.

The Simmaron Research Institute / Center For Infection and Immunity Collaboration

Simmaron CII partnership

Simmaron and the Center for Infection and Immunity: working together to understand ME/CFS

In its efforts to scientifically redefine ME/CFS, the Simmaron Research Foundation regularly partners with Dr. Lipkin’s Center for Infection and Immunity. Recent efforts included the spinal fluid study which showed dramatic alterations in immune functioning in the brain, the immune study which differentiated short from long duration ME/CFS patients, and the gut study about to be published. Simmaron is currently collaborating with the CII on additional phases of spinal fluid research and more.

Stay tuned for a Simmaron/CII study that will help to reshape our understanding of what ME/CFS is and how it should be treated.

Simmaron

The Gut and ME/CFS

The gut with its immense effect on the immune system is proving to be a fertile area of research on ME/CFS (see below). Perhaps no other team has pushed the ME/CFS gut connection more effectively recently than Ian Lipkin and Mady Hornig at the CII.

The Nature piece tantalized us a bit with news from Ian Lipkin that one of those studies showing an unusual pattern of gut flora in people with ME/CFS and IBS will be published soon.

A quick look at what studies have told us (see below) about the gut and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) suggests that reduced gut floral diversity, possibly characterized by increased numbers of inflammatory bacteria may be common in ME/CFS.

Importantly, every study that has looked for leaky gut – which involves the translocation of gut bacteria into the blood – where it could spark an immune response causing fatigue, pain and other symptoms – has found it.  Most intriguingly, the research suggesting that exercise may negatively affect ME/CFS patients’ gut flora and increase their leaky gut issues could help explain post-exertional malaise.

The Gut and ME/CFS – Recent Findings

  •  Exercise in ME/CFS produces changes in gut flora, leaky gut and Inflammation  – Shukla’s 2015 study suggests that exercise not only changes the composition of the gut flora in people with ME/CFS but results in increased levels of gut bacteria leaking into the blood (possibly causing inflammation and post-exertional malaise.) The fun didn’t stop there. The ME/CFS patients also had more trouble clearing the gut bacteria from their blood than the healthy controls.
  • People with ME/CFS have reduced gut flora diversity and leaky gut – Gilotreaux’s 2016 study suggests more pro-inflammatory and fewer anti-inflammatory gut species are present in ME/CFS, and provides more evidence of bacteria sneaking through the gut lining and ending up in the blood.
  • Gut bacteria/viruses are infectious triggers in ME/CFSNavaneetharaja’s 2016 review paper suggests that gut bacteria and/or viruses have been overlooked in the search for an infectious trigger in ME/CFS.
  • ME/CFS is associated with reduced gut microbiome diversity and increased gut viral activity – Gilotreaux’s 2016 case report of twins found reduced VO2 max, decreased gut bacterial diversity and increased gut viral activity in the sick ME/CFS twin.
  • Antibiotics can improve gut flora and sleep in some ME/CFS patientsJackson’s 2015 Australian study suggests that erythromycin improved the gut flora and sleep in about a third of ME/CFS patients but not in the rest.
  • Altered gut flora diversityFremont’s 2013 study shows increased abundance of the same bacterial family (Firmicuties) in ME/CFS as found in Shukla’s 2015 study.
  • Leaky gut is associated with an autoimmune processMaes 2013 study suggests that increased bacterial translocation (leaky gut) is associated with high levels of antibodies targeting serotonin. Patients with these antibodies had evidence of increased inflammation.
  • Leaky gut is associated with inflammation and symptom severityMaes 2012 study suggests ME/CFS patients are mounting a very strong immune response to intestinal bacteria found in the blood that is leading to increased inflammation.
  • IBS/leaky gut subset is present in ME/CFSMaes 2012 study shows one subset of ME/CFS patients (60%) has leaky gut and IBS while another subset does not.
  • Treating leaky gut in ME/CFS can reduce symptomsMaes 2008 study shows that treating leaky gut with natural anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative substances (NAIOSs), such as glutamine, N-acetyl cysteine and zinc in conjunction with a leaky gut diet can significantly improve symptoms in ME/CFS

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Inflammation Test Could be Tailor-Made for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Are the Mitochondria To Blame?

February 12, 2017

“More than 90 percent of all noncommunicable diseases of aging are associated with chronic inflammation”  David Furman  – Stanford Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection

Inflammation is a big deal in the medical world.  Even mild inflammation, if it’s consistently present, is known to increase one’s risk of getting cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and many others. Standard tests for inflammation such as C-reactive protein or cholesterol, however, are often unrevealing. For instance, inflammation is a key driver of heart disease, but the first sign for many of heart problems is still a heart attack.

inflammation

Chronic, low levels of inflammation are found in many serious diseases.

Likewise it’s been said that chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and fibromyalgia (FM) are inflammatory diseases, but standard tests for inflammation often indicate that none is present. Dr. Montoya believes that current inflammation tests are missing a lot and that future tests will be able to detect the kind of inflammation occurring in ME/CFS.

Given that tests for inflammation are relatively crude, it makes sense that significant efforts would be directed to developing a better test.  It’s no surprise that Mark Davis at Stanford is involved.

Davis’s Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection is spitting out interesting findings like there’s no tomorrow.  Coffee drinkers and dark chocolate lovers were recently pleased to learn that metabolites associated with caffeine and dark chocolate were associated with increased longevity and reduced inflammation. In fact, incubating cells with these metabolites  shut off their inflammatory response.

A 2015 study overturned decades of perceived wisdom that self-attacking or auto-reactive lymphocytes are mostly weeded out early in childhood. (They’re actually very common in adults.)  Davis upended another pillar of orthodoxy when he determined that environment – the microbes, toxins, foods, etc. that we encounter – have far more of an impact on our immune system than our genes. Davis found, for instance, that a single cytomegalovirus infection causes stunningly large and permanent changes to our immune systems.

Davis is bold enough to want to replace all mouse research forever (“Free the mice!”) with a human based approach using immune modeling. In 2015 the Bill Gates foundation gave him $50 million to figure out how to build more effective vaccines. Lastly and most importantly for us, Davis is one of the luminaries sitting on the Open Medicine Foundation’s Scientific Board.  A friend of Ron Davis, I met him at the Davis’ Palo Alto fundraiser a year or so ago. (He said when Ron Davis asks you to do something, you do it).

Davis may have come up with the best test yet for inflammation – an apt subject for ME/CFS and FM patients.  In fact this test sounds like it was made for people with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

 Old Before Their Time?

The study originated in an attempt to quantify the link between inflammation and something perhaps pertinent to chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia – aging.  While the evidence is sketchy, it does suggest that people with ME/CFS and/or FM might be aging faster.  Decreased brain gray matter, shortened telomere lengths,  gait alterations, and the cognitive and sleep issues, could all reflect a group of patients who are aging a bit before their time.

The Study

Scientists develop inflammation test that may predict cardiovascular disease Cell Syst. 2016 Oct 26;3(4):374-384.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.cels.2016.09.009. Epub 2016 Oct 13. Defective Signaling in the JAK-STAT Pathway Tracks with Chronic Inflammation and Cardiovascular Risk in Aging Humans. Shen-Orr SS1, Furman D2, Kidd BA2, Hadad F3, Lovelace P4, Huang YW4, et. al. 

In this study researchers studied two groups of 40 individuals, one between 40 and 60 years old and one over the age of 60, for nine years. Every year they threw a battery of specialized immune tests at them, and at the end of the study assessed their cardiovascular health by measuring levels of atherosclerotic plaque, arterial stiffness and ventricular function.

Their goal  – to develop a better immune test that can predict cardiovascular risk due to inflammation much earlier than is currently possible.

“Wired and Tired” Immune Systems Spark Inflammation

They hit the jackpot when they measured immune cells responsiveness to cytokines.  Younger study participants demonstrated a quick and dramatic response to the cytokines- their T-cells went into a tizzy, but the older participants produced a more muted response.

Exhausted immune systems

Tired immune systems may be sparking inflammation

We usually think of immune activation as potentially bad – as a driver of inflammation, and  so it is at times. This study suggests, though, that the kind of immune activation present is the key.

The older persons’ immune systems were, in fact, overly activated – but not in response to the cytokines. They were hyped up before the cytokine test; i.e. they were mildly activated (“wired and tired”?) all the time.  When presented with a stressor, though, the immune cells pooped out.

If that pattern sounds familiar, it should.  ME/CFS/FM patients appear to have activated sympathetic nervous systems at rest which also poop out when they’re put under strain. ME/CFS/FM patients low heart rate variability (HRV) scores also demonstrate a less responsive system is present.

A cytokine responsiveness score (composed of 15 different cytokine responsiveness tests) indicated that the always-on-but-muted immune response to danger was not good news. It was associated with signs of atherosclerosis and the inability of the heart to relax between beats.

This study suggests that it’s not the big burst of immune activity that is perilous for most of us. A nice, sharp increase in immune responsiveness is actually a sign of health. It’s the always on, lower levels of immune activation that cause the inflammation that results in so much trouble for so many people – and perhaps in ME/CFS.

It suggests the system doesn’t have to be fully activated to create inflammation; it simply has to be exhausted. The reduced blood and spinal fluid cytokine levels Lipkin and Hornig found in ME/CFS smacked of immune exhaustion. The Columbia-Simmaron Research spinal fluid studies that published those results continue in an effort to characterize the neurological levels of inflammation and immune response and move us closer to treatments.

Several studies suggest that increased oxidative stress and vascular characteristics of people with chronic fatigue syndrome may put them at increased risk of cardiovascular issues.  Improperly functioning mitochondria can produce massive amounts of free radicals and thus inflammation, which in turn furthers hampers mitochondrial functioning.

A Mitochondrial Immune Connection?

Any discussion of “exhaustion” has to touch on the mitochondria.  It turns out that immune exhaustion may very well be linked to mitochondrial problems.

Early on Ron Davis suggested that energy problems in ME/CFS could be affecting the immune cells in particular. Immune cells typically don’t use a lot of energy until they come upon a pathogen, at which point they use enormous amounts of energy to transform themselves into fighting machines that attack the defender and pump out scads of cytokines.  If mitochondrial dysfunction is present it might very well show up in the immune cells in spades.

Armstrong and McGregor’s metabolomic findings suggested that ME/CFS patients were in energy depleted states similar to those found in inflammatory, sepsis-like conditions or starvation.  Their work suggested that energy depletion (immune exhaustion?) may be associated with inflammation in ME/CFS.

Naviaux believes the mitochondria provide our first and perhaps most precise reflection of immune health.  His insights into the mitochondria/immune interface has guided much of his work.

SMCI Tackles Mitochondrial-Immune Connection

The Solve ME/CFS Initiative is exploring the intersection between the immune system and the mitochondria in a slate of studies. In the “The Bioenergetic Health Index of NK Cells as a Diagnostic Tool for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” Isabel Barao – an ME/CFS researcher who’s also worked with the Simmaron Research Foundation – will assess the energy index of NK cells in ME/CFS.  This new test, called the “Bioenergetic Health Index,was developed at the same University Jarred Younger is working at (University of Alabama at Birmingham).

low energy chronic fatigue

ME/CFS researchers are determining if low energy production is affecting immune performance

Another SMCI study “Metabolic Analysis of B-Cell Maturation in Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” will assess whether mitochondrial problems are affecting the B-cell problems that Rituximab may be fixing in ME/CFS.  Fluge and Mella – the originators of the Rituximab treatment regimen in ME/CFS – believe autoimmune processes may be attacking the mitochondria in ME/CFS.

A third study “HHV-6 Mediated Mitochondrial Modulation and Its Association to ME/CFS” will determine if HHV-6 infection is affecting mitochondrial energy production in ME/CFS.

The Stanford immune responsiveness test is not available yet. Too expensive for clinical use, researchers are trying to find ways to lower its cost. When the Stanford test becomes available it might not be surprising to find ME/CFS and FM patients scoring very low.

In the meantime ME/CFS researchers are avidly exploring the intersection between the immune system and the mitochondria.

Simmaron

Is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome An Inflammatory Disease? The 2016 IACFS/ME Conference Overviews Pt II

immune-systemThe immune system’s complexity reared its head again at this conference as Dr. Montoya showcased some of the findings coming out of his large immune studies at Stanford.  Montoya’s assertions that chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is similar to systemic inflammatory response syndrome and should be called an inflammatory disorder were intriguing indeed. It’s still, however, hard understand what is going on in the immune system in ME/CFS.

This is a long blog; if you just want the main findings a quickie overview is given at the end of it.

IMMUNE SYSTEM

Montoya’s huge (584 person!) and impressive immune studies –  the largest ever done in this disease – dominated several presentations.  The studies are bit unusual in that they contained about twice as many healthy controls (n=392) as patients (n=192).  Montoya posted an impressive list of 30 researchers he’s collaborating with at Stanford and elsewhere.

He spoke of a complex immune situation often characterized by both up and down immune activation, but which strongly suggested chronic fatigue syndrome is an inflammatory disorder.

Cytokine Study

Cytokines are molecules produced by immune cells that regulate immune functioning in many ways. Montoya tested many cytokines (51) but only two popped out in the first run of this study. That was surprising; large studies are particularly good at finding small but still significant differences, but this study found few differences between the ME/CFS patients and healthy controls than some smaller studies.

Lipkin and Hornig enhanced their cytokine study results by controlling for duration. The key for Montoya was severity. When he added severity to the picture, the immune findings popped out. In the more severely ill patients a rather eye-popping third of the 51 cytokines tested (leptin, CXCL-1, CXLC10, GM-SF, IFN-Y, GM-CSF, IL-4, IL-5, Il-7, IL-12p70, IL-13,  IL-17F, NGF, TGF-b, CCLI, SCF and TGF-a) – most of them pro-inflammatory in nature  – significantly increased.

Montoya proposed that TGF-b, traditionally thought of as anti-inflammatory, may have been acting as a pro-inflammatory cytokine. That cytokine has shown up in several ME/CFS studies before.

Interlude: Cytokine Results Still All Over the Map

The results were encouraging, but cytokine results in this disease are still all over the map. For years researchers have thought they MUST be involved in ME/CFS, but cytokine results have been stunningly inconsistent.

For example, while a 145 person Australian study did, like Montoya’s study, find increased levels of cytokines (IL-10, IFN-γ, TNF-α), none of those cytokines showed up in Montoya’s results.

igg-antibodyA 99 person study from the Klimas group measuring 16 cytokines found significant alterations in 10 of them (increased – LT-a, IL-1a, IL-1b, IL-4, IL-5, IL-6, and IL-12; decreased – IL-8, IL-13 and IL-15.) IL-4/5-were increased in Montoya’s severe ME/CFS group, but IL-13 was decreased in the Klimas study and increased in Montoya’s.

Wyller’s recent large study of ME/CFS adolescents found no cytokine differences between those diagnosed with the Fukuda criteria cytokine and healthy controls. A Japanese/U.S. study found no evidence that either sleep deprivation or exercise effected cytokine levels as well.

The large Landi/Houghton 179 person study of longer duration patients found mostly cytokine reductions instead of increases (reduced levels of IL-7, IL-16, VEGF-a, CX3CLI, CXCL9; increased CCL24). If most of Montoya’s group were early-stage ME/CFS patients, that might help explain the differences, but we don’t know that they were. (Montoya did state that he is going to filter for illness duration.)

The Lipkin/Hornig cytokine study found increased levels of 16 cytokines in early or late duration patients vs healthy controls (IL-1a, IL-1ra, IL-4, IL-12p70, Il-13, CXCL8, TNFα, SFASL, CCL2, CCL3, CD40L, MCP1, TNFSF10, SCF, CFS1, and resistin).  Only three of those (IL-12p70, Il-13, SCF) were found elevated in the Montoya study; thirteen were not.

An Australian study that tracked for severity in a different way from Montoya suggested that more severe patients do have higher cytokine levels. It found reductions in IL-1b, and increases in IL-7, IL-8 and IFN-y. Of those, IFN-y was increased in the Montoya study.

In a much (much) smaller cytokine study published earlier this year, Dr. Fletcher’s study suggested that dramatic shifts in immune functioning may occur over time. IL-a plays an important role in early ME/CFS and then declines. IL-8 levels were abnormally high early on but declined to lower than normal levels after a few years. Il-6 levels were low early on and elevated later. Ironically, the Montoya study didn’t find any of these cytokines elevated in his severely ill patients.

Conclusion (?)

Until cytokine results achieve more consistency they’re clearly not going to get traction in the medical world.  The inconsistency seems surprising as most of these studies are from good labs. It’s possible, though, that subsets are mucking up the issue. Filtering for duration is clearly needed, and Montoya’s study suggested that filtering for severity is as well. The Klimas group’s Gulf War Syndrome study suggested that  gender may need to be accounted for as well.

Dr. Peterson’s atypical patient subset may throw another loop into cytokine results. Peterson’s atypical ME/CFS subset group so dramatically affected cerebral spinal fluid results that it had to be excluded from the study altogether.  Could  this group be effecting blood cytokine results as well?

Researchers are not going to stop studying cytokines – they’re apparently too enticing – and it’s possible that studies underway may help us understand what is going on.  If Lipkin/Hornig can, in their study underway, replicate their cytokine results in different duration patients – that will be something. Ditto with several good day bad day studies underway. If Montoya can duplicate the Lipkin/Hornig duration results that would really be something. Time will tell.

It’s also possible that cytokine levels per se aren’t as important as we might think. Broderick’s models suggest that context is key; in the right context a factor can be important even if it’s levels are not raised.  His models suggest that treatments targeting just two cytokines might be able to enable ME/CFS patients to exercise again. (See upcoming IACFS/ME treatment blog).

Montoya’s network analysis indicated that Il-1B – an important regulatory cytokine associated with increased pain – was the most important factor 24 hours after exercise.  That certainly makes sense given what we know about exercise and pain.

Another possibility is that cytokines in the nervous system are more important than those in the peripheral blood. It’s thought, for instance, that cytokines must contribute to central sensitivity syndromes (CSS’s) such as fibromyalgia as well, but a similar issue with consistency apparently applies there. Staud has suggested that cytokines probably play a major in CSS, but only within the central nervous system.

No Biomarker Yet – An immune signature that shows up only in the more severely ill gives us clues about the illness but obviously isn’t going to work as a biomarker.  But what would happen if Montoya essentially shoved those people into a more severe state by having them exercise? Would adding exercise to the mix make the more moderately ill patients look like more severely ill patients?

Montoya’s Exercise Study

Would exercise make moderately ill ME/CFS patients in the throes of post-exertional malaise look like severely ill patients? The answer to that question was no.

Montoya’s maximal exercise test produced opposite results from the cytokine study done in patients at rest.  This time, exercise reduced the levels of four cytokines (TNF-a, IL-8, CCL4, ICAM-1) while increasing the levels of only 1 (CXCL-10).

Both TNF-a and IL-8 increase during exercise in healthy people, however. The fact that both went down in ME/CFS patients may be notable.  If immune exhaustion is present then perhaps one might expect cytokine levels to drop when the body is faced with an exercise stressor.

A 2014 review of exercise studies reported that while exercise does appear to effect the complement system and gene expression and increase oxidative stress in ME/CFS, it does not appear to effect cytokines. Montoya’s results suggested the opposite.

Genomics Study Suggests Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is an Inflammatory Disorder

At the Stanford Symposium, Montoya announced that the gene expression results indicated that ME/CFS was similar to a disease called systemic inflammatory response syndrome or SIRS. He repeated that assertion again; this time stating that ME/CFS was a “100% match” to SIRS.  (The abstract was a bit more cautious, stating that the gene expression results were “very similar” to it and similar diseases).

SIRS

SIRS has been called a
“cytokine storm”

The concept of SIRS came out of ten years of work at a Toronto trauma lab by Dr. William Nelson. SIRS is  a kind of cytokine “storm” – a term sometimes used in ME/CFS – which refers to a positive feedback cycle that results in higher and higher levels of cytokines.  SIRS also effects both pro and anti-inflammatory cytokine levels as well.

SIRS refers to a state of systemic inflammation after infection or some other insult and can result in organ dysfunction and failure. Intriguingly, given the Australian metabolomic group’s suggestion that the metabolomic results in ME/CFS are similar to sepsis, it’s closely related to sepsis.

SIRS has other manifestations that some may find familiar. Increased heart rates, lower or higher than normal body temperatures, rapid breathing rates, and low white blood cell counts found in SIRS have also been found in ME/CFS. The rapid breathing rates, by the way, are associated with either increased metabolic stress due to infection or inflammation or may signal inadequate perfusion because of the onset of anaerobic cellular metabolism.

Other possible links include fibrin deposition, platelet aggregation, and coagulopathies aka Dr. Berg’s findings in ME/CFS some years ago. Dr. Montoya’s immense gene expression study almost couldn’t have uncovered a more interesting disease to link to ME/CFS.  How serendipitous as well – if this all turns out – that Ron Davis and some members of his Open Medicine Foundation team have done an enormous amount of work on sepsis.

How is SIRS treated? In some ways (blood volume enhancement, anti-anaphylaxis drugs, selenium, glutamine, eicosapentaenoic acid, and antioxidants) that can be helpful in ME/CFS.

Epigenetic Modifications Point at Immune System and HPA Axis

Montoya’s epigenetic study suggested an infection (or some other insult) had indeed occurred in ME/CFS. Greatly increased rate of methylation in ME/CFS patients’ immune regulatory genes suggested some infection or other environmental insult had occurred.

Other epigenetic modifications were found to affect HPA axis genes.  Given the strong interaction between the HPA axis and the immune system, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to find that some event had tweaked both the HPA axis and immune genes in many ME/CFS patients. (The Montoya group is currently engaged in a promising HPA axis study.)

Other gene groups affected by methylation (epigenetic modification) include genes that play a role in, yes, metabolism.  One gene highlighted in a whole genome polymorphism study has been implicated in lactic acidosis (NUFS7). A polymorphism in this gene, which transfers electrons from NADH to CoQ10, could result in increased oxidative stress and reduced mitochondrial output.

Is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome an Inflammatory Disease?

Finding increased immune activation in severe ME/CFS patients, and with gene expression results a close match to SIRS, Montoya asserted that ME/CFS is an overactive immune disease and proposed that its new name should include the word “inflammatory.” Montoya results suggest this, but it’s hard to see how any consensus can be reached until we get more consistent results from the cytokine studies (???).

Pathogens

When asked about retroviruses, Montoya suggested there was no cheese down that tunnel. In several of his newsletters Montoya promised “exciting” new findings regarding pathogens but none were presented at this conference.

Allergy Study Reveals Intriguing Subset

Dr. Levine’s allergy study was, for me, one of the surprise highlights of the conference. This nice big study demonstrated how valuable a resource the multi-site ME/CFS experts centers are, and how valuable a tightly integrated network of research centers will be.

In one of the bigger ME/CFS studies to date, Levine queried 200 patients in five sites regarding the incidence of allergic symptoms/conditions and found that the presence of sinusitis and hives distinguished ME/CFS patients from healthy controls.  (My guess is that the presence of sinusitis is overlooked and understudied in ME/CFS).

allergy subset ME/CFS

An allergy subset appears to have increased pain sensitization as well

The fact that having either of those conditions resulted in patients experiencing more pain suggested that an immune process was ramping up their pain levels.   That hypothesis was strengthened when Levine found that this group also had a much, much higher incidence of migraine, tension headaches, back pain, neck pain, and fibromyalgia.  Plus they had more gut and inflammatory symptoms. Something clearly appeared to be driving a pain sensitization process in these patients.

What is the tie that binds these findings together? Levine suggested it might be mast cell activation. Plus, Dr. Levine noted that both mast cells and neurons secrete two factors: nerve growth factor and substance P, known to increase pain. Then there’s tryptase to consider. A recent study suggested that modification of a tryptase gene could be behind some cases of EDS, POTS, IBS, ME/CFS and FM. Another suggested mast cell activation may be occurring in ME/CFS

This is the kind of study that makes you wonder why the heck it hasn’t been done before. The study was surely not expensive, yet it might illuminate much about ME/CFS.  It was funded by the Hitchens Foundation.

POSTER: RNase L Returns? Novel Isoform of Ribonuclease L Shows up in Fibromyalgia

The idea that an important immune enzyme called RNase L had been broken into pieces and was not only no longer working properly but was actually causing channelopathies and other issues raised a great deal of interest in ME/CFS the 2000’s. At some point work on the enzyme stopped but RNase L was not forgotten.

In a surprise a Spanish group looked for and found the broken-up bits of the enzyme in fibromyalgia. The results were too variable for the 37 dKA form of the enzyme to be considered a biomarker but they did suggest that a subset of FM patients carried it.

Even more surprising was their finding of another broken up bit of RNase L (70 kDa) which was almost totally associated with the FM patients (p<.0001). They’ve create custom-made antibody to identify it and will apparently keep working on it.

PATHOGENS

POSTER: EBV Rides Again

We’ve heard so much about EBV over the years that we forget what a special virus it is. It’s’ true that almost everyone has been infected with EBV, and most have no problem with it, but EBV is no walkover.

When one is exposed to EBV later in life, it causes infectious mononucleosis (glandular fever) and is associated with several forms of cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Burkitt’s lymphoma, gastric cancer, nasopharyngeal carcinoma, central nervous system lymphomas). Evidence suggests that EBV infections result in a higher risk of many autoimmune diseases including dermatomyositis, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, and multiple sclerosis. Lastly, while hardly mentioned in the medical world (ME/CFS is not even mentioned in the Wikipedia article) but foremost in ME/CFS patients minds, EBV is a well-known trigger of ME/CFS.

EBV must have a multitude of tricks up its sleeve to contribute to so many illnesses. The idea that it plays a major role in ME/CFS has risen and fallen over the years. Right now, that idea seems to be more in its descendant phase, but as Dr. Klimas’s study shows, it ain’t over until it’s over; EBV may still very much figure in this disease.

Micro RNA’s – small bits of RNA – regulate which genes get expressed. It turns out that EBV, tricky virus that it is, encodes viral miRNA’s of its own. (EBV was the first virus found able to do this. Given the immense amount of EBV research being done (over 25 studies published in November alone) that was perhaps no surprise.)

HHV-6

HHV-6 appears to contribute to symptoms in ME/CFS

Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) were collected from ME/CFS patients and healthy controls before, during and after exercise, and various tests were done to assess EBV miRNA’s.  Preliminary results suggested that ME/CFS patients’ cells express higher levels of EBV proteins than normal and thus might be more likely to support EBV reactivation.

Plus some strange features emerged. The immune cells in ME/CFS tended to be smaller and have less volume (Ron Davis has found something similar). Instead of forming a classic “pump” shape the ME/CFS nuclei take on a puckered and wrinkled look as if they were aged. Plus, when a key immune transcription factor called STAT I gets activated, presumably by the virus, it ends up in the wrong part of the cell – a pattern indicative of viral reactivation.

All of this suggests that EBV may be tweaking ME/CFS cells in strange ways and that the virus may still play a part in ME/CFS.

POSTER: A Better HHV-6 Test

It’s clear that herpesvirus tests leave something to be desired and Nancy Klimas’ group is attempting to find a way to improve the diagnostic effectiveness of the Elisa test. The current test are provide only  yes-infected or no-not infected answers and are particularly unreliable at the high and low ends of the spectrum.

This study, involving Dr. Govindan from Tufts University and four Florida researchers, used various statistical tests to see if they could develop a truly “quantitative” Elisa for HHV-6.

The intercept they developed allowed them to accurately stratify patients, and showed that the HHV-6 intercept they produced was negatively associated with physical functioning; i.e. the higher the intercept – the worse the ME/CFS patients physical functioning was. This suggested that a) HHV-6 does contribute to the symptom burden in ME/CFS, and b) that this new test could aid doctors in determining when to apply antiviral therapies.

POSTER: Enterovirus Brain Infection Found

Dr. Chia’s work to get the medical world to take enterovirus infections in ME/CFS seriously continues. He gave a workshop on enteroviruses and seemed to be in demand; every time I saw him he was engaged in conversation with a group of people.

His poster highlighted the possible effects of enteroviruses in the most dramatic way. It told the story of a young man who first developed gut problems and then severe ME/CFS. Tests for herpesviruses were normal, but his Echovirus antibody levels were sky-high.  Stomach and colon biopsies stained positive for enteroviruses but enterovirus RNA was not detected in his blood (it often isn’t).

Unfortunately, the young man failed to respond to either alpha or gamma interferon or to SSRI’s, benzodiazepines or acid suppressants. Repeated MRI’s of his brain and spinal chord were normal. Six years into his illness, at the age of 29, he committed suicide.

His ending was tragic, but his story was not over. His harvested brain provided clues as to what may have happened. Neither a brain culture nor an RT-PCR picked up signs of enterovirus, but a western blot found protein bands which were similar to those found in the young man’s stomach biopsies (but different from those found in tuberculosis and lymphoma).

Dr. Chia concluded that this finding replicated a similar finding dating back to 1994.  He concluded that the

“finding of viral protein and RNA in the brain specimens ….is consistent with a chronic, persistent infection of the brain causing debilitating symptoms. EV is clearly one of the causes of ME/CFS, and antiviral therapy should be developed for chronic EV infection.”

Like herpesviruses, most enteroviral infections are passed off quickly, but like herpesviruses, enteroviruses are also associated with serious disorders including polio, meningitis, myocarditis, hand, foot and mouth disease and others. According to Wikipedia, treatment for enterovirus infections is primitive, consisting mostly of relieving symptoms such as pain as they occur.

One hopes at some point an independent lab will take up Dr. Chia’s work and give it the replication it needs and he deserves.

Conclusions

The cytokine findings are disappointingly inconsistent, but the immune system is a vast place and gene expression, epigenetic modeling and other studies continue to point a finger at it.  The Montoya studies should tell us much, plus the entry of noted researchers such as Ian Lipkin and Mady Hornig,  Maureen Hanson, Derya Unutmaz, Michael Houghton and Patrick McGowan into the field ensure that we’ll be learning much more about the immune system in the years ahead.

Marshall-Gradisnik’s NCNED team is churning out immune studies at a rapid rate, Broderick’s early modeling  studies suggest an immune focused 1-2 punch may knock out post-exertional malaise, and Fluge and Mella are testing another autoimmune drug, cyclophosphamide, in clinical trials.

Both Fluge/Ron Davis believe an immune process may be targeting energy production in our cells, the same may be true for ion channels, and it’s now clear that an autoimmune process is producing POTS in some patients. Every microbiome study thus far suggests altered microbial diversity and/or gut leakage into the blood could be sparking an immune response.

The Simmaron Foundation’s expanded spinal fluid study should give us a better handle on what’s happening in the brain just as new techniques to measure the amount of neuroinflammation present in the brain come online.

Finally, it’s encouraging that researchers are getting serious about subsets – and finding them when they look for them.

Major Findings

  • Increased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines are associated with increased severity in ME/CFS;
  • Exercise, on the other hand, appears to down-regulate cytokine levels in ME/CFS including several cytokines that are typically increased during exercise in healthy people;
  • Gene expression results suggest ME/CFS is very similar to a sepsis-like condition called systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) which shares some other characteristics with ME/CFS;
  • Epigenetic modifications suggest that events may have altered the expression of genes involved in both the HPA axis and immune systems in ME/CFS;
  • One subset of ME/CFS with sinusitis and/or hives also falls prey to other pain sensitization type disorders such as migraine, fibromyalgia, headache and back pain. Mast cells could be implicated;
  • A broken up form of RNase L, an important enzyme involved in fighting pathogens, showed up in fibromyalgia;
  • Higher levels of EBV proteins in ME/CFS patients’ cells plus structural abnormalities in their cells suggest EBV reactivation may occur more frequently in ME/CFS;
  • A quantitative Elisa test suggests that HHV-6 contributes to the symptoms of ME/CFS as well;
  • Enteroviral proteins in the brain of a young man with ME/CFS who committed suicide suggested that enteroviruses have infected the brains of some people with ME/CFS.

SR_Donate_6.9.14_1

 

 

The Other MEGA Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) Project: Dr. Hornig Talks

June 29, 2016

Three MEGA chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) projects (The OMF’s Severe ME/CFS Big Data project, NIH’s Clinical Center Study, The UK’s Grand Challenge) were recently discussed on Health Rising, but another “mega” project exists.

They all have some similarities. Like the others, the mega project underway at the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII)  is attempting to get at the molecular roots of chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Like the others it’ll be searching through vast amounts of data in an attempt to uncover the unique biological signature(s)

personalized medicine

The CII hopes to develop a molecular signature of ME/CFS

Like the Open Medicine Foundation and NIH Clinical Center projects, some of the technology has been developed in-house. We’re blessed with the attention of some of the most innovative researchers in the world.

Let’s take advantage of a recent talk by Simmaron Researcch Foundation Scientific Board member Mady Hornig in Sweden and check out the CII’s big plans for ME/CFS. (A transcript of the talk is provided  on the striking, new Microbe Discovery website).

We learned recently that the internationally renowned Ian Lipkin is all in for chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS); that his bucket list includes just two diseases: ours and autism.  Mady Hornig certainly didn’t skimp on her vision for ME/CFS at the talk either; she wants to create a Center of Excellence for ME/CFS at the CII, and hopes that the large array of studies the Center is engaged in will lay the foundation for that.

You can’t have research centers without funding, though. The NIH has been very responsive recently, and the big Clinical Center study is very exciting, but extramural funding is where it’s at and little money thus far has flowed to outside researchers. Last year Ian Lipkin and Mady Hornig in one of the weirdest grant awards ever received money for sampling but no money for analysis (?) –  and then had to drop in 500 K in to complete their sampling. It’s no wonder then that Mady Hornig (six months ago) referred to a “crisis” in funding. This, of course, is a crisis that’s been present for over 20 years.

Times are changing, though, and hopefully we’ll get some good news soon about the Trans NIH Working Group’s”strategy to reinvent ME/CFS at the NIH.

Even with this dearth of federal funding the CII, with the help of the Chronic Fatigue Initiative (funding metabolomics, proteomics, immune signatures, pathogen discovery projects), the Microbe Discovery Project, the (microbiome), the Stanford program (pathogens), the Simmaron Research Foundation (spinal fluid) and others, has put together a megaproject – a diverse, multidimensional attack focused on getting at the molecular underbelly of ME/CFS.

Check out the different stabs at ME/CFS the group is taking.

pathogens chronic fatigue syndrome

Dr. Montoya said last year to prepare for some exciting results in the pathogen study.

The Pathogen Slant  – in a very large study, the CII using PCR, Mass Tag PCR  (developed in Lipkin’s laboratory) and high throughput will scan for 1.7 million agents in, if I’m reading it right, 800 patients and controls. In his Spring 2015 and 2016 newsletters, Dr. Montoya said to expect some exciting results. They’re looking at viruses, bacteria, and for the first time ever in ME/CFS, fungi.

The Gut Plus Slant – (n=100) -The CII expects their microbiome analysis of the bacteria and fungi in gut will tell them a lot about immune functioning. It turns out that no less than 60% of our immune cells travel through and get altered by bacterial metabolites in the gut before they make it to the blood. They’re also looking at the throat area to see what this common collection point for pathogens might tell them. The CII has finished their first analyses of their initial gut study: the results were apparently good enough for the team to expand their study and begin taking multiple samples from the same patient over time.

It’s this kind of rigorous, dogged, longitudinal approach to ME/CFS – which no one by the way as ever done before – that they hope will put them first in line for a Center of Excellence. I don’t think anyone, ever, has watched the immune and microbiome systems over the length of time (12-18 months) the CII is. It would be very hard, indeed, to discount any pattern that consistently showed up over that period of time.

Plus, they’re building quite a biobank of samples at the same time. The CII will surely be at the top of the NIH’s list of potential ME/CFS research consortiums.

The Autoimmune Slant – Autoantibodies could conceivably be behind everything that happens in ME/CFS. The CII will be looking for autoantibodies to human cells and  pathogens including viruses, bacteria and fungi. This will allow them to dig up evidence of past infections that may have triggered ME/CFS. Their search will also include those adrenergic autoantibodies recently found in POTS patients that dysregulate their heart rates.

genes

Genetic, immune and pathogen data could come together to form a model for ME/CFS

The RNA Seq / miRNA – Gene expression Slant - Gene expression tells  us which genes are doing what. This study will determine what’s happening with the immune genes in ME/CFS. Right now we might guess they’ll see increased immune gene expression early in the disease and reduced gene expression.

Since studies have shown that unique patterns of gene expression or genetics predispose people to prolonged courses of illness after an infection, this study is ripe with promise.  (If I’m reading this right a paper should be out in the not too distant future.)

The CII could end up identifying:

  1.  pathogens that kick off the illness
  2. a pattern of gene expression that makes ME/CFS patients particularly vulnerable to that pathogen and
  3. the autoimmune reaction that grew out of an inadequate immune response that failed to quickly dispatch the pathogen.

Itraq / MRM Metabolomics ( amino acids, kynurenine, serotonin) Slant – The CII is particularly interested in how metabolomics (the search for metabolites in the blood) may be able to tell them what’s happening in gut.

tryptophan-kynurenine pathway

Some results suggest the kynurenine pathway has gotten turned on in ME/CFS

The L-tryptophan and the kynurenine pathway is a particular focus.  L-tryptophan should metabolize into serotonin, a feel good chemical involved in sleep, sex drive, vigilance and mood regulation. L-tryptophan, however, can also be captured by the kynurenine pathway which metabolizes it into some nasty products (bye-bye good feelings). The kynurenine pathway has popped up in an array of neurological and neuropsychiatric diseases.

Dr. Hornig noted their metabolomic analyses suggest the kynurenine pathway is alive and well in some ME/CFS patients. In a prior talk, she reported that their early data suggests that a subset of people with ME/CFS with low serotonin have increased immune activation ( IL-1 beta, TNF alpha, IL-12p40, and L-17F) as well.

Interestingly, interferon gamma (IFN-y) (see below) – an antiviral and proinflammatory activating cytokine, and TNF-a – a powerful pro-inflammatory cytokine, both of which may have become activated early in the disease, both push tryptophan metabolism into the kynurenine pathway.

Dr. Hornig said they were “very keen” to understand tryptophan’s role in ME/CFS.

Cytokine and Immune Arrays Slant  – They are or will be examining a wide array of cytokine levels over time to pluck out the most consistent contributors to ME/CFS.  Many people are interested in the role the autonomic nervous system plays in ME/CFS but the Lipkin/Hornig group may be the first to examine the role the immune system plays in causing  the ANS  issues and/or problems with orthostatic intolerance.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Allergy related cytokines (IL-4, IL-13, IL-17A, IL-10, Eotaxin) that can affect histamine production and alter blood pressure have popped up in their studies (and eotaxin has popped in other studies). Histamine, of course, can have devastating effects of blood pressure and circulation.  Dr. Hornig believes some of the “systemic fatigue” in chronic fatigue syndrome could originate here.

Simmaron

Similar results in spinal fluid and blood tests would provide a powerful validation for immune dysregulation in ME/CFS

The Spinal Fluid Slant – The Simmaron/CII study was not only the first study ever to document similar immune changes in the blood and spinal fluid, but it also introduced two new subsets; Dr. Peterson’s typical / atypical patietnts.  Dr. Lipkin was so high on expanding the spinal fluid study that he flew out to Lake Tahoe for the first time in 20 years to rally support for it.

An expanded Simmaron/CII spinal fluid study with more participants and more testing is underway. Should testing reveal similar findings in the spinal fluid and the blood again, a powerful message would be sent that ME/CFS is a immune disease.

Treatment

People with shorter duration illnesses could possibly benefit from  antibodies to IL-17A or interferon gamma that could  reduce their hyperactive response to these cytokines. Many commercial antibodies, in fact, are now available. If Hornig/Lipkin can validate upregulated IL-17A or interferon gamma is present those treatments could become available to people with ME/CFS.

For the longer duration patients Dr. Hornig suggested that increasing the immune response by using Ampligen or [ an IL-1 receptor antagonist could be helpful.

Networking

The immune system doesn’t just poop out in the longer duration patients – it kind of goes bananas. An immune networking comparison in short vs longer duration patients suggested  a very focused and active immune network existed in short duration patients. In the longer duration patients, though, a much more complex immune network featuring many down-regulated immune pathways was present. It’s the stark a portrayal of these two subsets that I’ve seen.

surprise results

These big data studies may result in some surprises popping out.

Biomarker? – Despite the fact that interferon gamma levels were not particularly high they were incredibly predictive of short duration patients. That suggested, as Jarred Younger’s and Gordon Broderick’s work has suggested, that context is the key. It’s possible that increased IFN-y in the context of ME/CFS has unexpectedly strong effects.

Remember This – A big surprise in the longer duration patients spinal fluid was the almost complete disappearance of IL-6, a cytokine needed for memory storage and retrieval.  The IL-1 receptor- antagonist (IL-1ra) was very low as well. That was an intriguing finding given that (a) the network analysis suggested that IL-1ra was a key down-regulating element in ME/CFS and (b) drugs such as Anakinra could boost it back up – and presumably stop the central nervous system down-regulation.

Conclusion

The Center for Infection and Immunity, led by Dr. Lipkin and Dr. Hornig, is engaged – largely thanks to the Chronic Fatigue Initiative as well as the Simmaron Research Foundation – in the third mega study of ME/CFS under way. Among the unique elements of this project are it’s continuing spinal fluid component, it’s strong focus on the gut and the kynurenine pathway, and it’s long term longitudinal study that could prove pivotal in validating ME/CFS as a disease.

The CII’s strong blood immune and spinal fluid studies last year probably helped the NIH agree to reinvigorate ME/CFS research. Hopefully, that’s just beginning of the role the Center will play in deciphering ME/CFS. Boasting one of the most extensive research efforts on ME/CFS, it surely it’s a strong candidate to be one of the ME/CFS research consortiums we hope will get funding.

Next Up – the Center for Infection and Immunity Replies to the NIH’S Request for Information on the next steps for ME/CFS

 

Are Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) and Fibromyalgia Immune Exhaustion Disorders?

March 21, 2016

When we think of immune problems we often think of the immune system going berserk and attacking healthy cells but another kind of immune issue called can be present. Recent studies suggest immune exhaustion may be more of a problem for many chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and/or fibromyalgia patients than an immune system run amok.

CHRONIC FATIGUE SYNDROME (ME/CFS)

“I think what we’re seeing is an immune system exhaustion over time” Dr. Mady Hornig

Chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) has generally been thought of as an immune activation disorder. Although much of the interest in the Lipkin/Hornig 2015 study focused on the immune activation found early in the disease, the study found 13 downregulated immune factors in the plasma of longer duration patients relative to the healthy controls.  Remarkably the same cytokines that were upregulated early in the disease were downregulated later in the disease.

exhaustion

Are ME/CFS and fibromyalgia immune exhaustion disorders?

That pattern smacked of something called “immune exhaustion”. Immune exhaustion is a well-known pattern of immune depletion seen in people with chronic infections or autoinflammatory diseases.  Immune exhaustion may be the main reason why some people just can’t knock an infection.

The patterns seen in the big 2015 Lipkin/Hornig Chronic Fatigue Initiative immune blood study were intriguing but not conclusive. Studies published since then, though, suggest that immune exhaustion – not immune activation – could be the main culprit in people with longer duration chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and fibromyalgia.

It should be noted, again, how important it was to differentiate shorter from longer duration patients. No immune abnormalities when the two subsets were mixed; only when they were differentiated by disease duration did the immune issues pop up.

The Simmaron Research/Lipkin/Hornig Spinal Fluid Study

Cytokine network analysis of cerebrospinal fluid in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome.Hornig M, Gottschalk G, Peterson DL, Knox KK, Schultz AF, Eddy ML, Che X, Lipkin WI.Mol Psychiatry. 2016 Feb;21(2):261-9. doi: 10.1038/mp.2015.29. Epub 2015 Mar 31.PMID: 25824300

Next came the Lipkin/Hornig/Simmaron Research Foundation study examining immune factors in the spinal fluid of ME/CFS and multiple sclerosis patients and healthy controls. Not only was a broad pattern of immune inhibition found in the longer duration patients but for the first time match between blood and spinal fluid study was found: the same issues appeared to be occurring in both the central nervous system and the body.

The number of downregulated immune factors – twenty-one in all (vs 13 in the blood study) in the spinal fluid of longer duration ME/CFS patients relative to healthy controls was notable and suggested that the closer one moves to the brain the more evidence of immune exhaustion one may find.

Both ME/CFS and MS patients exhibited immune exhaustion compared to healthy controls but the degree of immune exhaustion seen in ME/CFS was greater than that seen in MS. Demonstrating how complex the immune system is, the two diseases differed more from each other than from the healthy controls.

viral infection

An upregulated chemokine suggests that a viral infection could have triggered central nervous system changes in ME/CFS and MS

In one perhaps important way, though, they were quite alike. A chemokine called CXCL10 that clears the way for the entry of natural killer cells and T lymphocytes into the brain in response to a viral infection was increased in both disorders.  Increased levels of that chemokine in conjunction with the different kinds of immune exhaustion found in both disorders suggests that either different viruses could be present or a different response to the same virus has occurred.

The fact that infectious mononucleosis or glandular fever increases the risk of coming down with either ME/CFS or multiple sclerosis is intriguing in this regard. Could ME/CFS and MS simply reflect differing responses to the same virus?

Jarred Younger recently suggested that MS may be a more damaging form of ME/CFS. Neuroinflammation is present in both, but in one (MS) the neurons are damaged and in the other (ME/CFS) they are not.

Very high levels of CXCL10, such as appear to be present in MS, are associated with nerve damage. More moderately raised levels, such as seen in ME/CFS, are not. CXCL10 levels may also be able to tell us which patients respond better to antivirals. Hepatitis C and HIV patients with higher CXCL10 levels responded less well to antivirals than patients with lower levels.

The Lipkin spinal fluid study is looking more and more like it could end up being a seminal study.  It highlighted a new subset – “the Peterson subset” and validated and expanded on the dramatic immune downregulation seen in the earlier blood study.

A follow-up Simmaron Research/Lipkin/Hornig spinal fluid study is in the works.

The spinal fluid study wasn’t the end of the trend towards immune downregulation, though; right on its heels came the large Landi-Houghton blood study.

The Simmaron Research Foundation Australian Spinal Fluid Study

Mediators Inflamm. 2015;2015:929720. doi: 10.1155/2015/929720. Epub 2015 Mar 5.Cytokines in the cerebrospinal fluids of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis.

The Simmaron Research Foundation also participated with Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik at Griffith University in a small pre-pilot spinal fluid study. In this smaller study only one immune factor, IL-10, significantly differed between the ME/CFS patients and the healthy controls but the trend was the same; IL-10 was significantly reduced in the ME/CFS patients.

This study may tell us how immune depletion in one area can lead to immune activation in another. Because IL-10 is an anti-inflammatory, reduced IL-10 levels in the cerebral spinal fluid could reflect a brain with inflammation.

The Houghton-Landi Blood Study

Cytokine. 2016 Feb;78:27-36. doi: 10.1016/j.cyto.2015.11.018. Epub 2015 Nov 28. Reductions in circulating levels of IL-16, IL-7 and VEGF-A in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. Landi A1, Broadhurst D2, Vernon SD3, Tyrrell DL4, Houghton M5.

Michael Houghton isn’t just any researcher. A Lasker award winner, he got bit by the ME/CFS bug during the XMRV saga. (He got bit so hard that the Solve ME/CFS Initiative even got him onto the federal advisory panel for ME/CFS ( CFSAC) for a while.)  Researchers of his ilk are a real asset to our community and it’s good to see him remaining engaged. In this study he worked with Bateman-Horne Center’s “Research Czarista” Suzanne Vernon.

The Landi-Houghton study examined 34 immune and growth factors in no less than 100 longer duration ME/CFS patients.  This study also found little evidence of overt immune activation. Instead,  a cluster of down-regulated immune factors ( IL-16, IL-7 and VEGF-A) popped up which suggested ME/CFS –  at least in its later stages – was more characterized by immune depletion. They also suggested that ME/CFS patients might be a aging a bit more rapidly than normal.

Early Aging?

 

Immune depletion showed up in longer duration patients in the Houghton study

Immune depletion showed up in longer duration patients in the Houghton study

IL-7 plays a critical role in NK and T-cell proliferation and induction and IL-7 levels are associated with cognitive declines during aging. The authors suggested that the immune signature they found could mimic aging. It’s not the first result to suggest early aging may be present in either ME/CFS or FM.

One FM study found cognitive declines suggestive of people who were twenty years older.  Reduced telomere lengths (a sign of aging) were found in the white blood cells for FM patients and the CDC has reported finding reduced telomere length in chronic fatigue syndrome as well.

Two Factors Stand Out

VEGF-A – VEGF-A promotes the survival and stability of endothelial cells lining the blood vessels, stimulates muscle and blood vessels and has neuroprotective factors.  It also promotes neuron growth by stimulating epithelial cells to release BDNF – which appears to be low in ME/CFS.

VEGF-A is becoming a factor to look out for in ME/CFS. For one thing it affects the blood vessels. For another reduced VEGF-A levels also popped up in the Simmaron Foundation/Lipkin/Hornig spinal fluid study and in a Gulf War Syndrome study .

Eotaxin – Eotaxin has suddenly appeared on the ME/CFS scene. It was one of only two factors upregulated in the spinal fluid study. Remarkably, high eotaxin levels have been found in long duration patients in three recent studies.

Increased levels of eotaxin have been associated with impaired learning, memory deficits and reduced neuron production in mice as they age.

These consistently increased eotaxin levels could signify either an allergic response a central nervous system infection.

FIBROMYALGIA

The results of immune studies in FM are mixed but three recent studies suggest a scenario of immune depletion may be occurring in FM as well.

A 2012 study found that immune cells from FM patients that were stimulated with an antigen failed to respond as readily as did those of healthy controls.  The dramatic reductions – from 1.5 fold to 10-fold of normal – were found across a wide range of immune factors (IFN-γ, IL-5, IL-6, IL-8, IL-10, MIP-1β, MCP-1 and MIP1-α).

Another fibromyalgia study found a “stark decrease: in the levels of three Th2 cytokines (IL-4, IL-5, and IL-13). Because the cytokines with lowered levels had anti-inflammatory effects the authors speculated that inflammation might be increased in FM. Note that reductions of these anti-inflammatory cytokines (and IL-10 in ME/CFS) might be all that is needed for normal levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines to produce inflammatory effects.

Similar trends toward reduced levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines has also been found in  depression.

Exercise Study Reveals Immune Depletion

J Neuroimmunol. 2014 Dec 15;277(1-2):160-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jneuroim.2014.10.003. Epub 2014 Oct 18.Preliminary evidence of a blunted anti-inflammatory response to exhaustive exercise in fibromyalgia. Torgrimson-Ojerio B1, Ross RL2, Dieckmann NF3, Avery S4, Bennett RM5, Jones KD6, Guarino AJ7, Wood LJ8.

Another fibromyalgia study found a marked difference between the immune and hormonal responses of healthy controls during exercise and FM patients. Four anti-inflammatory factors (IL-6, IL-10, ACTH, and cortisol) increased and two pro-inflammatory factors (TNF-a, IL-8) decreased during exercise in the healthy controls.

The anti-inflammatory response, however, was blunted in FM patients (ACTH, cortisol, and IL-10)  during exercise.

exercise fibromyalgia

Exercise was associated with immune depletion in one fibromyalgia study.

This study also found normal IL- 6 levels which was a surprise given the reductions in IL-10 (another anti-inflammatory cytokine) found.  (IL-6 production by the muscle cells during exercise is believed to trigger IL-10 production.)

That odd finding suggested another way to inhibit anti-inflammatory activity. The authors speculated that FM patients’ muscles may be pumping out normal levels of IL-6, but the signal IL-6 produces to create anti-inflammatory products is simply not getting through.

They suggested that a reduced anti-inflammatory response during exercise could very well play a role in the pain FM patients associate with exercise. Anti-inflammatory cytokines stop the pain receptors on nerves from being activated. Take away those cytokines and FM patients could experience increased pain during exercise.

The authors proposed that a quick immune hit during exercise could be responsible for lasting pain, stiffness and fatigue FM patients experience after exercise.

Conclusion

While some studies differ, recent studies suggest a broad pattern of immune exhaustion may be taking place in both chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. That exhaustion is most likely caused by what Lipkin and Hornig called an “exuberant stimulation” of the immune system due to an auto-inflammatory process or a chronic infection.

It’s possible that exhaustion in one part of our carefully balanced immune systems could lead to undue prominence of another part.  Lipkin and Hornig suggested the immune reductions in the spinal fluid found suggested that immune activation might be occurring in the central nervous system. Likewise the FM study suggested the depletion of Th2 factors suggested immune activation could be occurring even though levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines were not increased.

Immune exhaustion is a serious issue in several diseases and efforts are being made to battle it. How the medical profession is tackling immune exhaustion is a subject for another blog.

Ian Lipkin: Three to Five Years* to Solve Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)

December 26, 2015

Ian Lipkin flew to Lake Tahoe this December to fundraise for work he’s doing with the Simmaron Research Foundation. In a talk covering his virus hunting career, the threat of pathogens to humanity, and his work with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), he dropped a bombshell: he stated that he believes it’s possible to solve ME/CFS in three to five years. 

On that hopeful note, let’s learn more about Dr. Lipkin, his work, and his collaborations with Simmaron.

Dr. Peterson’s Introduction

Lipkin’s Columbia Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) has established close ties with the Simmaron Research Foundation. Only a couple of months before, his chief collaborator, Mady Hornig (and Simmaron Scientific Advisory Board member) had given a talk.  Now Ian Lipkin was here.

Dr. Peterson started his introduction of Ian Lipkin by noting that he’d known him since they crossed paths in the 1980’s when Dr. Peterson sent him patients suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Lipkin has changed the ways researchers identify pathogens

Lipkin has changed the ways researchers identify pathogens

Ian Lipkin began a new era in pathogen detection when he became the first researcher to isolate a virus (Borna disease virus) using genetics.  He identified the West Nile Virus that had throw New York City into a panic, developed technologies to identify SARS and then hand carried 10,000 test kits to Beijing at the height of the outbreak. He most recently discovered a highly dangerous virus that recently jumped into humans called MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus).

Lipkin has pioneered many technological breakthroughs in finding pathogens including the use of MassTag-PCR, the GreeneChip Diagnostic, and High Throughput Sequencing. His latest breakthrough is the development of a new screening technique that enhances researchers ability to find viruses 10,000 fold.

Called the top virus hunter in the world, Ian Lipkin runs the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia, and is the director of the Center for Research in Diagnostics and Discovery (CRDD) at the NIH. He also worked closely with Steven Soderbergh on his film Contagion.

Ian Lipkin Talks

Who says brilliant scientists can’t be a hoot to listen to as well? Ian Lipkin’s presentation was both enlightening and at times hilarious. Exhibiting a wry sense of humor, Lipkin poked fun at himself and virtually everyone around him.

The last time he was in Lake Tahoe, he said, was in 1984 and he hearkened back to the HIV/AIDS patients Dr. Peterson sent him in the early 1980’s.

“When you come to a fork in the road – take it!”

He stated the guiding principle in the search for pathogens could be summed up by the great Yogi Berra’s adage “When you come to a fork in the road – take it!”.

HIV/AIDS was the beginning of many changes. Even after the medical community knew it was being passed in the blood it still took them 2 1/2 years to find it. (In a Discover interview,  Lipkin noted that he ran the first clinic in San Francisco that would treat HIV/AIDS (then called GRID) patients with neurological problems. Note an iconoclastic element to Lipkin that showed up early in his career: he was willing to see patients others wouldn’t. Check out Lipkin’s fascinating story of how HIV/AIDS lead to him to study infectious diseases.)

Lipkin-chronic-fatigue-syndrome

Lipkin first showed a willingness to support underserved groups early in the HIV/AIDS epidemic

Lipkin then worked on a virus which demonstrated the effects a persistent viral infection can have on the central nervous system.

Next, in another story with possible overtones for chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), he investigated patients who’d come down with what appeared to be a mysterious psychiatric disorder. It took him two years but using a new method involving genetic cloning he uncovered the Borna disease virus. It was the first virus discovered using genetic means.

The Borna virus discovery was a game-changer for pathogen community. Jump forward thirty years(after it took the medical community almost three years to find HIV, and viruses are being discovered using molecular means every week. The Center for Infection and Immunity itself discovered 700 new viruses from 2009-2015.

Lipkin was aware of and interested in ME/CFS in the eighties but there was no money. In 1999 he and Britta Evangaard found no evidence of the Borna disease virus in ME/CFS. From there we jump forward to 2010 when NIH Director Francis Collins tasked Lipkin to determine if a retrovirus, XMRV, was causing ME/CFS. XMRV turned out to be a laboratory artifact, and the paper was retracted – something Lipkin said was not all that unusual in science. (He emphasized that he and Dr. Peterson were very careful to put out studies that would stand the test of time.)

The XMRV discovery tanked but proved to be a boon for ME/CFS by heightening the attention around it. Lipkin had kept an eye on ME/CFS for years and after being hired by the Chronic Fatigue Initiative to take it on, he was back in a big way.

In the next portion of his talk he turned to viruses and humans.

Viruses and Humans

How are most viruses getting into humans? From animals. After it’s jump from primates to humans, HIV is, of course, the most familiar example, but viruses are also escaping from bats, birds, pigs, rodents, insects and even camels into humans.

A sea change in the viral field occurred in 1999 when a mosquito-borne virus – the West Nile Virus – had the audacity to attack the residents of the New York City. Lipkin shifted his work from the West to East coasts to search for the virus and ultimately identified it. As the outbreak spread, it got the attention of Senator Joesph Lieberman who sponsored the first big initiative to learn how viruses spread from animals to humans. Politicians, Lipkin noted, can be important allies.

Infections

Most pathogens have yet to be identified by humans.

New York City may be an ideal transit stop for new viruses. Twenty-one million passengers traveling to and from 72 countries pass through New York city airports every year. Animal products including bushmeat – all potentially contaminated with nasty viruses – pour into New York City regularly.

Many more viruses are undiscovered than have been discovered. A survey of one species of bats found fifty-five viruses, fifty of which were new to science. Lipkin estimated 320,000 viruses were still unknown and they’re bumping up against humans all the time. Lipkin next demonstrated how quickly they can jump from animals into humans.

Bats –  Called to investigate an ill Saudi Arabian man (with four wives), he uncovered a new virus called MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) similar to those found in bats. (Asked if there were any bats in the area, he was told no. The next video showed bats flying every which way in the area :)). If the bats weren’t biting the humans, though, how was the bat virus jumping into people?

Lipkin found MERS was present in about 75% of the camels in the country. Further research indicated that MERS jumped into camels in the 1990’s, and then rapidly escaped into humans around 2010.

MERS

Since its escape into humans around 2010 MERS has spread to 26 countries.

MERS is not particularly easy to transmit but once it gets transmitted, watch out. Death rates are high. It took just one Saudi Arabian to spread MERS to South Korea this year where it killed several dozen people, put several thousand others into quarantine and basically threw the country into a panic. Schools were closed, tourists stopped coming, and parts of the economy slumped as South Korea fought off the virus. It has since been found in 26 countries. It’s the kind of virus that keeps public health officials up at night.

It’s not surprising that Lipkin is wary of pathogens. He noted that he rarely shakes hands but darting a glance at Dr. Peterson said he’d made an exception that evening.

(If you haven’t seen Steven Soderbergh film “Contagion” and can handle apocalyptic scenario’s you might want to give it a try. Lipkin consulted extensively on the movie which involved a worst-case scenario of a virus wiping out much of humanity. The film was praised for its scientific accuracy. (Spoiler alert – we do survive in the end :)).

Ticks –  Coming closer to home Lipkin believes chronic Lyme patients who are not recovering from antibiotics may have gotten another infection from the ticks. He found that over 70% of the Ixodes scapularis ticks associated with Lyme disease carried at least one pathogen and 30% carried more than one in New York. Last year he identified a rhabdovirus (Long Island tick rhabdovirus) new not just to ticks but to science itself. A small survey suggested that 15% of residents may carry antibodies to the virus.

Rats- Lipkin’s  study of New York City’s second most common resident – rats – revealed they carried an amazing array of pathogens including Escherichia coli, Clostridium difficile, and Salmonella enterica, Bartonella spp., Streptobacillus moniliformis, Leptospira interrogans, and Seoul hantavirus.

In one of his many asides (did you know he loves Sinatra?) Lipkin referred to the hamburger and French fries lunch that he and Peterson  usually have. (“Do as we say not as we do” he said). How does Lipkin reportedly like his meat? “Burn it” he tells the waiter. The man is taking no chances – he knows too much.

Infection and Disease

timing-infections-lipkin

The timing of an infection is just one of many factors that determine the effects it will have.

A pathogen is just one of the players, however, in a vast swirl of factors which ultimately determines whether one is going to have a chronic illness. Timing, for instance, is a key factor.

If you expose a mouse to a pathogen at one stage of pregnancy, it’ll stop moving around its cage. If you expose the same mouse to the same pathogen later in pregnancy, it will run round and around its cage unceasingly.

A large autism study underscored the complex role timing plays in humans. The 120,000 person autism birth cohort study found that if a mother comes down with a fever after the first trimester, her chances of giving birth to a son with autism go up three-fold.  If she treats the fever with acetaminophen, her chances of giving birth to an autistic child drop significantly.  If she takes acetaminophen for any other problem than a fever, her risk of giving birth to an autistic child goes up again.

Three to Five Years – An ME/CFS Timeline

How does all this relate to ME/CFS? Likpin cited the findings of their work to date.

  • The suspected pathogens don’t appear to be the problem (the CII is reportedly looking further at herpesviruses.)
  • Evidence suggests altered microbiomes (gut flora) are present
  • Striking differences in immune expression between shorter and longer duration patients suggest profound immune changes have occurred
  • Preliminary evidence suggests that levels “X” and “Y” metabolites and, at least, one immune protein are significantly altered in ME/CFS. (Lipkin embargoed this information pending publication of the paper. One of them is a shocker.)

Lipkin emphasized, though, that ME/CFS is not a one-size fits all disease. For instance, it’s possible that fungi may be a problem for some patients. That’s an intriguing idea given the recent fungi funding in Alzheimer’s disease published in Nature.

Lipkin timeline chronic fatigue syndrome

Lipkin’s timeline for solving ME/CFS given enough resources – a mere three to five years.

Then Lipkin made his bold declaration “We’re going to solve this in three to five years”. It came with a significant proviso “provided the resources are made available” but indicated that he believes ME/CFS is a mystery that can be cracked fairly quickly.  That sounds really fast, but Lipkin’s time-frame is not that far off from Ronald Davis’s 5-10 year time-frame (provided he gets the resources as well.) (or Dr. Montoya’s).

These eminent researchers believe that given the technology present today we could understand ME/CFS fairly quickly – if enough resources were brought to bear.  Lipkin pointed to a slate of researchers in his lab working on ME/CFS to signify the major shift he’s seen happen in just the last couple of years. He said “I couldn’t have gotten them five years ago”.

He highlighted two places the patient community can make an impact:

  • Funding Pilot Studies –   The community can fund pilot studies which can be turned into big grants
  • Advocacy – Lipkin is a savvy researcher. He knows how the NIH works, and once again he emphasized the need for the ME/CFS community to push harder legislatively – to talk to their representatives in the House of Representatives, in particular – and get them to push the NIH for more funding.

Lipkin’s Bucket List

Ian Lipkin has clearly developed a special relationship with ME/CFS, Dr. Peterson, the Simmaron Research Institute. He hadn’t been in the Lake Tahoe area for decades, yet he and two of his assistants had flown across the country to support the Simmaron Research Institute’s spinal fluid work. He was even shaking hands.

lipkin bucket list chronic fatigue

Lipkin’s Bucket List contains two items: solving ME/CFS is one of them.

I shook my head – not for the first time – about Ian Lipkin. How had we gotten so lucky? Lipkin oversees the work of 65 researchers in the U.S. and 150 more across the globe. The New York Times reported that on any given day his lab had 140 viral research projects underway. The head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, Anthony Fauci said, “Lipkin really stands out from the crowd.”

Yet, here he was in the Lake Tahoe area in mid-December exhorting the audience to support an important Simmaron study that he believed needed funding.

What had driven the “The World’s Most Celebrated Virus Hunter” to take on our disease? I asked his assistants. They told me that Ian Lipkin wants to do two things more than anything else before he retires: he wants to solve ME/CFS, and he wants to solve autism. We’re on his bucket list.

That floored me even more (:)) so I asked – but, but…..doesn’t  he care what other people think about this neglected disease? That question left them almost gasping for breath. After they had been able to calm down, they assured me: no Ian Lipkin doesn’t care.

The Simmaron Research Foundation’s Next Spinal Fluid Study

Lipkin was at the event to support the Simmaron Research Institute’s next spinal fluid study. The results of the first one – the most extensive spinal fluid study ever done in ME/CFS – were eye-opening. Using Dr. Peterson’s suggestion to separate atypical from typical ME/CFS patients, and focusing on patients with a longer duration illness, they’d found evidence of an immune dysregulation almost equal to that found in MS. The difference was that instead of being raised, the cytokine levels were reduced in ME/CFS.

That finding surely left a big smile on Lipkin’s and Hornig’s faces.  Earlier they’d found evidence of a profound reduction in immune functioning in the blood of later-duration ME/CFS patients.  Now a similar reduction was showing up in their spinal fluid. These unprecedented findings suggested they were uncovering system-wide problems.

No wonder Lipkin was eager to begin a new and larger spinal fluid study: it’s part of achieving his bucket list.

SR_Donate_6.9.14_1

Triple Your Support! – Between now and Dec 31 triple your support for Ian Lipkin’s work with the Simmaron Research Foundation (SRF). A generous donor is offering to match $2 for every $1 donated before Dec 31. The funds will support the SRF’s collaborations with Drs. Ian Lipkin and Mady Hornig at Columbia University.

 

Tea-Time at Simmaron I: Mady Hornig on the “Peterson Subsets”, Immune Exhaustion and New Gut Findings In ME/CFS

The Simmaron Research Foundation is out to redefine ME/CFS scientifically.  In an recent event called A Simmaron Tea, collaborators talked with patients about their recent work to propel discovery in our disease. Part 1 of our summary will review Dr. Mady Hornig’s presentation, including some early results from Columbia’s ongoing gut studies. Part 2 will summarize Dr. Konstance Knox’s study of mosquito and tick-borne pathogens in ME/CFS patients. Stay tuned!

Simmaron has collaborated with Dr. Hornig on half a dozen studies unfolding the immuological anomalies in ME/CFS. A doctor-scientist by training, she is Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Director of Translational Research at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.Simmaron Research | Scientifically Redefining ME CFS | #ShakeTheCFSstigmaSimmaron’s collaborations with Columbia on spinal fluid studies mark our signature contribution to ME/CFS research. Simmaron is continuing this research by funding a second phase of this work to compare metabolomics and proteomics in ME/CFS and MS patients.

Mady Hornig

“We now know that the same changes to the immune system that we recently reported in the blood of people with ME/CFS with long-standing disease are also present in the central nervous system,” Dr. Hornig

In her presentation, Dr. Hornig first reviewed the recent finding from the Chronic Fatigue Initiative-funded study run by the Columbia team: massive immune up regulation in short duration ME/CFS patients and immune down regulation in longer duration ME/CFS patients.  The same immune factors, interestingly enough, that were upregulated early in the illness were squashed later in the illness. One key viral fighter called IFN-y that was hugely important in early ME/CFS but significantly down regulated in later ME/CFS pointed an arrow at a process called “immune exhaustion”.

Immune Exhaustion

collaboration

The blood and spinal fluid findings matched

The first cerebrospinal fluid study using Dr. Peterson’s carefully collated samples found a similar pattern of immune system down regulation. That study (supported by CFI and Evans Foundation) included only longer duration patients.  These two studies – the first to find similar issues in these two different compartments of the body – suggested that the immune system had taken a system wide punch to the gut.

What could cause this kind of immune exhaustion?  Dr. Hornig stated it’s usually associated with chronic infections. In a scenario reminiscent of the wired and tired problem in ME/CFS, the immune system gets revved up, stays revved up and ultimately crashes.

That nice concurrence between immune findings in the spinal fluid and in the blood was encouraging, and the group is digging deeper into those CSF samples. Thus far a factor called cortisol binding globulin (CBG) has popped up in protein analyses. This intriguing factor which facilitates the transport of cortisol in the blood, has shown up in chronic fatigue syndrome before and families with certain polymorphisms in their CBG genes have increased fatigue and low blood pressure.

The Peterson Subsets

Earlier, Dr. Hornig noted Dr. Peterson’s exceptional foresight at collecting cerebrospinal fluid samples over many years and his skill at characterizing them. Now she appeared almost dumbfounded at his ability to pluck out subsets in his patients. At Dr. Peterson’s urging, the Columbia team examined the cerebrospinal fluid of what he called “classical” ME/CFS patients and “complex atypical” patients. Dr. Peterson has been talking about the “classical” set of ME/CFS patients vs other types of patients for years, but this was the first time his intuition was put to the test.

subsets ME/CFS

Finding subsets was crucial to the success of both studies

The classical patients typically present with infectious onset while ME/CFS in the atypical patients has been associated with post transfusion illness, cancers and other factors. No one before has suggested or attempted to determine if these patients differ biologically.

Dr. Peterson’s intuition that they would be different biologically proved to be correct. Columbia found dramatic differences in the CSF of classical versus atypical patients. Virtually all the immune factors tested were higher in the complex atypical vs the classical patients. The researchers are taking a deeper look at the cerebrospinal fluid in these two types of patients.

The findings also demonstrates how vital it is to tease out subsets. Without breaking patients up into early and longer duration subsets the findings of the CFI’s big immune study would have been negative.  Similarly, without excluding Peterson’s subset of  atypical patients, the cerebral spinal fluid study findings would have been insignificant. Given the size, expense and prominence of the CFI blood study, in particular, the negative results would have provided a significant impetus for the field to move away from the immune system.

Instead, there is now great interest in immune alterations in ME/CFS. The inability to ferret out biologically important subsets has undoubtedly smothered potentially important findings in ME/CFS in the past. In a short period of time the CFI investigators and Dr. Peterson have added two factors ME/CFS researchers need to consider in their studies: duration of illness and classical vs non-classical patients.

This is an example of “translational medicine” – going from the bench (lab) to the bedside (clinic) and vice-versa – at its best. It can only occur when researchers interact closely with practitioners they trust and vice-versa.

The Gut Work

gut chronic fatigue syndrome

Mady Hornig believes the gut may hold answers to ME/CFS. The preliminary gut results suggest she may be right.

Columbia’s Center for Infection and Immunity has  completed the testing of samples from 50 patients and 50 healthy controls started in the CFI study and extended in an NIH-funded study to analyze ME/CFS microbiome. They are completing analysis of the samples now.

They’re finding evidence of significant changes in the gut flora of ME/CFS patients vs healthy controls. For one, altered levels of butyrate producing bacteria have been found in the ME/CFS patients. Noting that similar differences have been found in autoimmune diseases, Dr. Hornig proposed that an autoimmune process may be fueling the symptoms in a subset of patients.

Another finding suggests substantial serotonin dysregulation may be present in ME/CFS. (Most of the serotonin in our body is found in our gut.) Dr. Hornig described serotonin as a major immune regulator. Thus far they’ve found that serotonin is more likely to be undetectable in shorter duration patients than longer duration patients, and those reduced serotonin levels are associated with increased immune activity including a very significant increase in IFN-Y – an important antiviral factor.

Tryptophan is metabolized to either serotonin or kynurenine.  If serotonin levels are low, the levels of kynurenine are likely high. Plentiful serotonin results in feelings of well-being, emotional resilience, and immune balance. High levels of kynurenine, on the other hand, have been associated with a host of neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders. Dr. Hornig has called the kynurenine pathway her favorite pathway because it’s been implicated in so many diseases.

The low serotonin findings in ME/CFS were apparently significant enough for Columbia to begin developing new tests to more accurately assess the presence of kynurenine metabolites. It appears that they’ve been successful in doing that, and we can expect more fine-tuned analyses of the role that pathway plays in ME/CFS.

In discussion afterward the presentation, Dr. Hornig said she was struggling a bit how to relay ideas of low resilience to stress in ME/CFS – some of which low serotonin levels could play a role in – without ruffling feathers.  She’s certainly not advocating the SNRI’s or other antidepressants in ME/CFS. In fact, she noted that she was sure ME/CFS patients were amongst the “treatment resistant depression” patients she’d seen when working as a psychiatrist early in her career.

The fix for the serotonin problem – if it is validated in a subset of ME/CFS patients – will clearly come from another direction. A recent review article suggested using the gut flora to affect serotonin-based brain disorders and that is probably the track Dr. Hornig will take. She said she is especially keen to look at the effects of nutraceuticals, probiotics and fecal transplants in ME/CFS.

Dr. Hornig is clearly intellectually excited by her work, but one thing that happened during her presentation indicated her strong emotional connection to it as well.  The presentation of a small quilt to her from ME/CFS patients strongly affected her and left her having to momentarily gather herself emotionally.  It was a surprisingly moving moment.

Dr. Hornig sounded confident about the direction of their research and stated that they were veSimmaron Research | Give | Donate | Scientifically Redefining ME/CFSry much looking forward to what the next few years will bring.  She said she was cautiously optimistic that the IOM and P2P reports, the positive immune study, plus the signs that the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) may be interested in taking ME/CFS on, indicate that a turnaround for ME/CFS funding is in store.

Help Simmaron continue to fund this pivotal work, as we seek to deepen immune findings in ME/CFS and turn them into potential treatments.

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

April 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cerebral spinal fluid

Cerebral spinal fluid protects and removes metabolic wastes from the brain

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

Highly Significant Results

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

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

Immune Exhaustion

reduced immune factors in chronic fatigue syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

Chemokines, Infections and CNS Damage

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

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

Infection or demyelination possible in ME/CFS

High CXCL10 levels have been associated with infection or demyelination

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

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

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

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

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

Allergic Response, Eotaxin and Brain Fog

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

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

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

eotaxin chronic fatigue syndrome

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

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

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

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

Networks Awry

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

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

Summing Up

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

Moving Forward

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

Daniel Peterson

Dr. Daniel Peterson

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

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

Columbia University’s press release stated:

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

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

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

Major Study Suggests Early Immune Activation May Drive Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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

big me-cfs study

Big study – big results

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

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

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

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

It’s Biological

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

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

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

Big, Big, Big Study

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

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

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

Different But Not Substantive

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

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

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

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

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

Hit and Run Attack Likely

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

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

chronic fatigue syndrome early immune findings

The key factor for the immune system – was time

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

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

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

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

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

Viral Fighter Stands Out

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

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

infection chronic fatigue syndrome

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

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

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

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

Mady Hornig on the Study

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

THE Pathway???

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

kynurenine pathway chronic fatigue

Could the kynurenine pathway be it for ME/CFS?

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

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

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

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

CD40L

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

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

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

Flipping the Switch

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

Dr. Hornig described a condition of immune system burnout:

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

primed for burnout cfs

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

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

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

Leptin Again

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

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

Hit and Run Again

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

hit and run me/cfs

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

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

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

The High Cytokine- Longer Duration Patients?

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned!