The ‘CFS Patient Advocate’ muses on the future of ME/CFS research conferences | 25 March 2014

March 28, 2014

Christopher Cairns, who blogs as the ‘CFS Patient Advocate', came away slightly depressed by what he describes as the lack of sharp focus at this month's IACFS/ME conference. His opinions are always worth a read, even if they hit close to home. He filed this piece the day after the four-day conference in San Francisco was all over.

IACFS/ME – and then Mission Delores

At the end of this year's IACFS/ME meeting I headed out on foot to the Mission District and to visit an old favorite: Mission Delores. Over the years, I have come here often, as well as many of the other missions up and down the coast of California. (The mission system was sort of the CDC of the late 18th and early 19th centuries).

Mission Delores and its cemetery are featured in a mistily mysterious scene in Hitchcock's “Vertigo” – one of my favorite films. I am going to watch it again when I get home.The day was sunny and warm and the sweet smell of dope wafted through the air in the Mission District – as the locals were seeking their medicinal or medical improvements. Crowds of people flocked to a local park to see a concert of the Rollin' Snows or the Scoobie Doos.

The IACFS/ME conference ended Sunday afternoon. The IACFS/ME conference was four, very long days, running March 20-23. Always I find this conference too long – and too broad in its reach. I suppose I understand why the planners do this, as they have a large constituency to please or honor – but they include so many items that I consider to be auxiliary. To me parts of this conference are like watching a bad movie over and over – or falling to one's death off a very tall building.

I come to these conferences as an observer – to watch and listen. I don't think of myself as a participant, but more of an outsider or outlier. I am in the process of my own illness discovery. I figure that I represent my daughter, who cannot be here.

Over time I have learned to be very selective in going to lectures. This time I think that I went to five. I am happier just looking at the poster papers, and talking to old and new friends. This is my fourth IACFS/ME, and it functions as a touchstone of sorts. I just wish it were more focused. I have learned what a focused conference can be. I saw it at the Stanford Conference, I see it at Mt. Sinai, and I see it every year at the Invest in ME conference in London.

Am I giving a mixed message here? Yes I am giving a mixed message.

Dr. John Chia delivered two important talks. It has been seven years since Dr. Chia's pivotal paper was published showing enterovirus protein found in stomach tissue of ME/CFS patients. No one has followed up with this paper. It just sits there with its weight of ME history leaning on it. Meanwhile Dr. Chia continues his superb research – on his own, in virtual isolation. Dr. Chia gave two talks in a section on “Virology Research”, chaired by Dr. Jose Montoya. (I hope that Dr. Montoya was listening.) The first talk was entitled “Chronic pelvic pain (CPP) in patients with ME/CFS is associated with chronic enterovirus infection of ovarian tubes” and the second was entitled “Pathogenesis of chronic enterovirus infection in ME/CFS – in vitro and in vivo studies of infected stomach tissue”. Regarding the second study, “Of 24 mice injected with VP1+, and RNA+ stomach biopsies, 2 died in two weeks and13/20 (66%) spleen specimens tested positive for VP1 where 1 of 10 controls tested positive for VP1 by immunoperoxidase staining.”

(“If they do not believe in death, then what do they believe in?”). Of course there is the possibility that these mice died of sneezing fits – or committed suicide.

There was considerable interest during the question period and Dr. Chia answered a host of questions. He also made a hard-nosed presentation, and defense, of his research over the years, stating that “I have spent considerable time trying to convince people that I am right. Now it is time for others to prove that I am wrong”. Perhaps soon we will finally be able to answer this question, whether Dr. Chia is right or wrong. I am betting on his being right.

Dr. Maureen Hanson's team gave a talk, “Plasma cytokines in ME/CFS patients and controls before and after a cardiopulmonary exercise test.” Dr. Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik's team gave a presentation on NK cells. There has been a string of exciting research coming out of this lab. Dr. Gradisnik will also be making a presentation in May at the Invest in ME conference.

It seemed a great oversight that Dr. Carmen Scheibenbogen was not giving a talk or a poster paper. I don't think she was even here. I could say the same about other UK or European researchers. Nothing was presented or mentioned about Dr. Joseph Brewer's recent work in mycotoxins. This seemed a slight oversight. Dr. Brewer made a recent presentation at the Lyme conference in October and will follow up at the next ILADS conference. So someone besides myself must know of his existence?

Where were research concerns involving gut ecology, the metabolome, mitochondria, lipid membranes (Yes, it was great to see Dr. Garth Nicholson's poster paper), mycotoxins and a host of important subjects? What world do these people live in? What illness are they studying?

The strength of this conference lies in its poster papers. This year there were several exciting presentations. I took note of Dr. Maureen Hanson's gut biome study in ME/CFS. Dr. Hanson will be giving a talk at the Invest in ME conference this May. She will be able to trade notes with Dr. Simon Carding, who is also working on a gut biome study in ME/CFS. Dr. Hanson reminded me that her colleague, Dr. Ruth Ley, works mostly in the gut biome arena. Incidentally, there seems to be a percolating effort to have ME/CFS patients do their biome study through Ubiome. The objective would be to publish their own biome study. Is this a good idea or what? – and it all sounds vaguely familiar.

There was another study out of Griffith University of the team of Dr. Sonya Marshall Gradisnik. Nancy Klimas and her group had an entire host of poster papers. I hope these poster papers become readily available.

The most interesting poster papers were two by Dr. Paul Cheney. Dr. Cheney has always contributed one or two important poster papers. One yearns for Dr. Cheney to be given a chunk of time to make a full presentation of his ideas. Dr. Cheney does best in three-hour slots of time, so he could have a morning session, a break for him to rest for a half-hour (but does he need it?), and then an afternoon session. This could go on for two or three days. And then maybe we could have a comprehensive conversation of what might be happening in this illness. But, of course, this is not going to happen. Instead we have to content ourselves with Dr. Cheney's self-published studies, and with Dr. Cheney's riveting explanations in front of his poster paper. He gives it willingly and repeatedly.

Asked what he does for his patients, Dr. Cheney says that “he stabilizes them”.

I witnessed a few snippy engagements and comments, which are always interesting to me – and which I will keep to myself. I watched old adversaries be cordial and even respectful to each other.

The conference awards dinner had an especially good feeling to it. Nancy Klimas got a top award, which she certainly deserves. Dan Peterson gave the Keynote Address and took us on a stroll down memory lane. He described the history of IACFS/ME meetings, in the process recognizing many individuals in the audience, including Hillary Johnson, the gifted writer. Dr. Peterson showed a short video with 1990's video snippets of the early heroes in this struggle – Komaroff, Cheney, Bell, Klimas and Peterson himself. It was a hoot to see Nancy Klimas as a young clinician/researcher. This video was a lot of fun. Dr. Peterson has a special skill, either natural or developed, of getting the flow going in a positiive direction.

I was surprised, really surprised – and pleasantly surprised – to see Pia and Richard Simpson of Invest in ME receive an award. Never were there two people who have less interest in awards. Instead, they are interested in science – and money to fuel research. So if you have extra money, after giving to John Chia's EV Med Research, write a big check to Pia and Richard Simpson and Invest in ME.

Now that Richard and Pia have been recognized by IACFS/ME for their stupendous efforts, maybe the steering committee of the IACFS/ME group can select a group of “Important People” to actually make the journey to the upcoming Invest in ME conference – and thus learn a bit about how to organize a meaningful conference.

One thing that always, always irritates me about this IACFS/ME conference is the lack of attention to the severely ill. In fact, I have trouble connecting the severity of my daughter's illness with anything that happens at this conference. I do not think that most of the people who attend this conference have the slightest clue as to the true nature of this illness. They look at the half-sick, always at peak times, and draw their conclusions – if they only did a little more exercise.

And it is my belief that they do not want to know. I have observed the displeasure incurred by Dr. Kenny De Meirleir at an Invest in ME conference for presenting videos of very seriously ill patients from Norway, and for the testimony of a young woman who lived in the same house with a severely ill sister and had not seen her sister for four years. And then there is the whole anxiety about showing Voices from the Shadows. It is a very profound and great video, but it is seen as a downer. Well, this illness is a downer.

There is something so frightening about the core of this illness – from which almost everyone turns away. A little of this “ground zero”can be seen in Natalie Boulton's and Josh Bigg's extraordinary film. Dr. Montoya had the wisdom, the courage to show “Voices” at the Stanford Conference. (Dr. Montoya understands, he has learned this.) These totally isolated human beings hold the key – or a key – to the essential nature of this strange and devastating illness. Why are they not studied? Why does everyone turn away? Can we move forward if we are a bunch of cowards? If one is careful, blood, urine, saliva and feces can be removed from these patients (in some cases). If one wants to know what tests to do, I and others can tell you.

The efforts here at the conference and elsewhere to engage or embrace the severe ME patient is pathetic – really pathetic – and this means something.

Maybe this is all an age-related problem? Maybe I am just unable to see all the connecting parts at this conference and put them together? I will have to ask others, back in NY, like Jay Spero, if this is the problem, if this is my problem. In the meantime, I am in a hurry. I am not interested in the one-hundred year fix. I am less interested in stasis and more interested in dynamism, as reflected perhaps in what Dr. Skip Pridgen announced yesterday. Was Dr. Pridgen at this conference?

A number of serious clinicians did not go to this conference – Dr Eric Gordon, Dr. Kenny De Meirleir, Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker, Dr Derek Enlander, and Dr. Joseph Brewer. One has to ask why?

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