New Research Directions for CFS/ME

(Summary of a report from the Medical Research Council’s CFS/ME Research Advisory Group from 2003*)

A Review of the Status as at January 2007

This report was commissioned and followed on from the CMO's Working Group of 2002. The remit for this report was

"....not to review the existing body of knowledge, but in the light of the Report of the CMO’s Independent Working Group on CFS/ME (including its recommendations for research) and other recent reviews of current knowledge and understanding of CFS/ME, propose a research strategy."

Has this been achieved?

Let us examine the summary of the report from 2003.

New Research Directions for CFS/ME

Summary of a report from the Medical Research Council’s CFS/ME Research Advisory Group


Towards a new research strategy

This report summarises the work of a group of independent scientists brought together by the Medical Research Council to develop a strategy for taking forward research on the complex and debilitating condition – or range of conditions - known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)/ME.

This Research Advisory Group was set up following a report by the Chief Medical Officer, which acknowledged the severity of suffering associated with CFS/ME and called for research into all aspects of the condition.

The Group’s conclusions were reached in the light of consultation with current and former patients, carers, charity representatives, clinicians and researchers, who were also invited to comment on a draft of the strategy.

The final version of the research strategy aims to provide a framework for improving understanding and treatment of CFS/ME. It sets out the key priorities for future investigation, offers guidance on research methods and emphasises the importance of the continuing involvement of people with CFS/ME, their carers and the groups representing them.

Working methods

Members of the Research Advisory Group were drawn from a range of scientific disciplines associated with CFS/ME, including immunology, muscle physiology, virology, clinical trials and psychology. There were also two consumer representatives.

They set out to consider the areas of future research most likely to bring benefits for patients in the light of recent reviews, patient experiences and current knowledge In addition to their own formal meetings held between September 2002 and March 2003, members of the Group met with ME charities, CFS/ME patients and their carers to gain a better understanding of their perspectives on the condition.

They also gave careful consideration to the results of two rounds of a public consultation exercise which drew more than 200 responses from, people with CFS/ME and people who have recovered, carers, researchers, clinicians and specialists, and relevant voluntary organisations.

They did not, however, undertake a full review of all the literature on CFS/ME, examine health care provision or decide how their recommendations should be implemented.

(IiME Underline and bold type)

Responses to consultation

Responses to the public consultation exercise drew attention to the following perceived problems:

Problems with definition/understanding

There are many shades of opinion – and seemingly little agreement – on what constitutes and is meant by CFS/ME. The tensions and frustrations surrounding this issue stand in the way of effective management and treatment of patients, as well as useful research

Problems with communication

People with experience of CFS/ME complain of sceptical, unhelpful and unsupportive health professionals and are critical of the way psychiatric issues seem to dominate research. While recognising the validity of some of these concerns, researchers and clinicians often feel under attack from patient organisations

Problems with research

Research hasn’t yet reached agreement on defining the condition, let alone established its causes, symptoms, prevalence and impact. What research there is has been short-term, poorly-co-ordinated and lacking in patient involvement

Obstacles to research

Respondents complained of the low status of research into CFS/ME and an associated shortage of funding and resources. Effective research is also hampered by lack of knowledge about people with CFS/ME and lack of suitable measurements for symptoms like fatigue.

Key ways forward arising out of the consultation included:

• More research funding, properly directed;

• More co-operation and collaboration between researchers, care providers and patients, including those who are severely ill;

• Getting the priorities right – which for many means a shift from psychological to biological and medical research;

• An open debate on meanings and definitions;

Many of those who responded saw the development of a research strategy as an opportunity to improve communication and make a real difference to the lives of those affected by CFS/ME.

January 2007:

It is quite ironic that the MRC pointed out that more "properly directed" research funding was required. It is the MRC who seem to have had their heads in the sand during this period with regards to funding and it is precisely due to the MRC policies on funding which has caused such a dearth of researchers who would become interested in ME.

Indeed the MRC ought to have got their priorities right and made a move from psychological to biological and medical research. Yet here it has totally failed.

There is only one conclusion in this area


What’s in a name?

Disagreements over terminology are symptomatic of the lack of consensus over most aspects of CFS/ME. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis or encephalopathy (ME) are the terms that have been used most often to describe patients with a combination of variable symptoms, always including disabling fatigue.

The consultation elicited widely different views on how these symptoms should be described, defined and classified. But the Research Advisory Group decided to adopt the ‘umbrella term’ of CFS/ME, used in the CMO report, rather than reconsider the terminology in depth.

It emphasises, though, that this term does not refer to a specific diagnosis and that they hold no particular position on whether CFS/ME is one condition with a variety of causes and presentations or a number of similar conditions with different characteristics.

Although many patients and groups prefer to identify with the term ME rather than CFS, the Group believes that research will be best served by an ‘inclusive approach’. They accept, however, that as knowledge and understanding increase there may come a time when this umbrella term may no longer be appropriate.

January 2007:

IiME were not in existence in 2003. Yet it is amazing to read these statements now and wonder how the main organisation responsible for funding of research into a neurological illness can state in their report that '...they hold no particular position on whether CFS/ME is one condition with a variety of causes and presentations or a number of similar conditions with different characteristics'.

Terminology is one of the key issues and the MRC must differentiate between CFS and ME.

To take the last paragraph IiME now believe the time really has come where this umbrella term of CFS is no longer appropriate and the MRC need to get off of the fence, adopt clearly the terminology used by the World Health Organisation - and initiate the necessary epidemiological studies which will allow sub grouping to be made.



The way ahead

In considering the best ways to advance research on CFS/ME, the Research Advisory Group identified a number of important considerations, including:

Variability. Research must take account of the wide variation in the intensity and nature of symptoms and the potential overlap with other disorders. It must also encompass a large variation in the age range of people affected, posing additional issues about the ethics of research on children

Inclusiveness. Given this variability, research studies need to be as inclusive as possible in terms of range of participants, including the most severely ill, with sample sizes large enough to allow for different ‘subgroup’ effects;

Integration. The group recommends an integrated approach to studying CFS/ME, with experience and expertise from a variety of appropriate disciplines brought together as part of a holistic approach;

Scientific rigour. New findings must be subjected to rigorous scientific analysis, published in peer-reviewed journals and confirmed through independent replication in other centres.

January 2007:

Research has not been performed across the wide variation of severity of Pwme. The MRC PACE and FINE trials exclude severely affected patients. In any case the flawed Oxford criteria used for selection of participants in these programs means that the results will always be skewed toward 'positive' results for the psychiatrists running these trials.

The exclusion of funding for biomedical research clearly shows no suggestion of inclusivity. As for scientific rigour - the peer- reviewing system used by the MRC needs itself to be reviewed and, indeed, overhauled. Also more transparency needs to be shown in the MRC decisions on funding. If a referee has vetoed a research proposal whilst two other referees have accepted the proposal then the public should know who that referee was or, at a minimum, what their reasons were for rejecting the proposal.


Key research priorities

The Research Advisory Group defined a number of important areas for research, as follows:

1. Case definition

Understanding of CFS/ME has been hampered by the use of numerous different definitions of the disorder, linked to a lack of universally agreed diagnostic criteria. Standardised case definition is clearly fundamental to studying the prevalence, presentation, causation and management of any illness. And thus the development and validation of appropriate ‘tools’ for case definition is a research priority. Nevertheless, the Group believes that studies into other aspects of CFS/ME should not be held up while awaiting these tools, as long as they include a broad and clearly-defined range of participants;

January 2007:

Even the recent NICE Draft Guidelines accepted that the Canadian Guidelines were the most stringent. Here is an area where the MRC could easily resolve the issue mentioned here. It chooses not to. Instead it has decided to fund trials based on the continuing usage of the flawed Oxford criteria.


2. Population studies (epidemiology)

Population-based studies are important for answering questions about the prevalence and incidence of specific conditions and their relationship to time, place and people within populations. They are also crucial to testing theories about causation, particularly for establishing the respective roles of genetic and environmental influences. The group highlighted three types of epidemiological studies for CFS/ME:

  • Descriptive studies on the incidence and prevalence of the condition and its nature, duration and severity;

  • Studies of causation (aetiology), examining potential causes and triggers of the disease. Such studies are considered of primary importance by many patients and support group. But, while the Group acknowledges their importance, members believe such studies may not have the same immediate benefits for patients as studies on symptoms and management, which should not be delayed while awaiting confirmation of causation;

  • Outcome studies, looking at patterns of recovery and the various factors involved.

January 2007:

We see nothing in this area to have shown a clear strategy has been implemented since the 2003 briefing document was made. No epidemiological study is funded and the government and MRC are continually embarrassed by not being able to answer the simple question - how many people suffer from ME in the UK, let alone what causes ME?


3. Disease development (pathophysiology)

A wide variety of factors have been suggested as factors in the development of CFS/ME, but the evidence for each has been weak, contradictory or unconfirmed. Areas discussed by the Group are as follows:

  • Infections. Some people are known to develop prolonged fatigue following certain infections. Although no single infectious cause of CFS/ME has been identified, infection may well be a factor in a proportion of cases, and recent advances in virology and bacteriology make it easier to study its potential role in the development of the disease;

  • Neurology. Abnormal neurological signs are not consistently reported in most patients with CFS/ME, and initial reports of inflammation of the brain, spinal cord or muscles have not been confirmed. New imaging techniques might help to shed more light on this aspect of the disease;

  • Muscle fatigue/weakness. These symptoms are very common in people with CFS/ME, but it is not clear whether these problems arise in the central nervous system or the muscles themselves;

  • Immunology. Although there have been many reports of immune system changes in people with CFS/ME, there is no consensus on the nature and extent of these changes and their potential role in the development of the disease;

  • Neuroendocrinology. Abnormalities in the levels of brain hormones, such as cortisol, have been found in some CFS/ME patients although it is not clear whether these are causes or consequences of the disease;

  • Central nervous system (CNS) function. Fatigue, intellectual impairment and sleep disturbances are all symptoms of CFS/ME associated with CNS dysfunction, but again it is not clear whether these are causes or consequences of the illness. ‘Longitudinal’ studies of people throughout the course of their illness may help to resolve this issue, while modern imaging techniques could be used to study the underlying brain pathways of these and other symptoms, including chronic pain;

  • Cognitive (intellectual) performance. Although most studies to date have shown little change in overall intellectual functioning, there is evidence of attention, memory and concentration problems in CFS/ME, which are hard to pin down and cannot be entirely explained by mood variations;

  • Psychological factors. This is a controversial area because many people with ME feel that researchers have tended to focus on psychological causes of CFS/ME at the expense of physical factors. However, the Group points out that psychological factors, including personality, coping mechanisms and social support, play a role in the manifestations of all illnesses, however well established their physical causes. A key problem with CFS/ME is that it is not clear at what point in the illness psychological factors might play a part.

On this key point of the potential role of psychological and psychiatric factors in CFS/ME, the Group makes the following very clear statement:

‘It is the firmly held belief of the Group that psychiatric illnesses are no less real or debilitating than neurological illnesses.’

January 2007:

It is fitting that the end quote in this section refers to psychiatric illness in relation to ME as the MRC's love affair with psychiatric paradigms and the vested interests of the psychiatric lobby have been to the disadvantage and expense of neurological ME sufferers in the UK.

To document the clear biological factors (above) which clearly need to be researched and provision given for funding of research into these - and then to pursue a strategy which clearly denies any of this is quite disingenuous.

Whether the  pathophysiological factors mentioned above were lacking in evidence in 2003 is debatable - what is not is that in 2007 there is obvious and documented proof of these factors. Look at the recent finding by researchers in Stanford, California, USA - where clear viral-induced dysfunction of the central nervous system has been found in clinical trials of ME patients ( Where would we be if the MRC had directed funding at biomedical research into the above areas? 

Looking back at this report, and reviewing the actions of the MRC in the last 3-4 years, one can only shake one's head at the complete lack of a strategy based on this report.


s for CFS/ME

The search for useful treatments

A variety of interventions (treatments) have been considered for CFS/ME, but research so far has identified only two which consistently appear to offer potential benefits: graded exercise therapy (GET) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Focusing on how the evidence base for potentially effective treatments can be strengthened, the Group draws attention to the fundamental importance of objective, sensitive and consistent ‘outcome measures’ (signs of clinically important effects), which can be used to test the effectiveness of individual treatments and to make comparisons between treatments.

Trial procedures should be made as objective as possible by randomising participants to either active or placebo (dummy) treatment and masking them to which treatment they are receiving where possible. Trials should be large enough to detect clinically useful effects, last long enough to achieve benefit and follow up all participants for long enough to determine whether effects are sustained.

Crucially, the Group believes it is not necessary to wait for a full understanding of the causes and development of CFSME before exploring potential treatments. The cause of diabetes, for example, remains unknown, but knowledge of the underlying manifestations of the disease has allowed effective treatment to be developed and rigorously tested.

The Group calls for rigorous assessment of interventions – suggestions include:

1. Musculoskeletal-based interventions (rehabilitation)

There appears to be considerable confusion and disagreement about the best approach to physical rehabilitation of people with CFS/ME, not helped by the fact that some people improve and others deteriorate with treatment, leading to a high degree of scepticism among patients. The CMO’s report agreed that rehabilitation was important but stressed that it should be graded, tailored to individual needs and start from a low baseline. The Group believes that an integrated package of care, including a variety of therapies – both physical and psychological - is likely to be most beneficial;

2. Psychologically-based interventions

The Group believes that cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can play an important role in the management of many illnesses, particularly chronic ones, and that this treatment, together with GET, deserves further study.

However, many studies to date have focused on less severe cases of CFS/ME and further research should aim to focus on the effects of these treatments across the spectrum of the condition.

January 2007:

The recommendation of CBT and GET as deserving of further study is like looking back at one of those quaint, but clearly outdated fashions of 30 years ago. With the exception that the results of this recommendation may be far more deadly and still pervade the decision-making on ME today.

Continued trust in GET and CBT today ignore results of trials and what patients are saying. The human rights issues of forcing GET and CBT against patients' (and doctors') wishes has been the subject of sections of IiME's response to the NICE Draft Guidelines (see here).

One could be forgiven for thinking that the current mess with NICE's approach to ME may be traced back to the MRC briefing of 2003.


Delivering the best health care

Health services research is a specific branch of research, examining the best, most cost-effective ways of organising and delivering effective care. But the Group acknowledges that this type of research needs to wait on more basic findings about the incidence and prevalence of CFS/ME and the value of individual treatments.

Once this information becomes available, further research will be needed to establish:

  • Which groups of patients are likely to benefit from which types of treatment;

  • How the appropriate care services are distributed and accessed;

  • Cost-effectiveness, appropriateness and acceptability of various ‘technologies’, or treatments;

  • How services should be organised and delivered, including staff training and the relative role of general and specialist centres.

January 2007:

The above would indicate a strategy. The only strategy seen to be demonstrated is one to save money or to force patients back to work, regardless of their true state of health.

More to follow here but the result has to be -


Collaboration in research

The Group sees a need to attract high-quality researchers from basic science and specialised clinical disciplines to undertake research into CFS/ME and is keen to promote multidisciplinary collaboration, including allied health professionals, around shared research goals.

Such research teams will need strong links with the health service in order to recruit and gain access to trial participants – particularly those most severely affected by the disease.

January 2007:

A patent failure by the MRC in this area. ME is not seen as a desirable area for researchers to enter - unless, of course, they are of the psychiatric persuasion, in which case funding seems to have been liberally supplied for research projects.

Some ME charities share the blame for this also by allowing participation in areas which have doubtful relevance or benefits for neurological ME affected patients.

Attracting high-quality researchers is unlikely to occur if the MRC repeatedly reject high-quality applications from biomedical researchers and organisations.

 ME research UK and CFS Research foundation are tow charities responsible for funding and initiating high-quality studies.

Invest in ME believe the MRC need to work jointly with these two organisations to facilitate the identification, planning and implementation of high-quality biomedical research into ME.

There is the challenge to the MRC. The ME community is waiting - still four years on from your report.



Patient and public involvement

The participation of patients, carers and support organisations has enriched the process of developing this research strategy, and their continuing involvement in research offers important two-way benefits:

  • Researchers can gain access to user perspectives, which will help them both frame their research questions appropriately and work towards the most relevant outcomes;

  • Patients and support groups can help to set the research agenda as well as gaining access to scientific expertise.

In terms of involvement with specific research studies, the Group believes consumers have several important roles to play:

  • Getting involved at an early stage so that multiple perspectives can be taken into account in the design and interpretation of individual studies;

  • Liaising with broader groups to raise awareness of research studies and ensuring their results are widely disseminated and recommendations implemented;

  • Helping to identify potential study participants – particularly those who are severely ill – and involve them in research.

January 2007:

Fine words but little action seen to have taken place. The struggle that ME charities specialising in biomedical research have is testimony to the failure of any of the major healthcare bodies to listen to patients or advocates of biomedical research.


Next steps

The MRC CFS/ME research strategy was published on May 1 2003, and the full document is available on the MRC website ( Future grant applications to fund research into any aspects of this condition are likely to be judged according to how well they fit within the proposed framework in addition to their scientific quality.

When announcing the completion of the strategy, the Chair of the Research Advisory Group, Professor Nancy Rothwell, said:

‘Improving health and quality of life for those who are ill with CFS/ME is clearly very important. We’ve made our recommendations based on what is attainable in the short term, and what has to be developed over a longer period.

‘We recognise that there are many varied views about research needs and priorities and it has been our job to strike a balance. Our recommendations will be a stimulus for research, and the field will then evolve naturally as more is done and other possibilities present themselves.’

January 2007:

Indeed it might have been hoped that the recommendations from the report might have been a stimulus for research - but research needs funding and if the people holding the decision-making regarding funding are looking in the wrong direction then little will be achieved.

The status of treatment of the neurological illness Myalgic Encephalomyelitis is currently derisory.

  • There is no epidemiological study performed or underway.

  • There is no coordinated strategy to perform biomedical research which will uncover the causes of ME.

  • There is no public funding of biomedical research into ME.

  • There is no effective treatment yet developed for ME.

  • There is no strategy by the government, CMO or MRC to find a cure for ME

And meanwhile lives are lost to this illness.

The MRC need to change and they need to show some leadership, a sense of responsibility and also some morals. it is not good enough for this organisation to exist with no regard for the thousands and thousands of families affected by this illness.


(*New Research Directions for CFS/ME Summary of a report from the Medical Research Council’s CFS/ME Research Advisory Group (see full report here))