All posts tagged rituximab

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

The Rituximab  Story

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

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

tweaking treatment protocol RItuximab

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

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

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

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

Rituximab

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

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

The Study

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

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

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

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

The Participants

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

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

The Results

The Responders

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

more is better Rituximab

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

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

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

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

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

The Non-Responders

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

Maintaining Health – the Maintenance Strategy Mostly Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerns

Placebo Response

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

Study Size

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

subset

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

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

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

The Severely Ill Study

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

The Autoimmune Question – If it Looks Like A Duck…

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

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

duck autoimmunity ME/CFS

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

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

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

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

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

Norway!

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

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

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

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

A Rituximab Timeline

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

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

The Big Lug

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

head in sand

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

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

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

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

An Unlikely Ally

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

rituximab-chronic-fatigue

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

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

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

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

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

How is the Rituximab (RituxME) study going? 

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

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

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

measuring activity levels - me/cfs

Many measurements will be done – including activity levels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rituximab-chronic-fatigue

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

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

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

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

The Substudies

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

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

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

Endothelial Functioning Substudy

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

blood vessels chronic fatigue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Exercise Substudy

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

exercise chronic fatigue syndrome

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

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

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

Gastrointestinal Functioning Substudy

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

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

Genetics Study

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

genetics-chronic-fatigue

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

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

An Autoimmune Disorder?

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

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

The arguments are as follows:

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

Long Lag Time Also Suggests Autoimmunity

Epstein-barr chronic fatigue

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

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

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

Two Cautionary Notes

Dr. Fluge wanted to make two cautionary notes: 

caution rituximab chronic fatigue

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

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

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

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

New Open Phase-II Trial

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

Conclusion

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