Natalie Boulton – MEGA PAG

Hello – I’m back from the MEGA PAG. It didn’t go too well. I’m afraid.

Yes, I know, you told me so…

I’m still trying to work out how to report what happened without falling foul of the confidentiality clause. In the meantime, here’s an account from Natalie Boulton, co-producer of the Voices From The Shadows film, who left at the same time as me. This also appears on Natalie’s Voices From The Shadows Facebook page:

Three members of the MEGA patient advisory group resigned last Friday 17th March – myself Natalie Boulton, ‘Spoonseeker’ and Jim Wilson. ‘Spoonseeker’ writes a well informed and thoughtful blog, I made the collaborative book ‘Lost Voices from a Hidden Illness’ and co-produced/directed the film ‘Voices from the Shadows’; an advocate for ME patients like my daughter and her friends. Jim is a former research physicist and computer scientist. He has a wide ranging professional experience in senior business management and of delivering projects in both direct management and board level oversight roles, which involved partnership in working across organisations and cultures. He is also a trustee or chair of several charities. The professional experience he brought to the PAG has been invaluable. Both he and I are carers for daughters ill with ME. Spoonseeker is himself a patient and also a carer for his wife who has ME. A very active member of a ME support group, he has had a long involvement with a wide range of patients and their experiences. We all took our support for, and participation in MEGA, very seriously. We expended an enormous amount of effort and time on it; committed to applying our varied expertise to the project in a constructive way. I think the other two will soon make their reasons for resigning public, in so far as they are permitted to by a confidentiality agreement. Keep an eye on Spoonseeker’s blog for their accounts. I restrict this account to my personal impressions and publicly available material.

I applied to join the MEGA PAG believing that the public specification for the patient advisory group was a serious commitment to ME patients and to PAG members – at least until a more comprehensive Terms of Reference was agreed with the PAG. I also believed that the information given to Forward ME by Prof Holgate, to allay concerns expressed by the Countess of Mar and ME charities about MEGA, could be depended on.

I now find, almost three months since the PAG was formed, that both this public commitment and Prof Holgate’s answers have turned out to be misleading. Furthermore, no terms of reference have been agreed, to enable the PAG to operate effectively, despite this being a priority, and the minutes from the only meeting held while I was a PAG member ( last December) have still not been confirmed or made public.

I am, therefore, concerned that patients and ME charity representatives have been misled. In my view, over the last three months, the PAG has not been permitted to carry out the functions publicly ascribed to it. As an advocate for severely ill ME patients this puts me in a difficult position. Members of the PAG have been working and studying incredibly hard, both individually and collectively, in order to be in the best and most informed position to assist the MEGA team who, as a group, have very little knowledge of ME/CFS. I believe we are all desperate for good quality, relevant research to be done on ME and ME/CFS, so I have found it intensely frustrating to find our efforts to engage thwarted at every step. I have not felt that the PI representing the MEGA researchers has a genuine wish for a meaningful engagement with the PAG, nor for the collaborative relationship many PAG members hoped for and have been working towards. Now, sadly, my impression is that the PAG was hastily appointed at the last minute as a cynical attempt to try to make bioresource bids look more appealing to funders and to reassure patients.

I have not found an honest and open environment for discussion between PAG and PI. At the only official PAG meeting before I resigned, it became clear that critical design issues for the MEGA project had already been decided upon and were non-negotiable: no meaningful discussion of these issues would be permitted. All further research by MEGA researchers, whether a broad ranging Genome Wide Association Study or more in-depth research, will depend on the samples collected for the MEGA biobank, so the selection and identification of patients is crucial, as Prof Holgate and others including Prof Davey Smith have pointed out.

At her recent inaugural lecture, the PI made clear her understanding of ME/CFS in children as being a very common condition, responding very positively to the behavioural management regimes found to be so flawed in adults. She also expressed grateful thanks for the assistance that she has received from Profs. Peter White and George Davey Smith over the last 10 years, with helping her win research funding. Peter White is the psychiatrist who led the PACE Trial. George Davey Smith is an excellent researcher, but says he knows nothing about ME/CFS, even after 10 years of being associated with CFS research as Bristol University. As a PAG member I have seen no evidence that the MEGA biobank PI is willing to allow those who have lived with and developed a more realistic understanding of the severe illness known as ME, to engage in meaningful discussion about the selection of patients and to listen to our concerns about the potential danger of particular groups being under-represented in the biobank and even in a GWAS.

ME has a long history of definitions and criteria being used in a very ‘creative’ manner.
I decided a couple of weeks ago that, as an advocate for those with severe and long lasting ME, I could no longer remain a PAG member in a project whose value to ME patients:
1. relies entirely on how a few significant terms – such as PEM – or ME/CFS – will be defined at some future date
2. where crucial decisions, which will impact on future options, were made without any in-depth discussion being permitted
3. where no working relationship or discussion has been allowed between the PAG and MEGA researchers.

Since impending resignations were known about, there seems to have been a frantic attempt to placate criticism from the PAG, but this does not restore my confidence in the overall MEGA biobank project.

There has been a history of legitimate patient concerns being dismissed as harassment and persecution, even when these concerns are raised at terrible cost to patients own health. I hope that researchers, patients, carers and ME charities will recognise the legitimacy of the serious concerns raised by the resigning PAG members, rather than dismissing them and relegating them to the ’persecution of brave researchers by nasty patients’ narrative.

Eleven Days of Christmas

Well, in my previous post (a few hours ago), I did say to take a closer look at the MEGA site in case there was something I’d missed – and too right I was. I had failed to read the new MEGA blog post, thinking that it was just about the change of deadline for applications to join the patient advisory group. I hadn’t realised that it also provides a schedule for subsequent weeks. Here it is:

  • 9am 13 December 2016 – Deadline for applications to join the MEGA Patient Advisory Group
  • 13-14 December – Applicants contacted and group members confirmed
  • w/c 19 December – Papers and key information sent out to Patient Advisory Group members
  • 29 or 30 December – Patient Advisory Group teleconference and/or e-group meeting held
  • 4 January 2017 – Back-up call for Patient Advisory Group if needed, to address outstanding issues from December meeting.

So patients are to be given a maximum of eleven days to read the ‘papers and key information’ before discussing it and -presumably – suggesting possible alterations in a teleconference or e-group meeting over the Christmas period! So not only are they expected to do this over Christmas, but the twelve days of Christmas has been shortened to a maximum of eleven. Notice the w/c in there – not meaning ‘toilet’ in this instance (although some might think this an appropriate place to sling the schedule) but ‘week-commencing’, so the papers could theoretically arrive any time that week, which might be as little as six days before the conference.

At least they accept the possible need for a backup call ‘to address outstanding issues’ and also feel that some explanation is due. They say:

The reason that the timescale is so short is because the mainstream funder to whom we want to apply for MEGA funding has an application deadline in early January 2017. This deadline was only recently announced and was different to the timings we expected.

and:

If we miss the deadline for this funder, we will not be able to apply again until 2018.

Even so, to use an old joke from Have I Got News For You, the words piss-up and brewery spring to mind. And of course many will say that they’ve carefully planned it like this to deliberately discourage and marginalise patient involvement. I can fully understand that point of view. If MEGA really want to win back the trust of the patient community, they are not going the right way about it.

Does this make an difference to my decision to apply for the patient advisory group? I’m still processing that one. But I’m getting more and more annoyed. Three more words have sprung to mind: ‘taking the’ and ‘piss’. And it’s not us that’s doing it…

(My normal pristine standard of vocabulary will be resumed in the next post.)

See also this OMEGA post which I should have read yesterday, including pertinent comments by Peter T.

Taking a Closer Look

Regular readers will know that I recently received a response from Professor Holgate to our 200-plus-signature email expressing concerns about the proposed MEGA study. “We are very appreciative of the enthusiasm being shown to pursue an exciting ‘omics-based research project in the field of M.E…” he said, with no mention of the various pressing concerns we raised in our email. You can read the whole of his message in this previous post.

It is a strange response indeed. It is like the shipping line which ran the Titanic writing to bereaved relatives to thank them for their interest in the general principle of oceanic travel. To carry the metaphor further, Professor Holgate is pleased to be in touch with us, but changes the subject whenever we mention icebergs.

I have now received a further response (addressing my response to his response), this one saying so little that I won’t bother printing it here, but once again referring us to the brand new MEGA website, which is indeed up and running at last.

If you’ve seen it, you were probably less than impressed. At first sight, it looks pretty much Continue reading “Taking a Closer Look”

Why We All Need To Sign The OMEGA Petition

((Please note that I am not involved in organising the OMEGA petition.))

It’s taken me a while to sign up to the OMEGA petition because I’ve really wanted to find a way for the MEGA ‘biomedical research’ study to work.

Steps could be taken to improve the original proposal. As suggested in the previous post, the patient sample could be obtained not from the NHS clinics but from the existing UK Biobank. There are nowhere near enough samples in the Biobank at present but there is already funding for more, and more samples still could be added as further funding is obtained. Using the already established methodology, with patients coming through GPs, this could produce a reliable sample with the focus on PEM. There would be plenty of severe and moderate patients and – if my rudimentary understanding of ‘big data’ is correct – the sample need not be as large as the one from the clinics as patients with other fatigue conditions would not be included.

If Dr Charles Shepherd – or someone appointed by him – could be in charge of this then I am sure that the majority of the patient community would get behind the project. But would such a switch be achievable? That is the problem. The word is that Prof Esther Crawley is in charge of patient selection – and is unlikely to want to change the way it is done.

The involvement of Prof Crawley, of course, has been one of the main reasons why patients have been uneasy about MEGA right from its first announcement. Yesterday’s publicity about FITNET, Crawley’s upcoming online CBT study, has come as a timely reminder of why that is.

Yesterday’s reports were brimming over with misinformation. Continue reading “Why We All Need To Sign The OMEGA Petition”

A Broader Picture

The last draft post I wrote about the MEGA petition was superseded by events before I finished it, so I’ll try and crack on with this one before the same thing happens again. Of course ‘cracking on’ in ME terms is still kind of slow but I’ll see if I can break the tortoise barrier.

So, what’s happened recently?

Well, we’ve been told that Peter White is retiring from research and will only be an ‘advisor’ to MEGA from now on. This perspective appears to be endorsed by the latest list of MEGA personnel, which no longer includes him. I can only give a muted ‘hurrah’ to this one. Advice is dangerous stuff and you can still do a lot of damage with it. His PACE Trial is swiftly becoming a watchword for bad science (see here, here, and here). Is he really the sort of ME ‘expert’ that either we patients or the MEGA team want around to guide this latest project?

It really is astonishing that MEGA apparently do still want him around after all he has done, and that they clearly expect patients to put up with it. It seems to me that if a passing Martian was given a brief course in English and the full facts, then even he (or she) would swiftly understand why we don’t want Prof White anywhere near this project. Why do the MEGA team not get this?

People with ME have  been left on the scrapheap for decades. I myself have been ill for over thirty years. That’s over half my life. I have no children because of it. I lost my job. My life is very limited. Yet I am one of the relatively lucky ones. I can sit and tap at this keyboard – as long as I take plenty of rests to fend off the shoulder and eye pain and overall exhaustion. There are plenty of others who have to spend all their lives in bed, who can’t stand the light, who can’t even talk to their loved ones. We’ve all heard about Whitney Defoe whose birthday it recently was. He is not alone in his suffering. The vast majority of the severely ill are left to fend for themselves as best they can. Rarely do doctors come near them and they wouldn’t know what to do if they did.

And all this time, all these decades, so little research has been done, in large part because of the fairy story dreamed up by the PACE researchers and their associates: the fairy story that Continue reading “A Broader Picture”

MEGA Petition

Here is a copy of an email from Leeds ME Network sent to Sonya Chowdhury, CEO of Action for ME concerning the petition which she has been circulating regarding the proposed ‘big data’ study by the UK CFS/M.E. Research Collaborative. It is another situation, similar to the NIH study in the US – where the research sounds very promising but some of the personnel involved sound alarm bells. Leeds ME Network are therefore requesting more details and – hopefully – reassurances.

Dear Sonya – I am writing because I find it difficult to know how to respond to the MEGA petition which you have been promoting. Of course I am in favour of more biomedical research into ME. Normally I would sign this petition, circulate it to our members, and publicise it more widely on social media. Yet I am concerned about the presence of  Profs White and Crawley in the MEGA team. I am sure you are aware that many other patients share my reservations.

Following the recent release of data, it is now clear that Prof White and his PACE team deliberately manipulated the data to get the result they wanted, thereby deceiving patients, doctors, and decision makers both in this country and worldwide, Action for ME included. I know that your predecessor, Sir Peter Spencer, expressed surprise at the results of the PACE Trial. Well he might have done, because it is now clear that the published results were a travesty of the truth.

As for Prof Crawley, as you will be aware she is now about to test GET on children in the MAGENTA trial (in spite of widespread concerns about the PACE trial plus substantial reporting by patients of harms from this therapy), has recently been testing the quack therapy the Lightning Process on children, and has added to the substantial body of misinformation about ME by conducting a study of the prevalence of CFS at age 16 by using subjects who were ‘diagnosed’ by questionnaire and without the involvement of doctors.

In view of these issues. I’m afraid I have no confidence in any research involving either Profs White or Crawley and am therefore loath to sign or distribute the petition. But on the other hand, I would very much like to support biomedical research. I therefore feel I am caught between a rock and a hard place and it seems that many other patients feel the same.

I notice that ME Research UK have put a slightly different list on their web site: a ‘main MEGA team’ which does not include Profs White and Crawley. This makes perfect sense, as it is hard to see why either of them, given their skill sets and the nature of their previous work, should be involved in biomedical research anyway. So I wonder if their presence on the petition page is a token one only, acknowledging their membership of the Research Collaborative perhaps? If this were the case, if Profs White and Crawley were not actually to be involved in the big data project (and therefore not at liberty to subvert it), I might well feel able to support and publicise the petition. I wonder if you are able to advise me on this or else pass this email on to someone else who can?

I have just being listening to your presentation at the Research Collaborative conference in which you spoke very tellingly of the need for an appropriate level of funding for ME research. I am grateful to you for making this case and am sorry if you feel that I – and perhaps others – are ‘shooting ourselves in the foot’ by expressing such reservations about who is in charge of research. But experience has taught us that bad research is even worse than no research. The efforts of Prof White and the biopsychosocial school have been one of the main factors in reducing investment in biomedical research in recent years. It has taken patients many years – and a lot of energy we could ill afford to spend – to get to the stage where we are finally starting to expose the PACE Trial for the sham that it is. We cannot afford for the same thing to happen again.

 Note: I’ve been asked to include details of ‘unsigning’ in case you previously signed the MEGA petition and wish to un-sign pending further information about the study. I covered it here

The Light of Day

After long opposition (and substantial expense) from the trial investigators and Queen Mary University of London, data from the £5m publicly funded PACE Trial, which studied graded exercise (GET) and CBT therapies for ME/CFS, has finally been released under the Freedom of Information Act. ME patients Alem Matthees, Tom Kindlon and Carly Maryhew, with the support of two prominent US statisticians, have reanalysed the data according to the original trial protocol and illustrated that the recovery results were exaggerated by a factor of four due to unexplained protocol changes. The revised results were in fact statistically insignificant. This means that , in spite of what the investigators claimed, the trial provided no proof that GET and CBT help people with ME/CFS to recover.

Though those who have studied the trial have long suspected that the results as originally presented were grossly misleading, it is still a “gosh- wow” moment to actually witness the proof of this. One is tempted to ask “How did they think they would get away with what appears to be such a deliberate attempt to mislead?”

The answer appears to be that they calculated quite cleverly: they almost did get away with it. The professional reputation of the investigators had led many prominent people to assume that they must be in the right, and that the ME patients who have been fighting to expose the truth (whom the PACE investigators branded as a fairly small, but highly organised, very vocal and very damaging group of individuals’) were unreliable obsessives, eager to discredit the trial simply because its conclusions did not agree with their own beliefs about ME. (In actual fact, the attempt to besmirch the patients in this way appears to have been a classic case of ‘projection’, the investigators having apparently twisted the figures to fit their own mistaken beliefs about the condition.)

Even now, it seems likely that they will stick to the strategy of claiming that black is white and relying on their reputations to Continue reading “The Light of Day”