Patrick McGowan’s epigenetic research started out as a small 24 person pilot project funded by the SolveCFS Initiative but it’s not small any more. With the help of a $500,000 grant from the Dr. Ralph and Marian Falk Medical Research Trust, Patrick McGowan (and Dr. Lucinda Bateman) are now embarking on a 300 person study.
Epigenetics studies changes how our genes express themselves over time in. Think of your genetic makeup as a blank slate when you were born. Look forward twenty or thirty years, though, and you’ll see portions of that slate have been over-written: some genes that weren’t turned on back then are now turned on. Others that were going full bore have been silenced. That’s epigenetics – a field some researchers believe may, in the end, be ultimately more important with regard to chronic diseases than our original genetic makeup.
Consider the possibility that key genes that were serving to keep you strong and healthy got turned off or possibly genes that were guaranteed to make you sick got turned on just before you became ill. Maybe it wasn’t that bug, that flu or whatever you thought it was that got you ill. Maybe the problem was that your gene expression changed. If that’s true then good luck trying to fix the problem without getting at those epigenetic changes. Everything you do will be like a bandaid put over a genetic sore.
McGowan’s SolveCFS Initiative pilot study found epigenetic changes in 800 genes involved in metabolic regulation (energy production), kinase activities (metabolic and much more), the immune response and more in people with ME/CFS. His finding appeared to be on track with what we know: they suggested ME/CFS patients immune systems were skewed to a Th2 immune response and they highlighted inflammatory processes. One particularly interesting epigenetically altered gene was associated with EBV infection of B-cells. Another effected a major inflammatory transcription factor called NF-kB which turns on genes involved in inflammation.
The Dr. Ralph and Marian Falk Medical Research Trust obviously felt McGowan was on to something because they awarded him one of ten or so grants they are giving out in their new translational research effort that opened in October. This effort emphasized these factors:
- Understanding underlying disease processes and how they disrupt normal human biology,
- Identification of biological markers of disease activity and progression
- Development and testing of diagnostic or prognostic tests based on those markers
McGowan’s research could affect all three: understanding ME/CFS, finding biomarkers and developing diagnostic tests.
This grant shows once again that pilot studies work, and that more and more funders are considering ME/CFS a subject they want to invest in. The Dr. Ralph and Marian Falk Medical Research Trust is not a flash in the pan; it’s an established non-profit that’s given out almost $200 million in grants over the past thirty years. It’s good news when a long-established funder believes chronic fatigue syndrome is a good investment. The competition in this era of reduced NIH budgets was probably fierce. Kudo’s to whoever took advantage of this funding opportunity.