On February 25, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health (note: major university) announced the results of its Center for Infection and Immunity's exciting new research to identify the exact characteristics of the immune dysfunction in ME/CFS. Columbia sent out a press release summarizing the research, with the full study report available here.
A word of warning before you read the press release or any news stories based on it: whoever wrote it was very poorly informed about past ME/CFS research and proclaimed this new study, "the first robust physical evidence that ME/CFS is a biological illness as opposed to a psychological disorder." Eeek - yeah, completely cringe-worthy. Someone in PR got a bit carried away with that one. Of course, we all know there have been plenty of studies showing the physiological abnormalities present in ME/CFS over the past two decades. Back in 2007, Dr. Nancy Klimas summarized many of these findings in her report, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Inflammation, Immune Function, and Neuroendocrine Interactions, which cites over 30 different scientific studies (and by the way, is an excellent scientific article to share with doctors). Since then, there have been more studies on immune dysfunction in ME/CFS.
So, try to ignore the flagrant errors in the headlines surrounding this new study, and let's instead focus on what IS ground-breaking about it:
- It was the largest ever (by far) study of ME/CFS immune dysfunction, involving almost 300 patients and over 350 healthy controls from multiple locations. Since many previous ME/CFS studies have been very small (often due to a lack of funding), the mere size of this study is big news. The smaller studies are often ignored in literature reviews, like those recently done/in progress with P2P and IOM - this one will not be ignored.
- It was also the broadest ever immune study of ME/CFS in terms of scope, looking at 51 different immune biomarkers in blood plasma samples.
- It was headed up by a world-renowned virologist, Dr. Ian Lipkin, which brings immediate credibility and visibility to the study (something ME/CFS studies rarely get) and included eleven other co-authors who include the world's top ME/CFS clinicians and researchers, including Dr. Nancy Klimas, Dr. Daniel Peterson Dr. Jose Montoya, Dr. Susan Levine, Dr. Lucinda Bateman, and more. This combination of credible outside researcher plus top ME/CFS specialists is unique to date.
- For the first time ever, this study identified significant differences in immune function between early ME/CFS patients (less than three years) and those who've been ill for more than three years.
A completely new development from this study was the finding that there is a difference between early-stage patients and later-stage patients. Three years seems to be the turning point, and after that, certain immune markers (various cytokines) show a marked decrease. The report itself includes details of all 51 biomarkers measured - which ones were high in the early stages, which ones were low, and which ones shifted after the 3-year mark (there are lots of graphs in the report to help explain the results).
One thing that confused me - and that I'm still not certain I completely understand - is how this new research fits into the already-understood aspects of immune dysfunction in ME/CFS. Two points have been reiterated over the many years of studies:
- ME/CFS is neither a condition of autoimmunity nor of immune deficiency; instead, our unique type of immune dysfunction is a mixed bag - certain immune elements are over-active and others are under-active.
- ME/CFS is a condition of Th1-Th2 imbalance, usually identified as Th2 dominant. I explained this in an earlier post about immune dysfunction in ME/CFS, but briefly, it means that our immune systems tend to over-react to viruses and allergens and under-react to bacterial infections, among other things. Certainly, our own experiences here, with my sons and I, have always born this out - allergies got worse with ME/CFS, we developed new food intolerances, we rarely "catch" viruses like colds or flu (though the resulting immune stimulation from exposure can feel like a virus), and any tiny bit of congestion always turns into a secondary bacterial infection, like bronchitis or a sinus infection.
Finally, I asked a few questions of Dr. Susan Levine who is a co-author of this study, Chairperson of the CFS Advisory Committee, and our own ME/CFS doctor. Her comments on the meaning and effects of this new study include:
- The differences in early- and late-stage patients found in the study mirror what she often (though not always) sees in her own patients - newer ME/CFS patients tend to have more prominent immune-related symptoms like sore throat, swollen glands, flu-like aches, etc. while patients in the later stages of the disease tend to have pain and cognitive dysfunction as more prominent symptoms (of course, all have the tell-tale exhaustion and post-exertional crashes).
- As for immediate applications for patients, that is probably still a bit farther off. She said that the kind of cytokine testing done in the Columbia study is not yet available in commercial labs. This may not change anytime soon until there are ways to treat the abnormal cytokine levels - currently, there is no impetus for labs to add these tests.
- In comparing the short-term and longer-term patients, she said they "are also looking at site variability, differences in gender and ethnicity and other environmental influences (urban vs suburban vs country dwellers) to see if there is an impact."
- "While these are interesting findings, it would be good to look at T, B, and NK cells in addition, as well as autonomic dysfunction, metabolic changes, and pain levels in these `short duration' versus `long duration' patients to see if there is some additional correlation with other parameters."
And, of course, this new study brought much-needed visibility to our disease and should provide plenty of fodder for further study and new interest from other outside researchers. And, hopefully, those silly headlines along with the hard data will finally put to rest the outdated idea that ME/CFS isn't a "real" disease.
Does this study fit with your own ME/CFS illness history? Did you notice a change or difference after the 3-year mark?
(For more information, see articles published by The Atlantic and by Science Advances.)