Is the era of precision medicine for chronic fatigue syndrome at hand?

If an idea of mine is correct, it is possible that some patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) can be treated with specific medications based on the results of a few blood tests. This is precision medicine at its finest.  The data to test this idea has already been acquired, and nothing further needs to be done except to analyze it.

Athough the initial impetus for the idea happened only 3 months ago, there have been enough twists and turns that the best way explanation is by a timeline.

First some background:

As a neurologist I saw a lot of people who were chronically tired and fatigued, because neurologists deal with muscle weakness and diseases like myasthenia gravis which are associated with fatigue.  Once I ruled out neuromuscular disease as a cause, I had nothing to offer then (nor did medicine).  Some of these patients were undoubtedly neurotic, but there was little question in my mind that many others had something wrong that medicine just hadn’t figured out yet — not that it hasn’t been trying.

Infections of almost any sort are associated with fatigue, most probably caused by components of the inflammatory response.  Anyone who’s gone through mononucleosis knows this.    The long search for an infectious cause of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) has had its ups and downs — particularly downs — see https://luysii.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/evil-scientists-create-virus-causing-chronic-fatigue-syndrome-in-lab/

At worst many people with these symptoms are written off as crazy; at best, diagnosed as depressed  and given antidepressants.  The fact that many of those given antidepressants feel better is far from conclusive, since most patients with chronic illnesses are somewhat depressed.

The 1 June 2017 Cell had a long and interesting review of cellular senescence by Norman Sharpless [ vol. 169 pp. 1000 – 1011 ].  Here is some background about the entity.  If you are familiar with senescent cell biology skip to the paragraph marked **** below

Cells die in a variety of ways.  Some are killed (by infections, heat, toxins).  This is called necrosis. Others voluntarily commit suicide (this is called apoptosis).   Sometimes a cell under stress undergoes cellular senescence, a state in which it doesn’t die, but doesn’t reproduce either.  Such cells have a variety of biochemical characteristics — they are resistant to apoptosis, they express molecules which prevent them from proliferating and — most importantly — they secrete a variety of proinflammatory molecules collectively called the Senescence Associated Secretory Phenotype — SASP).

At first the very existence of the senescent state was questioned, but exist it does.  What is it good for?  Theories abound, one being that mutation is one cause of stress, and stopping mutated cells from proliferating prevents cancer. However, senescent cells are found during fetal life; and they are almost certainly important in wound healing.  They are known to accumulate the older you get and some think they cause aging.

Many stresses induce cellular senescence of which mutation is but one.  The one of interest to us is chemotherapy for cancer, something obviously good as a cancer cell turned senescent has stopped proliferating.   If you know anyone who has undergone chemotherapy, you know that fatigue is almost invariable.

****

One biochemical characteristic of the senescent cell is increased levels of a protein called p16^INK4a, which helps stop cellular proliferation.  While p16^INK4a can easily be measured in tissue biopsies, tissue biopsies are inherently invasive. Fortunately, p16^INK4a can also be measured in circulating blood cells.

What caught my eye in the Cell paper was a reference to a paper about cancer [ Cancer Discov. vol. 7 pp. 165 – 176 ’17 ] by M. Demaria, in which the levels of p16^INK4a correlated with the degree of fatigue after chemotherapy.  The more p16^INK4a in the blood cells the greater the fatigue.

I may have been the only reader of both papers with clinical experience wth chronic fatigue syndrome.  It is extremely difficult to objectively measure a subjective complaint such as fatigue.

As an example of the difficulty in correlating subjective complaints with objective findings, consider the nearly uniform complaint of difficulty thinking in depression, with how such patients actually perform on cognitive tests — e. g. there is  little if any correlation between complaints and actual performance — here’s a current reference — Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 3901(2017) —  doi:10.1038/s41598-017-04353.

If the results of the Cancer paper could be replicated, p16^INK4 would be the first objective measure of a patient’s individual sense of fatigue.

So I wrote both authors, suggesting that the p16^INK4a test be run on a collection of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) patients. Both authors replied quickly, but thought the problem would be acquiring patients.  Demaria said that Sharpless had a lab all set up to do the test.

Then fate (in the form of Donald Trump) supervened.  A mere 9 days after the Cell issue appeared, Sharpless was nominated to be the head of the National Cancer Institute by President Trump.  This meant Dr. Sharpless had far bigger fish to fry, and he would have to sever all connection with his lab because of conflict of interest considerations.

I also contacted a patient organization for chronic fatigue syndrome without much success.  Their science advisor never responded.

There matters stood until 22 August when a paper and an editorial about it came out [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 114 pp. 8914 – 8916, E7150 – E7158 ’17 ].  The paper represented a tremendous amount of data (and work).  The blood levels of 51 cytokines (measures of inflammation) and adipokines (hormones released by fat) were measured in both 192 patients with CFS (which can only be defined by symptoms) and 293 healthy controls matched for age and gender.

In this paper, levels of 17 of the 51 cytokines correlated with severity of CFS. This is a striking similarity with the way the p16^INK4 levels correlated with the degree of fatigue after chemotherapy).  So I looked up the individual elements of the SASP (which can be found in Annu Rev Pathol. 21010; 5: 99–118.)  There are 74 of them. I wondered how many of the 51 cytokines measured in the PNAS paper were in the SASP.  This is trickier than it sounds as many cytokines have far more than one name.  The bottom line is that 20 SASPs are in the 51 cytokines measured in the paper.

If the fatigue of CFS is due to senescent cells and the SASPs  they release, then they should be over-represented in the 17 of the 51 cytokines correlating with symptom severity.  Well they are; 9 out of the 17 are SASP.  However although suggestive, this increase is not statistically significant (according to my consultants on Math Stack Exchange).

After wrote I him about the new work, Dr. Sharpless noted that CFS is almost certainly a heterogeneous condition. As a clinician with decades of experience, I’ve certainly did see some of the more larcenous members of our society who used any subjective diagnosis to be compensated, as well as a variety of individuals who just wanted to withdraw from society, for whatever reason. They are undoubtedly contaminating the sample in the paper. Dr. Sharpless thought the idea, while interesting, would be very difficult to test.

But it wouldn’t at all.  Not with the immense amount of data in the PNAS paper.

Here’s how. Take each of the 9 SASPs and see how their levels correlate with the other 16 (in each of the 192 CSF patients). If they correlate better with SASPs than with nonSASPs, than this would be evidence for senescent cells being the cause some cases of CFS. In particular, patients with a high level of any of the 9 SASPs should be studied for such correlations.  Doing so should weed out some of the heterogeneity of the 192 patients in the sample.

This is why the idea is testable and, even better, falsifiable, making it a scientific hypothesis (a la Karl Popper).  The data to refute it is in the possession of the authors of the paper.

Suppose the idea turns out to be correct and that some patients with CFS are in fact that way because, for whatever reason, they have a lot of senescent cells releasing SASPs.

This would mean that it would be time to start trials of senolyic drugs which destroy senescent cells on the group with elevated SASPs. Fortunately, a few senolytics are currently inc linical use.  This would be precision medicine at its finest.

Being able to alleviate the symptoms of CFS would be worthwhile in itself, but SASP levels could also be run on all sorts of conditions associated with fatigue, most notably infection. This might lead to symptomatic treatment at least.  Having gone through mono in med school, I would have loved to have been able to take something to keep me from falling asleep all the time.

 

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Comments

  • Bennett Childs  On September 5, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    Interesting concept. Curious as to what the underlying stressor may be/what cell type could be responsible for chronic fatigue. Tricky thing about the SASP is that it has enormous overlap with other general inflammatory/proteolytic factors.

  • luysii  On September 5, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    Yes, but if the 9/17 SASP elements correlate with each other better (than with the 8/17 NON SASP elements), that would be good evidence for SASP being involved, in at least some cases — these are the cases that should be offered Rx with senolytics.

  • luysii  On September 5, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    Dr. Childs. Thanks for commenting.

    Even more interesting is that fact that one of your co-authors is Marco Demaria, whose paper got me started on all this. Why don’t you start measuring p16^INK4a in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome? p16^INK4a is a better marker of cellular senescence than any of the 74 components of the SASP. Measuring it was my original idea until the PNAS paper came out. See — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2017/06/18/the-best-laid-plans-of-mice-and-men/

    Please go ahead and do it. I’d love to see this done by someone. I am a 79 year old retired clinical neurologist with no academic affiliation and no way to do any of this.

    • Bennett Childs  On September 8, 2017 at 9:43 am

      Definitely possible. If you were to look in leukocytes, it wouldn’t be too terribly hard to do a quick, correlative study, and you would also incidentally get plasma to replicate/validate the cytokine panel results.

      Unfortunately I am not the boss man (very early postdoc) and, in addition to followup work on senescence in atherosclerosis, already have my weighty share of pilot projects. Do you know of any good foundations offering grant support for CFS? The prospect of writing up a new, small proposal is a motivating force, for sure.

  • andyextance  On September 9, 2017 at 4:05 am

    Like many ideas of the causes of CFS/ME (which my partner suffers from – although she is able to work part time) this strikes me as a long shot, but I still think it’s interesting. It’s interesting to hear about SASP too. What she suffers from appears to have a cardiovascular aspect, in that her circulation is all over the place. It appears to be a bit like lupus, although she’s determined that it’s not.

  • andyextance  On September 10, 2017 at 2:27 am

    I put your idea on Twitter to Brian Vastag, the former Washington Post science reporter with ME/CFS, and he said this: “Well he has testable ideas. Her should contact Dr. Naviaux at UCSD, who did PNAS paper & Linda Tannenbaum @OpenMedF who funded that work.”

    • luysii  On September 10, 2017 at 9:45 am

      Andy — thanks. The comments here, by themselves, are worth a separate post, which should be coming up shortly. It’s just like when I ran a muscular dystrophy clinic — no one is as well motivated as someone who has been impacted by the disease.

  • fablepd  On September 11, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    Good article. I hope that soon we can have access to these tests and hopefully to a treatment !

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