By Dr Charles Shepherd, Hon. Medical Adviser, ME Association.
“I was disappointed to learn – while at the Royal Society screening of the documentary, Unrest, in London last Thursday – of the preliminary (but unpublished) results from the phase III clinical trial of Rituximab, that has been carried out in Norway.
“This large, multicentre, ‘gold standard’ clinical trial, involved 152 people with ME/CFS receiving either Rituximab or a placebo, with initial treatment followed by maintenance treatments at 3, 6, 9 and 12 months, and a two year follow up.
“The ME Association has consistently taken the position that Rituximab could be one of the most promising developments in the search for a safe and effective drug treatment that is targeted at the underlying disease process in ME/CFS.
“We also know that the physicians involved in this research – Drs Oystein Fluge and Olav Mella from the Haukeland University Hospital in Norway – have taken great care in the way that they have devised the protocols for the clinical trials that have been carried out and reported.
“Despite the headline negative finding, we believe that this trial will still provide useful insights and contribute to a better understanding of M.E., and we also have the results from the Cyclophosphamide clinical trial to look forward to. We are very pleased that this knowledgeable, and valued, research team will continue with their work, trying to find answers to the M.E. puzzle.
“The ME Association Ramsay Research Fund had set aside around £60,000 to help support this research, or to help fund a clinical trial of Rituximab here in the UK, if such funding was required, and applied for by a reputable research or clinical trials group. No research grant applications have been received.
“It is difficult to comment further on these very basic preliminary results, and my understanding is that no further comment will be made by those involved until the study is published early next year. However, we do believe that it is correct and helpful for the patient community to be notified about the disappointing key conclusions prior to publication.
“Any decision – including if it is going to be sensible for the charity sector to be raising or spending further large sums of money on research involving the theoretical basis to this treatment (i.e. immune system dysfunction, involving the B-cell component of the body’s immune system), or further clinical trials to assess the safety and efficacy of Rituximab – will have to wait until more detailed information becomes available about the outcome of this phase III clinical trial, and the scientists involved have expressed their opinion as to whether further such research is justified.
“Based on the results from the clinical trials that have been published so far – along with the rather mixed evidence from people with M.E. who have been prescribed Rituximab outside formal clinical trials – it does appear that this type of immunotherapy could still be relevant to at least a sub-group.
“If it is agreed by experts in this area of immunotherapeutics (and we will be seeking expert advice), that we should continue to explore the role of Rituximab as a possible treatment for ME/CFS – and try to find immune system biomarkers that could help to identify the sub-group of people with M.E. who are most likely to respond to such treatment – the ME Association will continue to invite applications for research grants to the Ramsay Research Fund.
“Medical journals are less enthusiastic about publishing negative research findings or negative results from clinical trials. However, given the enormous amount of interest in Rituximab, from both people with M.E. and the medical community, I am confident that these results from Norway will be accepted for publication in due course.
“The ME Association is currently considering a number of other research applications – some of them quite large – and trustees will discuss the latest news about the Rituximab clinical trial at their Board meeting in December. A decision will then be made as to whether the £60,000 currently set aside, should remain as a ring-fenced sum for funding Rituximab research, or used for other biomedical research applications.”
Dr Charles Shepherd,
Hon Medical Adviser, ME Association.