My Perspective on the MEGA PAG

At long last, I’ve submitted my list of reasons for resigning from the MEGA patient advisory group to the MEGA team, the other PAG members and a few other interested parties. I would like to be able to share it in full here but unfortunately the confidentiality agreement makes that impossible. So I shall stay with it as long as I can and then add in a few extra comments exclusive to this blog. Well, OK, quite a lot of extra comments…
Here we go…
I joined the PAG in the expectation that we would be able to make a substantial contribution to the design of the MEGA project, in particular the patient cohort selection, about which there had been considerable concern in both the ME/CFS research and patient communities. Recognition and  understanding of ME/CFS has been greatly hindered for many years by the muddled and inconsistent use of a host of diagnostic criteria. This problem was acknowledged by the recent US National Institutes of Health ‘Pathways to Prevention’ Report  and highlighted in a recent paper from the Cure ME UK Biobank team. It is recognised that broad criteria are needed for GWAS, but nonetheless it is of course extremely important  to select the right patients for the MEGA biobank, particularly as they might be used for research worldwide for many years to come. There has been particular concern because the MEGA team Principal Investigator, though regarded as an ME/CFS expert by her close colleagues, did not – to judge from her previous work – appear to have taken on board the importance of such distinctions.
Prior to the formation of the PAG, patient concern was to some extent allayed by assurances about the extensive role of the patient advisory group, both on the MEGA website and in person by Prof Holgate when he addressed the Forward ME Group at the House of Lords.
The MEGA website announced that provisions would be made for the PAG as follows:
We will:
  • use technology to make it as easy as possible to participate, given the limitations of the illness
  • ensure you are clear about your role and responsibilities
  • always treat you with respect and compassion
  • provide you with support that fits with your role and your needs as well as ours
  • always value the role you play in our team and the contribution you make to our work
  • listen to, and act on, feedback that you give to us outlining what we did/didn’t do and why
  • ensure you have the information you need to participate in the wider MEGA team effectively.
At his meeting with Forward ME at the House of Lords in December, Prof Holgate further explained:
  • the selection of patients would not be looked into until the PAG had been convened
  • the PAG would need to get together with the MEGA team to resolve the many queries that surrounded the condition of ME/CFS patients.
  • the PAG’ s method of working would be a matter for the PAG to decide. Each patient representative would be an equal of every other member of the MEGA team
When asked about the inclusion of the full spectrum of patients in samples for the study, Prof Holgate said:
  • this was a discussion the patient representatives would need to have with the scientists
The MEGA website summarised the role of the PAG as follows: “to provide people with ME/CFS, their carers, and people with an interest in ME/CFS, with a full voice in advising and collaborating with the MEGA team to inform all stages of the MEGA study to better understand the biology of ME/CFS. Advisory Group members are asked to contribute to the MEGA study by:
  • actively engaging in the design of the MEGA study and to be participants in its conduct
  • identifying any potential practical issues for participants, questions, gaps or concerns about the study and to comment on study documents and procedures
  • contributing to, and informing, the planning process for securing funding, recruiting participants and disseminating results.”
Sadly, my experience was that the vast majority of these numerous assurances were ill-founded. The reality of the PAG differed greatly from what had been promised.
In the report I submitted, I went on to give examples of numerous ways in which the reality of the PAG fell short of what had been promised, but unfortunately I’m not able to share them here due to the confidentiality agreement. What I can do instead, I think, is to bring in my experience of patient involvement in research into another neurological condition I have. This has involved answering questions about how far people would be prepared to travel to undergo tests, and whether they would be prepared to go without their medication for part of the day while doing so, that sort of thing. In other words answering important but relatively mundane questions about patient participation in the practice of research.
In our discussions amongst ourselves in the PAG, we referred to this as working in a ‘consultative’ capacity, whereby the group would be approached to answer such questions as and when they were needed, an important role yet a very different one from that of collaboration, which was what we had been given the impression would be required from us for MEGA. At the time I left the PAG, some two and a half months in, it was still not clear which of these roles we were supposed to fulfil. We had certainly been told we would be collaborating, more specifically we were to be provided with “a full voice in advising and collaborating with the MEGA team to inform all stages of the MEGA study”. The trouble was that to judge from our experience so far we were really only wanted in a consultative capacity. “To decide on the best colour for the envelopes,” was how I liked to describe it. Which was a joke – but admittedly not all that funny.
Though things were much more complicated than I have been able to describe, it was this uncertainty about the role of the PAG and the failure to get agreement on terms of reference which might have defined it, together with frustration about having such little scope for input into the project, which led to my resignation. Our attempts to get more clarity led to a souring of the atmosphere and it was hard to see how progress could be made. Far from being welcome partners in the development of MEGA, we seemed to be barely tolerated. Three of us felt that the time had come to resign.
My best guess about what happened is that we were always intended to be consultative but when patients protested so loudly about the plans for MEGA as originally announced, the PAG was seized upon as a way to quieten us down: “Don’t worry – the PAG will be there to make sure it’s all done properly!” Prof Holgate even went so far as to tell Forward ME that “PAG members would be the equal of every other member of the MEGA team” which I have to say struck me at the time as neither likely nor even desirable. Personally speaking, as someone who knows next to nothing about –omics, I wouldn’t expect to have the same authority as an –omics scientist on an –omics research project. But I suppose when your mindset is simply to say whatever it takes to get the troublesome patients off your back, you don’t stop to think too much about accuracy.
You’d have thought, though, that they would have had a plan to deal with the situation when the PAG turned up and – surprise, surprise – expected to have, if not the impressive powers they had been promised, at least some say in the matter. Wasn’t it reasonable for us to believe what we (and Forward ME) had been told?
Except perhaps, now I think about it, there was a plan to deal with the situation: to ignore the PAG until the more troublesome members resigned in frustration then turn on the charm with the rest.
So maybe it’s me that hasn’t thought this through…
But I can’t help wondering how the Forward ME representatives must feel about being given such a misleading impression of how things would be for the PAG? When they asked all those questions of Prof Holgate at the House of Lords, would they not have expected a higher degree of accuracy in the replies? Or are we in a situation where anyone in power can say  whatever they like, regardless of the facts? While patients are cast as troublemakers however much truth they have on their side…
Anyway, what happens next?
People have been asking if more resignations from the PAG are likely. My impression at the time was that others were considering it, but now I’m on the outside with everyone else, I don’t really know. According to the latest update on the MEGA website, “enthusiasm among PAG members is high” and since our departure “things have really picked up and are starting to fly”. If, as the website also reports, the PAG really had “substantial input” into the bid then things have changed a great deal for the better. If I’d known I was holding things back so much, I’d have gone before…
After the mistaken impression previously given about the role of the PAG, however, I hope I will be forgiven if I don’t entirely trust the MEGA website. The recent update reported that three of us had left the PAG and that our “ reasons for leaving have been taken on board”. This was particularly surprising as, at the time that update appeared, two of us hadn’t yet submitted our reasons for leaving. The update also stressed the intention that MEGA will apply for additional funding to include samples from the severely affected and that PEM will be a prerequisite for inclusion in the study. All of this, the update announced, had been agreed with the PAG. Well, OK, but both these strategies had already evolved before the PAG was even formed. They could hardly be described as a breakthrough now. If they had found a way to include the severely affected in the initial bid, then that would be news.
On the other hand, the update does at least acknowledge that those affected long term (who may not necessarily be severe) must also be included and it appears there has been some discussion of categorisation of samples. It is not much to go on but perhaps things are taking a turn for the better. It is not before time.
I certainly felt that the PAG had a great deal of expertise that was being wasted till now. There are some good people still in the group and I hope they are finally getting a chance to be heard. I’m sorry if my departure has increased the load upon them. I wish them all the best in their efforts to make their mark on the study. It is always hard to be sure of the root of things and perhaps the previous shortcomings of the MEGA/PAG relationship were due to oversight and circumstance rather than intent. Perhaps it is not too late for things to change.
And yet….
I’ve been torn in writing this post because I want to support my friends that remain in the PAG in their efforts to make MEGA better. I’m sure they will give it all they have but the honest truth is I don’t share their optimism. If I did, I suppose, I wouldn’t have resigned from the PAG. If things have changed for the PAG, I suspect it has more to do with spin than substance. I have to judge the study from my own experience, not from a single upbeat blog post. I have to look at the Principal Investigator, her previous work, the gulf between the promises and my experience of the PAG, the feeling of being played along just enough to keep us in tow. I think patients and informed professionals are right to express continued concern about the study. I have feared all along that it is likely to hinder rather than help our understanding of ME because of the way the patients are chosen and I’m afraid I have seen nothing to change my mind.

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.