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.

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”

Reply from Professor Holgate

Well, here’s Professor Holgate’s response to our recent email. Do I feel heard? No. What about you?

Dear Spoonseeker (I am not sure whether this is the correct title but I hope this reaches you all),

Thank you for your email. We all recognise the concerns that are held about the MEGA Project and value your input. We are very appreciative of the enthusiasm being shown to pursue an exciting ‘omics-based research project in the field of M.E. and  the issues that you have raised. We are soon (next week I hope)  will be issuing a description of what MEGA comprises on a new website and will also have a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page which will be regularly updated. The latter is aimed at addressing the majority of questions that have been raised in your and other emails through the FAQs. Involvement of people with M.E. at the core of MEGA will be essential through an Advisory Group of people with M.E. and their carers.
As yet the first grant outline has not yet been submitted. We will do our very best to create the most competitive application, but even with this there is  certainly no guarantee of funding. Please be assured that we will definitely involve the M.E. community in the proposal. As you will have noted I have brought the very best scientists from across the UK to assemble this application. It will be a real team effort. We need everyone’s support to help with this otherwise it will fail at the first hurdle.

Thank you again for expressing so much interest in our endeavour. Finally, I should add that I am not a CFS/M.E. researcher myself but someone who has realised we must make inroads into the causes of this (these) distressing and serious disorders.

Best Wishes,
Stephen.

Professor Stephen T Holgate CBE, FMedSci
MRC Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology

The OMEGA Petition – Email to Professor Holgate

This email has been sent to Professor Holgate of MEGA. Many thanks to all those who signed. (Whoops! missed a few… Total signatures now updated to 221)

((Please note that we are not the organisers of the OMEGA petition.))

Dear Professor Holgate – We comprise a number of M.E. patients and carers, 218 in all. Please see our signatures at the end of this email..

We are writing because we notice your suggestion in your letter to Professor Jonathan Edwards that OMEGA (the petition opposing the MEGA study) has attracted so many signatures due to the support of Invest In ME. We are writing to assure you that we patients and carers are able to look at the evidence and make up our own minds on such issues.

Here are some of the grave concerns that we have about the MEGA study as it has been proposed. It seems likely that you have heard many of them before but in view of your professed perplexity about the OMEGA petition, we want to make sure you are aware of the issues. For the same reason, we are copying this to the other members of the MEGA team and to those you copied in to your letter to Professor Edwards. We are also sending a copy to Professor Edwards himself, and the email will be posted online at the Spoonseeker blog.

Our concerns about MEGA include the following:

Patients from the NHS CFS/ME clinics (apparently the intended source for MEGA) will not yield a representative sample of people with M.E. The reasons for this include:

  • Most severely affected patients cannot access the clinics and so will not be included in the study.
  • There will be an inevitable selection bias towards the mildly affected because
    • the clinics will tend to select such patients as those most likely to respond to the behavioural therapies on offer, and
    • the more severely affected patients will be more likely to reject such therapies – and hence the clinics – as inappropriate.
  • Other more severely affected patients will no longer be on the clinic’s system
    • either because they have not responded well to the therapies, dropped out, and not been followed up (as feedback suggests is often the case) or
    • they are among the long term sick who are no longer on the system because treatment is time-restricted

There has been a suggestion, following representations from patients, Continue reading “The OMEGA Petition – Email to Professor Holgate”

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”