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

Round-Table

meeting of the minds picture

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

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

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

Dr. Peterson – Simmaron Research Institute

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

upward slope

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

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

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

A Treatment Philosophy

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

cascade effect

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

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

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

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

Cidofovir (Vistide)

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

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

Gunnar Gotschalk

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

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

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

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

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

CMX001

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

herpesviruses

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

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

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

HHV6 and Chromosomal Integration

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

Graded Exercise and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

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

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

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

An  Autonomic Nervous System Focus

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

autonomic nervous system

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

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

Pathogens and Immune Modulation

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

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

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

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

Immunovir (Isoprinosine)

Isoprinosine structure

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

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

Monoclonal Antibodies

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

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

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

Low Dose Naltrexone

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

Dr. Enlander – Mt Sinai ME/CFS Research Center 

GcMAF

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

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

Dr. Peterson Calls for “Therapeutic Strategy” to Develop Drugs for ME/CFS

“We’re Ready”

Dr. Peterson had 2 minutes to get to the point. And he did.

After 30 years of treating approximately 9,000 patients and tired of the ‘therapeutic stagnation’ in this disease, he called on the FDA to ‘execute a therapeutic strategy’ that would pave the way for drug development. No doubt speaking not just to the FDA but to drug company reps listening, he gave them good pragmatic reasons to do so; 1,000,000 sick people in the US, a $9 billion hit to our economy yearly, a market for a diagnostic marker yielding potentially $250 million a year, a drug therapy possibly bringing in billions….PetersonPhoto right

“I implore the esteemed committee to develop a therapeutic strategy for ME/CFS” Dr. Dan Peterson to FDA

Listen to Dr. Peterson at minute 92:00 of this VIDEO.

He didn’t ask the federal government to do it all  on their own. The ME/CFS physician community he asserted is ready to do its part.  They’re already using objective markers such as NK cell functioning, MRI’s, SPECT scans, low VO2 max tests to inform their therapies and they have formed the consortia and networks needed to take on pilot studies and multi-center Phase I, II and III clinical trials.

He was backed up by his longtime colleague, Dr. Nancy Klimas later in the meeting when she said ” much of what is needed to develop drugs for ME/CFS is ‘already in hand’; we have, she said, the ‘clinical trials groups’  who have ‘many, many years of  experience with these…instruments we’ve been talking about’. “There’s really no reason to delay any further”

“There’s  really no reason to delay any further” Dr. Nancy Klimas on targeted clinical trials for ME/CFS at the FDA Stakeholder’s meeting

The key problem is the large heterogeneous population that makes up the ME/CFS community.  Dr. Slagle of the FDA noted that the heterogeneity of the ME/CFS patient population made it necessary for researchers to  define and target specific subsets, but both  Dr. Klimas and Dr. Peterson asserted they’re ready, right now, to bring targeted therapies to bear on just those subsets.

This is all about one thing; scientifically redefining ME/CFS … wherever that takes us … and as long as it leads to treatments.

Scientifically Redefining ME/CFS SR Facebook logo new

Dr. Peterson’s report of Vistide’s success in a retrospective study of severely ill ME/CFS with herpesvirus infections constituted not just an attempt to provide better treatment options but to redefine this illness using biological variables; in this case a subset of patients with active  cytomegalovirus infections who responded to Vistide.

The Chronic Fatigue Initiative’s Hornig/Lipkin pathogen study will, with the addition of Simmaron’s spinal fluid samples, contribute to this process if they illuminate a distinct subset of patients with active viral infections, as suggested by Madie Hornig in Florida.  (Results are due within the next two months.)

Now comes convincing the pharmaceutical industry that it’s worth their while to invest in this disorder, and that’s where Dr. Peterson’s request for a ‘therapeutic strategy’ that will compel pharma to enter the market comes in.  That therapeutic strategy will involve the FDA  identifying endpoints for subpopulations and study designs that industry will have confidence in.Food_and_Drug_Administratio

Is the FDA ready to do that?

We’ll bring you more of the FDA meeting in coming blogs.

Report From Paris: Peterson Reports Antiviral (Vistide) Effective in Treating Herpesvirus Infected Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) Patients

PetersonPhoto right

“These results show objective endpoints, subset selection, and recovery. There were complete responders and partial responders among severely ill CFS patients with HHV6 or CMV. These are encouraging results for this subset and further well-designed trials should be pursued to confirm them.” Dr. Dan Peterson

At the HHV6 Conference in Paris, France today Dr. Peterson reported on the results of a retrospective study following 65 severely ill chronic fatigue syndrome patients given a course of Vistide from 2005-2012 for HHV6 and/or HCMV infections.  Despite the interest in pathogens in ME/CFS, antiviral studies are rare and this is the first one reported for this drug.

Virus from vistide presentation


Dr. Peterson has three decades of experience treating immunologically challenged ME/CFS patients.

Vistide (Cidofovir) gets a lot less press than other antivirals and immunomodulators (Ampligen, Rituximab, Valcyte,  Valtrex) used in this disorder  probably because the drug requires a  complex infusion protocol,  frequent blood tests because of the rare but real possibility of  serious kidney side effects and is expensive  (although it can be covered by insurance).

This combination – infusions, frequent blood tests and expense – requires close physician follow-up. With Dr. Peterson’s specialized focus on patients with dysfunctional natural killer cells, however, he may be most consistent about testing for herpesviruses, which are known to be active in ME/CFS patients.

After three decades of focusing on immunologically challenged ME/CFS patients, Peterson may be more experienced at pathogen detection and treatment than any other practitioner in the field, and so it’s not surprising to find the first Vistide study coming from his office.  In an interview, a former patient of his said, ‘he leaves no stones unturned’; when he finds something he goes after it ‘aggressively’.

In his presentation he stated  almost 30% of  his patients test positive for  active HHV-6 or human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) (PCR, rapid culture, antigenemia), and a whopping 50% test positive for active Epstein-Barr virus (EBNA) infection.

Serious Drug For A Serious Illness

Vistide (Cidofovir) is  FDA approved for the treatment of cytomegalovirus (CMV) in patients with AIDS. (Cytomegalovirus is a member of the herpesvirus family.) and it’s been used off-label to treat  human papillomavirus, BHK virus, herpes simplex virus, vaccinia virus infections. The Black Box warning on Vistide speaks for itself

 ’Cases of acute renal failure resulting in dialysis and/or contributing to death have occurred with  few as one or two doses of Vistide. The “recommended dose, rate, frequency of Vistide injections must not be exceeded.”

The Study

A positive response was denoted by a negative pathogen test, improved fatigue and cognitive functioning determined by an interview with Dr. Peterson and  the patient’s self reports after the trial.

Response

  • Full Responders - Patients were deemed to be full responders if they were able to completely return to work or to work-related activities
  • Partial Responders – demonstrated significant improvement of symptoms but were unable to return to work or work related activities.
  • Non-Responders – Did not demonstrate any measurable improvement post-treatment

Results

Seventy percent patients improved

Seventy percent of ME/CFS patients with HHV6 and/or HCMV infections improved significantly on Vistide

Dr. Peterson reported that seventy percent of patients were full  (able to return to work) or partial (significant increase in functionality) responders; a very high rate of success in a illness characterized by a poor response to treatments.  Only thirty percent of Vistide recipients did not have a significantly positive response to the drug. No serious side effects were seen; ironically the minor side effects seen were attributed to a drug, Probocenid, used to ensure Vistide was safe.

It’s not clear what percentage of ME/CFS patients will test positive for HHV6 or cytomegalovirus in other practices but this type of response suggests the drug may be  being under-used. With the FDA Stakeholder’s meeting  coming up in three weeks and the Chronic Fatigue Initiative’s pathogen discovery study results due to be published later this year, Dr. Peterson’s presentation is timely. (Unfortunately, Dr. Peterson was not invited to present at the FDA Stakeholder’s Meeting.)

Dr. Peterson called for placebo-controlled, double-blinded multi-center studies that address Vistide’s efficacy, examine its effects on the immune system and study the mechanisms of increase in VO2 max scores in ME/CFS.

Sample Cases

Dr. Peterson reported on several cases, all of whom were men – something Dr. Peterson has said he likes to do to break up the notion that only women get this disorder.

  • A 27 year old college graduate  unable to work because of  constant flu-like symptoms, weakness and marked cognitive decline (math!) presented with low NK functioning, low VO2 max and HHV6 and cytomegalovirus infection. He was able to return to work after 24 weeks of bi-weekly infusions. His VO2 max on the exercise test went up went up 23%,  his NK cells a remarkable 400% and he tested negative for both viruses at the end of treatment. He had had ME/CFS for three years.
  • A 54 year-old former high school teacher unable to work due to extreme fatigue, flu-like symptoms and cognitive problems severe enough to keep him from being able to grade his students papers presented with active HHV6 and cytomegalovirus infections and low NK cell functioning and VO2 max. He was able to return to work after 24 weeks of bi-weekly infusions. His VO2 max increased 47%, his NK function test went up 20% and he tested negative for both viruses. He had had ME/CFS for five years.
  • The third patient had classic, acute onset ME/CFS which progressed to seizures. Both serum and cerebral spinal fluid tested positive for HHV6. At the end of the Cifodovir trial the  viral load in his cerebral spinal fluid dropped from 3670 copies/ml to undetectable levels. Serum HHV6 was dramatically reduced (47,000 copies/ml to 3,000 copies/ml). Still symptomatic and experiencing cognitive problems, he was nonetheless able to return to work.

Conclusions

The retrospective study indicated Vistide (cifodovir) can have dramatic effects on functional capacity in HHV6 and/or HCMV infected ME/CFS patients.

Increasing VO2 max appeared to be critical to increasing functionality as the partial responders did not increase their VO2 max while on Cifodovir. At the FDA Advisory Meeting for Ampligen Dr. Bateman noted that VO2 max test results probably were, given the exertional problems in ME/CFS, the most difficult to ‘move’ test result in this disorder.

VO2 max levels in Dr. Peterson’s patients prior to Vistide administration were exceedingly low; they appeared to in the ‘very low’ range even for people for 65 years of age and older. Vistide moved those test results about 20% on average; leaving them still, it appeared, below normal but sufficient enough for a significant increase in functionality.

A Vistide Example

Vistide_CFSThe VO2 max tests suggested most patients had not returned to full health and Dr. Peterson has said he knows of few complete recoveries. I interviewed a former patient of Dr. Peterson’s several years ago. Faced with the loss of his career and the ability to care financially for his family Vistide turned out to be a godsend.

Cut down by acute onset ME/CFS, his VO2 max score topped out at an unbelievably low 15 (which qualified him for heart disease) and he was a ’2′ out of 10 on his own energy scale (had trouble sitting up to eat).  Within a month on Vistide he was at a ’4′; the next month he was a ’5′ and sleeping soundly for the first time since he’d gotten sick. The next month he was a ’7′ and his VO2 max tests had doubled to 28; still far below the 44 expected at his age, but an amazing increase, never the less.  Three months later he was at ’90%’, back at work and able to do everything except exercise.

CMX001 – The Future Vistide? 

Dr. Peterson didn’t report on CMX001 in Paris, but sitting in the background of all this is a analogue of Vistide called CMX001 which appears to be a safer and more effective,  if not yet available, version of it. A  2012 review named CMX001 as one the ‘ten hot topics’ in antiviral research.

Chimerix Pharmaceuticals modified Vistide so that it can easily be taken up into the  tissues. That means no need for infusions, no worries about kidney problem and according to Chimerix, dramatically increased effectiveness.

CMX001 has been in development for  some time but just this March the FDA awarded the drug ‘fast track’ status for the prevention of cytomegalovirus infection.  Phase II trials are finished  and Phase III trials will get underway this year.

Given Dr. Peterson’s success with Vistide, FDA approval of CMX001 could be very good news for ME/CFS patients with HHV6, HCMV and/or possibly EBV infections.

Wrap Up

In a retrospective study Vistide proved to be  effective  in treating severely ill ME/CFS patients with HHV6 and HCMV infections. Dr. Peterson called for double-blinded, placebo-controlled studies to further study Vistide’s efficacy and mechanism of effect.  The CFI’s pathogen discovery studies due out this year should shed light on what percentage of ME/CFS patients could benefit from Vistide.

A Vistide analogue under development called CMX001 which does not require infusions and does not effect the kidneys could be boon for ME/CFS patients with herpesvirus infections if it is approved by the FDA. CMX001 was given fast-track status by the FDA earlier this year.

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