Medical Research Council announces ME/CFS research projects worth £1.6m

From a UK Medical Research Council press release: embargoed until 00:01am, 21 December 2011

The Medical Research Council (MRC) has awarded more than £1.6m for research into the causes of the debilitating condition chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME).

The investment will fund five new projects to investigate the mechanisms and underlying biological processes involved in the illness, which could eventually lead to better diagnosis and the development of more effective treatments.

CFS/ME is a complex and debilitating condition that affects around 250,000 people in the UK , including children. Symptoms include profound physical and mental fatigue, muscle and joint pain, disturbed sleep patterns and concentration and memory problems. The combination and severity of symptoms varies from patient to patient, making it a difficult condition to diagnose and treat.

Professor Stephen Holgate, Chair of the MRC’s Population and Systems Medicine Board, said:

“There is a pressing need to understand the causes of CFS/ME, and the MRC is delighted to announce substantial funding to address this. The quality and breadth of the scientific proposals we received in response to our funding call exceeded expectations and led to us funding more studies than we had originally anticipated.

“We’re especially pleased that the five new projects address many of the priority areas identified by our CFS/ME Expert Group in collaboration with charities and leading researchers in the field. We hope the awards will drive forward the research agenda in this area, paving the way for new diagnostic tools and treatments.”

Dr Charles Shepherd, member of the MRC CFS/ME Expert Group and trustee of the ME Association, which has agreed to provide £30,000 to co-fund one of the five projects, said:

“The ME Association is very pleased to learn that the MRC has followed up the research priorities identified by the Expert Group and agreed to fund five high-quality studies that aim to identify important biomedical abnormalities that may be involved in the underlying cause of CFS/ME.

“The patient community will particularly welcome research involving biomarkers/biological fingerprints, which could lead to a diagnostic test, and immune system abnormalities, which could lead to more effective forms of treatment.

“The fact that one of the studies is being co-funded by the charity sector marks a much needed step forward in co-operation between patients and researchers in this field. This initiative could be utilised to help fund additional research involving the priorities not yet covered by this announcement.”

The MRC has striven to stimulate high quality CFS/ME research for a number of years. Most recently the specially constituted MRC CFS/ME Expert Group, which involves leading researchers in the field and related areas, along with representatives from two CFS/ME charities, identified six priority areas where important research questions remained unanswered.

In February 2011, the MRC issued a £1.5m call for proposals in these areas, aimed at encouraging fresh partnerships between established CFS/ME researchers and those with strong scientific credentials, but new to this field. The key areas were:

• Nervous system disorders
• Cognitive symptoms
• Fatigue
• Immune dysregulation (eg. through viral infection)
• Pain
• Sleep disorders

In response to the high quality of the applications received, the MRC decided to provide an extra £150,000 to support the package of successful projects. The awards range in total value from £120,000 to £450,000 and the successful applicants were:

· Dr Wan Ng, Newcastle University
· Professor Julia Newton, Newcastle University
· Professor Anne McArdle, University of Liverpool
· Professor David Nutt, Imperial College London
· Dr Carmine Pariante, King’s College London

While the applications addressed most of the priority areas highlighted in the call, the MRC will announce shortly how it plans to stimulate research activity in those areas which were not covered.

Notes to editors

A full list of the five fully-funded programmes is included below, along with short summaries of the research proposals.

Identifying the biological fingerprints of fatigue
Principal investigator: Dr Wan Ng
Institution: Newcastle University
Summary: Researchers will analyse the immune systems of more than 500 patients with primary Sjögren syndrome – a chronic condition with similar symptoms to CFS/ME, including intense fatigue. Scientists will look for immune system abnormalities in these patients to help them identify the biological “fingerprints” of fatigue. It is hoped this will improve their understanding of the mechanisms of fatigue with a view to developing new treatments. It also offers the hope of a clinical test for the diagnosis of CFS/ME.

Understanding the pathogenesis of autonomic dysfunction in chronic fatigue syndrome and its relationship with cognitive impairment
Principal investigator: Professor Julia Newton
Institution: Newcastle University
Summary: Researchers will explore what causes dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system – characterised by dizziness and light-headedness – present in up to 90 per cent of CFS/ME sufferers. They will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure changes in blood flow to the brain and how this relates to cognition and nervous system dysfunction. The researchers hope their work will lay the foundations for new diagnostic tools, a better understanding of nervous system abnormalities and the development of targeted treatments aimed at reversing these abnormalities.

Modulation of aberrant mitochondrial function and cytokine production in skeletal muscle of patients with CFS by supplementary polyphenols
Principal investigator: Professor Anne McArdle
Institution: University of Liverpool (joint with the University of Leeds )
Summary: Scientists will use a newly-developed technique to study the energy-generating components of muscle cells (mitochondria). Some studies have suggested that mitochondria may be dysfunctional in CFS/ME, leading to an energy deficit. The scientists hope this will help them learn more about how CFS/ME develops and becomes a chronic condition.

Can enhancing slow wave sleep SWS improve daytime function in patients with CFS?
Principal investigator: Professor David Nutt
Institution: Imperial College London
Summary: Researchers will study sleep disturbance – a core symptom of CFS/ME. Experts in CFS/ME, sleep and psychopharmacology will use a drug to increase deep restorative sleep in CFS/ME patients and measure the effect on their brain function during waking hours. It is hoped the research will increase their understanding of how sleep disturbance affects CFS/ME sufferers, with a view to developing new therapies.

Persistent fatigue induced by interferon-alpha: a new immunological model for chronic fatigue syndrome
Principal investigator: Dr Carmine Pariante
Institution: King’s College London
Summary: Researchers will examine the effects of a protein called interferon-alpha (IFN-alpha) on the immune system. IFN-alpha is produced as a protective response to viral infection and is commonly used to treat infections such as hepatitis C. IFN-alpha also induces fatigue and flu-like symptoms in patients, similar to that experienced by patients with CFS/ME. The team will follow patients undergoing IFN-alpha treatment for Hepatitis C over a number of months to define the biological changes that occur in relation to the development of fatigue. Their work could lead to a check-list of blood measures to predict who will develop CFS/ME, as well as identifying new targets for therapy.

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