The MEGA (ME/CFS Epidemiology and Genetics Alliance) ‘big data' research study – some comments from Dr Charles Shepherd following last week's third annual scientific meeting of the UK CFS/ME Research Collaborative
I can understand all the concerns, criticisms and questions about the MEGA study that are being expressed by the ME/CFS patient community on internet discussion forums.
I can also assure people that they will be transferred back to those at the CMRC (CFS/ME Research Collaborative) who are involved in preparing what is probably going to be the largest ever research grant application relating to ME/CFS here in the UK.
There are clearly a number of key decisions still to be made. And .if anyone followed the proceedings at the CMRC conference in Newcastle last week. they will know that I raised the crucial issue of patient selection criteria (narrow or broad) with Professor George Davey Smith and Dr Esther Crawley during the discussion section.
The key point I want to make at this stage is that the MEGA study is an important and complex new item of ME/CFS research that is going to make use of a wide range of relatively new and exciting technologies – metabolomics, proteomics, genomics, epigenetics etc.
The MEGA study will also involve some very high profile BIOMEDICAL scientists of international repute – several of whom are completely new to ME/CFS.
Researchers who will be involved include:
* Genomics – Prof George Davey-Smith (Bristol), Prof Chris Ponting (Edinburgh), Prof Colin Smith (Brighton)
* Epigenetics – Prof Caroline Relton (Bristol)
* Proteomics – Mr Tony Bartlett (Somalogic)
* Metabolomics – Dr Rick Dunn (Birmingham)
* Routinely collected data – Prof Andrew Morris (Edinburgh) and Prof David Ford (Swansea)
* Infection – Prof Paul Moss (Birmingham)
* Sleep – Prof Jim Horne (Loughborough)
* Pain – Prof Maria Fitzgerald (UCL)
* Prof Julia Newton (Newcastle)
The MEGA study has also attracted the very positive attention of the Wellcome Trust _ the largest provider of non governmental funding for biomedical research here in the UK and the largest research funding charity in the world
Wellcome Trust: >https://wellcome.ac.uk
And the numbers of patients involved is going to be huge – around 10,000 adults and 2,000 children.
However, when it comes to the aims and objectives of the research, there are some serious misunderstandings and inaccuracies being circulated on the internet as to how this ‘big data' is going to be collected, analysed and used. This is NOT a treatment trial in any sense of the word and it has nothing to do with PACE, CBT or GET.
If we are going to make progress in trying to sort out the different clinical and pathological sub-groups/phenotypes that currently come under the very messy umbrella of ME/CFS, as well as those with unexplained chronic fatigue, AND in the process develop diagnostic biomarkers that could then be used as objective diagnostic tests to identify specific sub-groups of patients that come under this ME/CFS umbrella, ALONG WITH helping to identify specific forms of treatment that are aimed at these specific sub-groups, we are going to have to look at the whole spectrum of patients who are currently being diagnosed with ME, CFS or ME/CFS, and possibly unexplained chronic fatigue as well.
So the numbers need to be huge and a study of this nature may also need to include people with chronic fatigue states whom we will then want to exclude for both our benefit and for their benefit.
In my opinion, getting this right will clearly be dependent on having very detailed clinical information accompanying the biological samples – as is the case with the ME/CFS Biobank where we can check what diagnostic criteria (and symptoms) accompanies each individual blood sample that has been collected and stored.
I am not yet clear as to how this will be done in this study, which Is why I asked the question on patient selection at the conference. The nearest information we have was the reply from Dr Esther Crawley in which she stated that patients will meet NHS diagnostic criteria for ME/CFS and will be recruited from the NHS hospital-based referral centres for people with ME/CFS
So I would ask the ME/CFS patient community to see how the protocol develops and what information and inclusion criteria are going to be used.
If you are happy with the final research proposal, then there will obviously be ways of expressing public support.
If not, there will be ways of saying so as well!
As Professor Jonathan Edwards has said on the Phoenix Rising forum:
“I think the project must be welcome but I am surprised by this sort of canvassing for support. So far no details are available of who would do what. Surely patients are entitled to judge a project on the basis of a written application, just as scientists do”
So I hope that those people who are wanting to simply strangle this proposal before it has even been properly finalised will think very carefully about what they are doing – especially if this is mainly because they disagree with the inclusion of certain specific researchers.
It is difficult enough getting new and distinguished scientists and researchers, and major research funders such as the Wellcome Trust, interested in this subject without trying to scare them off almost as soon as they express a serious desire to get stuck into in a huge multidisciplinary project such as this, and the protocol is still being developed.
If people want to express concerns, criticisms, or have questions to ask, then I suggest that this should be done in the form of an open letter to the Board of the CMRC, which could be signed by anyone expresing such concerns, rather than a petition.
Dr Charles Shepherd
Hon Medical Adviser
The ME Association