Big Data Danger

This post comes mainly courtesy (again) of the astute Steve Hawkins, who responded to my concerns in the Getting Airborne post about the possible dangers of a MEGA Biobank. Over to Steve:

On the ‘big data’ front, I think that all genuine physical measurements will be useful if used in the right way. The danger comes from any extraction/filtering that uses diagnosis as the reference field. If they do that – and I’m sure Crawley and Co would, because they think they can diagnose without biomarkers – the results would be garbage, as there would be many conditions given the wrong name but appearing together.

On the other hand, filtering on key concrete signs like PEM, POTS, bedbound, etc. would pull up useful groupings whatever the ostensible diagnosis.

In the wider scheme of things, there are now a number of entrepreneuring projects aiming to collect ALL big medical data, and link all medical databases together. I read a good piece on this recently by one bioinformatician who is setting up a giant server, but I don’t seem to have bookmarked it. Here is a conference on getting all genomic information into ‘the cloud’ for free searching and filtering: And one from The Lancet, on the astronomical amount of data that is about to flow from mobile phones whose apps have turned into our version of Star Trek’s ‘tricorder’. All this info will go into ‘the cloud’:

So we’re getting to the stage where all data is useful: so long as it is faithfully produced. Sadly, we know from PACE that data will have to be graded by association with researcher, and those who cannot be trusted will have their data discarded. There is nothing they can do about this: if their name is on their shoddy work, it will go nowhere, and all the data they collected will be wasted.

There lies the danger of MEGA: not that it will pollute the big data, but that any good data it contains will be at risk of being discarded by everyone but Crawley and her associates. That is why patients should NOT let their data be associated with MEGA while Crawley is involved.

I think Steve has nailed it there, and as it seems unlikely that Prof Crawley will be willing to part company with MEGA, I still believe that we should sign the OMEGA (Opposing MEGA) petition to demonstrate our strength of feeling against the proposal as it stands. The original pro-MEGA petition has now been closed – perhaps because they realised that more people were taking their signatures off than were putting them on – but the OMEGA team are still promoting their counter petition. Here is their latest blog. Scroll to the end for the link to their petition or just click here.

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”

More on MEGA

Following on from their original email and Professor Holgate’s response, Leeds ME Network have sent a further email to Prof Holgate of CMRC about concerns regarding the proposed MEGA project:

Many thanks for your swift response to my previous email regarding the MEGA study and for passing our concerns on to those who are preparing the bid for funding…

It is heartening to hear from your email that the inclusion of very severe patients is under discussion by the MEGA team. I notice, however, that you mention ‘financial limitations’ in this context. The reaction of other patients with whom I have shared this issue echoes my own: that severely affected patients should be the priority. People with ME/CFS in general are offered little in the way of treatment but most of the severely affected are abandoned entirely by doctors. They are left to lie in darkened rooms, often unable even to sit up in bed or converse with their loved ones, and without any prospect of medical intervention. I’m sure you know all this. Though I cannot claim to have taken a scientific sample of opinion, the overwhelming impression I get from patients is that if there are financial constraints regarding MEGA then these should apply to the overall number of samples taken rather than be focussed on the severely affected, who are the ones most in need of help. I am reminded of Prof Ron Davis’ observation that data from severely affected patients is the most important ‘because their biology would show the greatest differences compared with healthy controls’. It seems incongruous to be envisaging such an enormous study yet even at this stage, while the grant submission is still being prepared, to be talking about insufficient money for full inclusion in the study of those most in need of help.

A further issue regarding patient selection occurred to me while reading through the ‘questions and answers’ update on the MEGA petition website:

The update says: “The only way to do this is to recruit patients through NHS clinics throughout England.”

As I described in my previous email, taking patients from the clinics alone would produce a sample of patients biased towards the less severely affected. Continue reading “More on MEGA”

Making the Most of MEGA

In an earlier post, I published an email from Leeds ME Network to Sonya Chowdhury, CEO of Action for ME, expressing reservations about the presence of Profs White and Crawley on the team of the proposed MEGA biomedical research project. Here is the latest update from Leeds ME Network:

In response to our letter to Sonya Chowdhury, we have just received what appears to be a standard letter referring to the latest updates on the MEGA petition page at Change.org. Leeds ME Network have now responded in turn with the following email, slight variations of which will be sent to Ms Chowdhury; Stephen Holgate the CMRC Chair; Dr Charles Shepherd at ME Association; and ME Research UK. Our email follows:

We are grateful to the MEGA team for letting us know about the proposed CFS/ME biomedical research project. We believe it is very important that this study goes ahead but in view of some of the less than helpful research which has taken place in the past (in particular, of course, we are thinking of the PACE trial) we hope you will understand why we patients are keen to voice our concerns about the proposal.

1) The impression has been given that patients for the study group will all be drawn from the NHS Clinics. It seems clear that such a sample would be heavily biased towards less severely affected patients and that the sample would therefore be unrepresentative of the total patient population.

The reasons for this are as follows: Continue reading “Making the Most of MEGA”

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 Update

Here’s the latest from the MEGA petition site:

3 Oct 2016 — Two members of the Alliance have retired from the group: Simon Collins, University of Bristol, will be changing universities; Prof Peter White, Queen Mary University, London, is retiring from research at the end of this year and will have an advisory role.

We will be launching a series of blogs this week from MEGA members outlining why they joined MEGA and what their expertise and field/discipline has to offer.

Which doesn’t seem to me to make a whole lot of difference unfortunately. It does make you wonder why, after the PACE trial, anyone running a research study would want to take advice from Peter White… And Esther Crawley remains involved. The other day, at the CMRC conference, she was seeking to justify her use of GET on children by saying there is ‘good evidence that it works for adults’. It doesn’t seem like she’s paying much attention to the recent slippage in the reputation of PACE.

Previous posts related to MEGA:

MEGA Petition

Unsigning

Barefaced

Unsigning

Thanks to AndyPR for this information about how to ‘unsign’ from the MEGA petition if you signed but are now having second thoughts due to the involvement of Profs White & Crawley etc.

“If people have signed this Mega Research Project Petition …unaware of the PACE exponents’ involvement …if they wish to UNSIGN pending further clarification of patient selection criteria, data sharing protocols, and exactly how the PACE experts are involved in the study…..
Go to your confirmation e.mail and press the “didn’t sign” text box and that will remove your name.

“If you have lost or deleted the original email confirmation, you can also fill in a form on the Change org web page and request to be removed. They will do so and confirm it.”

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

None The Wiser…

Does Esther Crawley’s latest research really tell us anything about the prevalence of pediatric CFS/ME?

 

After a quiet time over the holidays and into the new year, ME/CFS has been back in the news again. This time the coverage has in many ways been rather helpful. Dr Mark Porter, writing in The Times painted quite an accurate portrait of the condition: usually starting after an infection; involving numerous symptoms rather than only fatigue; the fatigue itself “persistent and recurrent”; and “exacerbated by physical or mental exertion”. There was even a description (though not by name) of the all-important post-exertional malaise. Pacing was also well described: “some of the strategies are counter-intuitive”, “it is important to avoid the boom-and-bust cycle”, only the exhortation to avoid daytime sleep seemed to me to be off the mark: in some situations this is a useful strategy to restore natural rhythm but in my experience as a patient it’s not always feasible or desirable. Nevertheless I liked Dr Porter’s perspective on the possible psychological repercussions of having ME: “feeling awful for months on end will dampen the spirits of the hardiest person” and severe ME at least gets a mention: “when severe it can leave victims housebound and often bedridden (the worst cases require hospital treatment)”. Not that the hospital is likely to have a clue what to do about it but at least there is some acknowledgement of severity.

The piece on the BBC News website focused more on the new study from the University of Bristol which served as the trigger for this latest splurge of publicity. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at Age 16 Years claimed that the prevalence of pediatric CFS was 1.9% in 16-year-olds, higher than previously thought. The BBC article rounded this up to 1 in 50 and contrasted it with the 1 in 1000 (it said) who are actually diagnosed. Hmm.

The study also claimed that CFS affected almost twice as many girls as boys at age 16 and was more likely to affect children from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to the article, the study authors said this dispelled the commonly held view that CFS/ME was a “middle-class” illness, or “yuppie flu”.

I think I would dispute the fact that this is a widely held view any more (except perhaps among journalists), most of the general population having either forgotten about yuppies or being too young to have heard of them at all. But I suppose it is a useful enough finding – if it can be trusted, that is, but more of that in a moment… Continue reading “None The Wiser…”

Telling It Like It Is

It’s been a gruelling and messy few weeks for those of us who try to keep up with developments in the world of ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis). On the plus side, there’s been a comprehensive and damning critique of the PACE Trial by investigative journalist David Tuller. As you may be aware, the 2011 UK PACE Trial purported to demonstrate the efficacy of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and GET (graded exercise therapy) as treatments for ME, findings which have been hotly contested – and for very good reasons – by patient advocates and informed health professionals alike. Now, Tuller’s series of articles has provided an invaluable and comprehensive summary of the numerous failings of the trial all in one place for the very first time.

Then, just as the PACE researchers were firing up their response – a very damaging response, of which more soon – influential Professor of Health Psychology James Coyne joined the fray to explain the shortcomings of the latest PACE follow-up study; while in what may be the most significant PACE development of all, the Information Commissioners Office ordered the release of raw data from the trial, a move which may provide its many critics with the ammunition to finally expose the truth behind the study’s spin and bluster.

Lastly, as far as the positive side of the equation is concerned, though you could be forgiven for overlooking it amid the drama of what is coming to be known as ‘PACE-gate’, the US National Institutes of Health has announced a major new CFS/ME research initiative, the main objective of which will be to investigate ‘at a biological and molecular level’ what happens when someone develops ME following an infection. Furthermore, US CFS/ME research will now be under the wing of the ‘National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’ as opposed to ‘Women’s Health’, which seems like a more sensible way to proceed, given that men get ME as well.

On the negative side, the PACE researchers published another follow-on study, the latest in a series of number-crunching re-imaginings based on data from the trial, studies which keep the fires of PACE burning over and over again, long after reasoned argument should have extinguished them. This time, unfortunately, the fires were stoked not only by the study itself, yet another triumph of spin over substance, but by a couple of press reports from the Daily Mail and – worst of all – a front page piece from the Daily Telegraph which took the nonsense from the study and transformed it into something so outrageous, unrecognisable and – unfortunately – damaging that even Prof Michael Sharpe, lead researcher on the dodgy study itself, described the article as ‘misleading and insulting’. Continue reading “Telling It Like It Is”