Medscape News: NIH Conference: New research aims to find treatments for ME/CFS and Long Covid

“Things have changed since 2019… The idea of this meeting is to try and identify pathways that will be treatable and druggable and really make an impact for patients based on the things that we've learned over the last number of years and including, fortunately or unfortunately, the huge number of people who are suffering from Long Covid, where the symptoms overlap so much with those who have been suffering for a long time with ME/CFS.”

Conference Chair Joe Breen, PhD, of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

By Miriam E Tucker, Medscape News, 21 December 2023

Article extracts

A 2-day conference, Advancing ME/CFS Research: Identifying Targets for Potential Intervention and Learning from Long COVID, was held in December 12-13 on the main campus of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and was livestreamed. The last such meeting, also featuring results from NIH-funded research, was held in April 2019…

Research areas covered at the conference included immunology, virology, metabolism, gene regulation, and neurology of both ME/CFS and long COVID, as well as the latest findings regarding the overlap between the two conditions…

Oxidative Stress in Both ME/CFS and Long Covid: A Role for Metformin?

Mark M. Davis, PhD, professor and director of the Institute for Immunity, Transplantation, and Infection at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, summarized published data suggesting that oxidative stress is a shared characteristic of both ME/CFS and long COVID. Most cellular reactive oxygen species (ROS) are produced in the cell's mitochondria, and T-cell activation is ROS-dependent…

Asked to comment on that, longtime ME/CFS researcher Anthony L. Komaroff, MD, of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, cautioned that although metformin is used safely by millions of people with type 2 diabetes worldwide, it's possible that some people with ME/CFS may be more likely to experience its known adverse effects such as lactic acidosis.

To repurpose metformin or any other already-marketed drugs for ME/CFS and/or Long Covid, Komaroff said, “We should entertain treatment trials.” However, as he and many others lamented at the conference, funding for off-patent drugs often isn't forthcoming.

Addressing the Microbiome, Innate Immunity

W. Ian Lipkin, MD, of Columbia University, New York, NY, was one of two speakers who discussed the role of disruptions in the microbiome and innate immunity in ME/CFS. He presented data suggesting that “dysregulation of the gut microbiome in ME/CFS may interfere with butyrate production, resulting in inflammation and porosity to bacteria and bacterial products that trigger innate immunity…”

“Although we do not fully understand the pathophysiology of ME/CFS, it is not premature to consider randomized clinical trials of pro- and pre-biotics that address dysbiosis as well as drugs that modify innate immune responses such as poly (I:C) and IL-37,” Lipkin said.

Alleviating Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER) Stress: A Strategy to Increase Energy?

Paul Hwang, MD, PhD, from the Cardiovascular Branch of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Bethesda, Maryland, described work that he and his colleagues recently published around a case of a 38-year-old woman with Li-Fraumeni syndrome, a genetic early-onset cancer, who also had extensive fatigue, exercise intolerance, and post-exertional malaise that began after she contracted mononucleosis as a teenager…

Neurovascular Dysregulation During Exercise: A Role for Pyridostigmine?

David M. Systrom, MD, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at the Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, gave an update of his work investigating neurovascular dysregulation during exercise in both ME/CFS and long COVID using invasive cardiopulmonary testing…

Now, Systrom's team is conducting a randomized trial comparing 60 mg pyridostigmine with or without low-dose naltrexone (LDN) vs placebo in 160 patients with ME/CFS for 3 months. Metabolomic, transcriptomic, proteomic, and other assessments will be conducted on urine and blood samples. Participants will also wear devices that measure steps, sleep, heart rate, and other metrics.

Komaroff cautioned that pyridostigmine, too, has potential adverse effects. “I'm not sure pyridostigmine is ready for prime time… It's a drug developed for a very different purpose… How will it hold up in a larger trial, and will there be any side effects that turn up in larger studies? It's not unreasonable to study.”

Brain Inflammation: Measuring and Treating It

Hannah F. Bues, clinical research coordinator at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, presented data now in preprint (ie, not yet peer-reviewed) in which researchers used PBR28 PET neuroimaging, a marker of neuroinflammation, to compare 12 individuals with Long Covid vs 43 healthy controls. They found significantly increased neuroinflammation in several different brain regions in the Long Covid group compared with controls.

Samples of peripheral blood plasma also showed significant correlations between neuroinflammation and circulating analytes related to vascular dysfunction. This work is ongoing in both long COVID and pre-COVID ME/CFS populations, Bues said.

Jarred Younger, PhD, of the Neuroinflammation, Pain, and Fatigue Laboratory at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, also gave an update of his ongoing work demonstrating significant brain inflammation seen in neuroimaging of people with ME/CFS compared with healthy controls…

Younger has been investigating the use of LDN for pain in fibromyalgia. Anecdotally, there have been reports of fatigue reduction with LDN in ME/CFS. “It wasn't a study designed for ME/CFS, but I think it's compelling evidence and enough with the other types of data we have to say we need to do a proper clinical trial of low-dose naltrexone in ME/CFS now,” Younger said.

‘We Need to Do Something' About the Underfunding

Another NIH-funded ME/CFS researcher, Maureen Hanson, PhD, of Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, noted that the NIH currently funds ME/CFS research at about $13 million compared with $1.15 billion for the Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery Initiative granted to NIH by Congress for “post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 (PASC)” in 2021 “because of the urgency of studying this. Most of us here are well aware of the underfunding of ME/CFS relative to the burden of illness,” she said.

Current 2024 funding for AIDS research is $3294 million. “There are 1.2 million individuals living with HIV in the United States, and there are over 3 million who are barely living with ME/CFS in the United States. We need to do something about this…It's certainly possible that future funding for PASC is now going to disappear,” Hanson cautioned.

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