Letter to Dr Phil Hammond

Following last Saturday’s interview with Prof Esther Crawley on BBC Radio Bristol, I sent the following letter to Dr Phil Hammond who hosted the programme. I think it explains a large part of the reason why patients with M.E. have problems with Dr Crawley and why we don’t want her involved with the proposed MEGA study:

Dear Dr Hammond

Thank you for putting the concerns of ME/CFS patients to Prof Esther Crawley in your interview on Radio Bristol last Saturday. Unfortunately, as I have tried to explain as briefly as possible below, her responses were largely factually incorrect. I wonder if next time you have her on your programme, you could also invite the investigative journalist David Tuller whose original in-depth analysis brought the many and in some cases outrageous defects of the PACE Trial to wider attention. This led to numerous condemnations of PACE from eminent researchers in the field of ME/CFS. Here are just two of them:

Prof. Ronald Davis of Stanford University said: “I’m shocked that the Lancet published it…The PACE study has so many flaws and there are so many questions you’d want to ask about it that I don’t understand how it got through any kind of peer review.”

 Prof. Jonathan Edwards of University College London said: “It’s a mass of un-interpretability to me…All the issues with the trial are extremely worrying, making interpretation of the clinical significance of the findings more or less impossible.”

 PACE’s recommendations for the use of CBT and graded exercise therapy (GET) for ME/CFS have frequently been reported by the British media but the important work of Mr Tuller has been ignored, so grossly distorting the information which has been made available to the British public. It would be an invaluable service if your programme could help to redress this imbalance.

When asked about the recent PACE reanalysis on your programme, Prof Crawley replied as follows: Continue reading “Letter to Dr Phil Hammond”

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”

Getting Airborne

Steve Hawkins, who often comments here at the blog and quietly does a lot of useful activist stuff behind the scenes, left the following comment/proposal on the OMEGA petition site (and added it here in response to the previous post). I thought it was worthy of a wider audience so I’m reposting it here to kick off today’s blog:

‘It seems unfortunate that there has to be a petition of this kind against what, in the right hands, and with careful preparation of protocols in advance, would undoubtedly be a gathering of very useful data; and I feel uncomfortable that this will discourage some of the very able researchers and research teams who have been brought into the MEGA group but had no part in earlier ill advised research proposals; but it seems that something of this sort will have to be done, to ensure a complete new start, and clean break with the discredited ‘science’ of biopsychosocial egotists.

‘I apologise to the, well-meaning, I’m sure, Prof. Holgate, and those others who I fear have had to be reticent in criticising poor research, because of the binding conditions that were attached to membership of the Research Collaborative, under the direction of the partisan ‘Science Media Centre’, but the time really has come to return to both freedom of speech and information in this research field, after the gambit of crying ‘harassment’ after any honest questioning, has been so clearly shown up for what it was, in the courts.

‘I would advise that a new steering group be set up for a large and inclusive, data gathering and biomic sequencing and typing study with the major emphasis on the severely affected, who are the most likely to yield clear differences worthy of more intensive study. By all means collect data from a quota of less severely disabled/sick patients as well, but only to the number necessary to provide a control match for each of the seriously ill study subjects. A similar number of healthy controls will also be needed.

‘Thus the size and expense of the study should stem from the maximum number of seriously ill participants for statistical certainty… (plus controls). If that turns out to be a very big cost Continue reading “Getting Airborne”

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”

Some Response from MEGA

Following yesterday’s emails to Prof Holgate, Chair of the CMRC, and Sonya Chowdhury of Action for ME, Leeds ME Network has received short responses from both of them including a bit of encouraging news.

Prof Holgate said: “The preparation of the initial outline for this grant is very much ongoing. I am sure the applicants will be as inclusive as possible, and I am already aware of a discussion of how to include very severe house-bound patients. Finance will be a limiting factor.” He says he will pass the email on to those involved in preparing the grant outline.

Sonya Chowdhury said she would leave it to Prof Holgate to respond on behalf of MEGA but was able to confirm the following:“There has never been any suggestion that individuals for the patient advisory group will be Action for ME recruited; indeed I believe I have tweeted to this effect. We completely expect the group to be representative and recruited transparently.”

So, two pieces of encouraging news: about the housebound patients and the recruitment of the patient advisory group. I’m a bit concerned, though, about yet another mention of the limitations of finance when the severely affected are mentioned. This is a massive study with 12,000 patients seeking finance in excess of £5m. Surely with so much invested, we can make sure that the severely affected are adequately represented…

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

Barefaced

Over the past 48 hours, many patients have been expressing concern about the involvement of Prof Peter White in the proposed MEGA biomedical ‘big data’ study of ME/CFS. It seems extraordinary that someone who believes in the simplistic ‘fear-avoidance’ model of ME/CFS should even wish to be involved in this study. Of what relevance is psychiatry to genomics?

Then, yesterday, came a timely reminder of why we can’t allow Prof White anywhere near this project. His Guardian article in defence of PACE was an extraordinary illustration of a) his refusal to accept the truth about his fatally flawed research and b) his determination to say whatever it takes to try to defend the trial, however much deceit this may involve.

It has long been obvious to those who have studied PACE that the trial involved blatant trickery, juggling outcome measures to produce the results they wanted, but these deceits were not always obvious to those unschooled in statistics and/or without the time to sit down and read through the details. Just recently, however, as the whole PACE edifice comes closer to collapse, the lies seem to be getting both more desperate and more transparent. Yesterday’s article contains a real transparent whopper, but I’ll work through the piece in order, saving the whopper for last:

  • White dismissively mentions an earlier post which claimed that sexism was part of the cause of ME patients’ mistreatment. He must surely be aware, however, that McEvedy and Beard, the two psychiatrists who first claimed ME to be a ‘hysterical’ condition cited ‘the high attack rate in females compared with males’ as part of their argument. Sexism therefore certainly played a part in the emergence of the PACE authors’ view of the condition.
  • White goes on to make several mentions of ‘fear’ among patients. “The idea of exercise was scary for some patients” he writes, though he seems to have forgotten his own 2005 study which demonstrated that “CFS patients without a comorbid psychiatric disorder do not have an exercise phobia”.
  • White speaks disparagingly of the newspaper articles which followed the various PACE announcements, accepting that headlines such as “just get out and exercise, say scientists” were harmful and misleading. At the time, however, he and his fellow PACE authors did little or nothing to try to correct such coverage. Furthermore, these very articles were written by journalists who had been briefed by the Science Media Centre, the shadowy organisation purporting to support “balance” in science reporting, which in turn was briefed by the PACE authors themselves and their associates.
  • White continues to quote his figure of 22% for ‘recovery’ in patients receiving GET or CBT, making clear that by ‘recovery’ he really means ‘remission’. (This was another sleight of hand. White and his fellow authors failed to correct media reports which – not unreasonably – assumed that ‘recovery’ meant ‘recovery’). Yet those of us who have been following the PACE saga know that the 22% result no longer stands. Alem Matthees, Tom Kindlon and their colleagues have shown in their reanalysis that the true result is only 7% for CBT and 4% for GET, a statistically insignificant outcome, being scarcely above the 3% figure for standard medical care which everyone on the trial received anyway (including those on CBT and GET.)

This leads on to the whopper, for White gives the impression in the Guardian article that Matthees and his team got their result by playing around with the figures. The implication is that this was a fiddle. In actual fact, of course, Matthees used the original trial protocol which White and his colleagues had said they would use but changed when (we can only assume) it failed to give them the results they wanted. Yes, there was fiddling going on, but it wasn’t Matthees that was doing it.

White must know that Matthees was using the original protocol. This was explicitly why Matthees requested the data – because White and his team had protested they didn’t have time to do the calculations themselves. White must have sat through – or at least paid close attention to – the Freedom of Information Tribunal which issued the order to release the data. It can’t have escaped his attention that it had been requested specifically to reanalyse the figures according to the PACE authors’ own original protocol. Yet in the Guardian article, White gave the impression that Matthees and his team had simply been making random tweaks to fiddle the figures. The only possible explanation for why he wrote it like that was to deliberately mislead Guardian readers. He must have known better. He did know better. He was telling a barefaced lie to try to save his reputation.

I’m sorry. A man who will do something like that is not to be trusted. It is totally unreasonable for the ME organisations who are supposed to be protecting patients’ interests to think it is OK for him to be involved in an important piece of biomedical research into this illness. Why they even talk to him any longer is beyond me. It is high time we move on from PACE – and move on from Peter White. We’re really suffering here. We deserve better.

 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