Yesterday, an open letter from science writer Brian Vastag to Dr. Francis Collins (Director, NIH) flashed around the ME/CFS social media-sphere like lightning. Then it spread among Brian’s high profile colleagues, like Martin Enserink and Carl Zimmer. Brian’s letter is both personal and scientific, and he makes a very reasonable suggestion for how to increase ME/CFS funding. I’ve reprinted excerpts of the letter here with Brian’s permission, but please go read the entire original on The Last Word on Nothing.
Dear Dr. Collins,
You might recall the last time we spoke. It was January 2013, and I was working as a science reporter at The Washington Post. Your people arranged an early call for you to announce that the N.I.H. had decided to retire most of its research chimpanzees. We spoke for about 20 minutes, and I typed up a 600-word story. It wasn’t very good.
I was working from home that gray day because I had little choice. I was mostly bedbound then, seven months after a sudden fever had knocked me prostrate. My legs were so weak that climbing the stairs to my home office required pulling myself up the railing hand-over-hand. My brain was so sluggish I asked few questions of you. The ones I managed to croak out were poor, no doubt.
Too sick to work, I did anyway. I loved my job at the Post – not an easy gig to come by – and I was desperate to keep it. I had been following the research chimp story for a while, and I liked that the N.I.H. chose me to break your news.
I’ve long appreciated how the N.I.H. helps the world. My career began there in 1998, when Paul van Nevel hired me for a science writing fellowship at the National Cancer Institute. I count your communications director John Burklow among my mentors, and I was honored to write Paul’s obituary. That first boost of professional success propelled me to an exciting career.
Lately, though, my love for your august institution has been strained. You see, I’ve been felled by the most forlorn of orphan illnesses. The most accurate name for it is myalgic encephalomyelitis, which means “painful inflammation of the brain and spine.” (Yes, it is painful, and yes, there’s strong evidence of neuroinflammation.) At the N.I.H. and elsewhere, it is instead called chronic fatigue syndrome. That’s a terribly vague and dismissive moniker for so serious an illness, and one that needs to be retired. Fatigue is not the primary or most troubling symptom for most people with M.E.
. . .
On the list of illnesses the N.I.H. studies, M.E. (listed as “M.E./C.F.S.”) is near the bottom in funding, ranked 231 out of 244. It received $5 million in 2014, less than hay fever, which cripples no one. That’s not enough money to equip a laboratory and run it for a year. This abject neglect – or sustained prejudice, or maybe both – stretches back a full three decades at the N.I.H. (For a detailed history of how this sad state came to be, read Hillary Johnson’s deeply-reported book Osler’s Web.)
. . .
But M.E. is finally emerging from the basement. Brand name institutions and big-time researchers now recognize the huge burden M.E. places on society – tens of billions in medical expenses, lost productivity, and missing tax revenue each year. Columbia University’s Ian Lipkin is searching for infectious triggers, and has reported severe immune problems in patients. Columbia received $150 million in N.I.H. grants in 2015; Lipkin’s operation gets a big chunk of that. But when the famous virus hunter applied for a trifling $1 million for M.E. research, the N.I.H. turned him down, twice. So spurned, Lipkin and colleague Mady Hornig recently resorted to eating habanero peppers to raise money.
. . .
At Stanford University, prominent geneticist Ron Davis is searching for genetic risk factors. His investment is deeply personal, as his adult son – formerly a world-traveling photographer – is severely ill with M.E., and can no longer walk or talk.
When you peruse the recent M.E. literature, you’ll see a mix of young researchers and experienced lab leaders producing a string of insights into how the illness damages the immune system and the brain. Mutations in the gene MTHFR have been identified by the Open Medicine Foundation as a risk factor. Diagnostic biomarkers await validation. Promising treatments need to be tested in patients. And all of this has happened with little support from the N.I.H.
Patient advocates have called for $250 million in M.E. research funding, a figure commensurate with the burden of disease. This is a huge ask, and in all likelihood politically infeasible, so let me make a smaller one. A new N.I.H. program funded with as little as $10 million to $20 million per year would be absolutely transformative for the field – and for patients. Such a program would affirm the N.I.H.’s commitment to understanding the illness. It would draw more young researchers to studying M.E., and it would encourage further private funding. Such a commitment would also give patients – many housebound or bedbound for decades – hope that they’ll be healthy again. I challenge you to find another illness where such a small investment could make such a huge difference.
You now have broad support from the medical community to make this happen. Earlier this year, the Institute of Medicine made a strong call for a robust M.E. research program. And just last month, an N.I.H.-appointed panel urgently made the same recommendation. With the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act poised to pass Congress – giving N.I.H. an extra $8.75 billion over five years – you could do so without pulling money from existing programs. At the same time, you could help things along by moving responsibility for M.E. from its long-term parking spot at the Office of Research on Women’s Health to one of the institutes that, you know, funds disease research.
. . .
Here in Hawaii, there’s a smaller mountain behind my yard. It’s called Sleeping Giant, and the giant’s forehead juts less than 500 feet above my back patio. A well-trod trail carries people up there for sweeping views down the volcanic slope and across the endless Pacific. Oh how I would love to drink in that view. But I may as well be gazing up at K2; a summit attempt would be supremely unwise, as a sophisticated exercise test found that I suffer from severe metabolic, cardiac, and pulmonary dysfunction. Exercise for M.E. patients is more damaging than sugar is to a person with diabetes.
At 43, my productive life may well be over. There’s a good chance I have hiked my last trail. The nation’s coffers lose some $25,000 in tax revenue each year I remain disabled, and I will soon know if Social Security Disability Insurance will start coming my way. I don’t enjoy being a drain on society, and neither do any of the other M.E. patients I know. And yet, with the ever-growing research interest in M.E., I have hope that someday I’ll be able to stand for more than a few minutes, walk for more than a block or two, maybe even resume my career. (It took me four days, with frequent breaks, to write this letter…that’s a bit slow for newspaper work.)
The causes of M.E. will eventually be discovered, treatments will be found, and patients will enjoy long-term remissions. As the leader of our nation’s medical research enterprise, you have a decision to make – do you want the N.I.H. to be part of these solutions, or will the nation’s medical research agency continue to be part of the problem? At the very least, you could ensure Dr. Lipkin doesn’t have to scorch his intestinal tract again just to drum up a few research dollars.