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.

MEGA Patient Advisory Group

For better or worse, I found out today I’m on the MEGA patient advisory group. ‘Mixed feelings’ is the best way to describe my reaction. I ‘m pleased that I may have a chance to make a difference to the study but aware that it might not be easy. I will do my best…

In the meantime, if anyone who is reading this has also been accepted onto the group, please get in touch. I only know of two other members so far. It will be very useful for us all to be in contact.

 

Spreading the Word

privateeye-hammond-dec2016-web

Dr Phil Hammond’s latest column in Private Eye is called ‘Trial on Trial’. You may remember he wrote quite a helpful column about ME just recently. This time he writes in response to criticism from a doctor who got in touch to say:

“Every illness has a physical, psychological and social component, and limiting diagnosis or treatment to only one aspect of someone’s illness is likely to lead to a much poorer outcome. This ‘triple diagnosis’ applies to any complaint you care to consider, although obviously in varying proportions. The one exception seems to be CFS/ME, where any suggestion that there might be a psychological or social component leads to criticism. That CBT is the only treatment which has repeatedly been shown to have any benefit is conveniently ignored.”

It does become tiresome having to deal with such ‘arguments’ time and time again. Once upon a time it was ‘yuppie flu’ that popped up in every article about ME. Now, at long last, that is slowly fading away. Yet now we have to deal with this endlessly repeated idea that ME patients have an unreasonable and unsubstantiated resistance to any suggestion that there might be a psychological component to our illness. People with cancer are happy enough to go for CBT, we are told. So what’s our objection? Continue reading “Spreading the Word”

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”

FITNET Fiction

Here’s my latest response in the ongoing dialogue with Professor Holgate, CMRC Chair, about the proposed MEGA study:
Dear Professor Holgate
Thank you for your response to our email. I have not been able to consult with all the 218 people who signed the original communication but those whom I have been in touch with have expressed considerable disappointment that you did not attempt to address the specific issues we raised in our letter.
However, I await the new website with interest and hope that the FAQ section will at least deal with the two main issues we mentioned in relation to MEGA:
  •  the recruitment of a representative sample of patients (including the severely affected) who have the cardinal ME symptom of post-exertional malaise, and
  •  the suitability of Professor Crawley to take charge of such recruitment given the highly imprecise nature of her previous work in this field

Many people who signed the previous letter also left relevant comments Continue reading “FITNET Fiction”

More Voices

Many patients and carers left additional comments for Professor Holgate of MEGA when they signed our recent letter. I wasn’t able to carry these over when I transferred the post to its permanent home, so I’m reprinting some of them here.  Sorry I haven’t included them all but I am grateful for all your comments and signatures nevertheless. I shall link to this post when I send the follow-up letter to Prof Holgate (which I hope till be tomorrow). I will post the follow-up letter here on the blog as well.

Here are the comments: Continue reading “More Voices”