The Democratic Party’s Disability/Intractable Disease Policy Promotion group held a study group on ME/CFS at a conference room in the House of Representatives Building on May 11, 2017. The objective of the study group was to discuss ways to help bring relief to patients. 14 Democratic Party Diet members as well as the Secretaries to 23 additional Diet members attended.
With Representative Yasuko Komiyama serving as moderator, group chairman Representative Kazuhiro Haraguchi said in his opening remarks that when he disclosed [his] intractable disease osteogenesis five months ago, what surprised him was how many people are suffering, and that the study group would “give a voice to those who do not have a voice.” Japan ME Association president Mieko Shinohara then gave brief remarks, reading our request letter, and delivering the letter to Mr. Haraguchi.
House of Councillors member Ryuhei Kawada said, “When I met Ms. Shinohara six years ago, we discussed the name “chronic fatigue syndrome” made it difficult to understand the disease. The disease is now being researched as a neurological disease, and it is classified as a neurological disorder by the WHO. A therapy called rituximab may be emerging. We’d like study this disease as myalgic encephaloymelitis so that we can create a system where research advances may be made.”
Next, National Center for Neurology and Psychiatry (NCNP) Director of Immunology Dr. Takashi Yamamura provided an informational brief to the group as a medical specialist. Dr. Yamamura is a neurology specialist who has treated and researched multiple sclerosis (MS). He explained how, having received a request from the patient association to use the technology and learning at NCNP to treat this disease, “[we] began research and seeing patients with the belief that we have to do this. One problem of this disease is that patients may not be properly diagnosed at a hospital because abnormalities do not show up on current standard medical tests. Hospitals handle this by telling the patients that there are no abnormalities or that they should visit another hospital because they may be suffering from a psychiatric illness. It is a miserable situation, which is why I believe we must develop an objective diagnostic method.”
Dr. Yamamura explained the state of ME research, indicating that there is increased focus on abnormalities in the brain, including a PET image study indicating inflammation in the brain. Various diseases of inflammation should be treatable using drugs to effectively suppress inflammation. US patients advocated for research and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is investigating the disease with the US government increasing the amount of funding. Oncologists in Norway have published two papers in which the cancer drug rituximab had a significant benefit for about 60% of patients. The issue is how to move forward in this research context. Rituximab is a drug that kills tumors of lymphocytes called B cells and is thought to be a drug that modifies the immune system, and the possibility of using immune modulators for ME is something that is discussed by many scientists overseas.
Dr. Yamamura explained his experience with treating the disease optic nerve myelitis, a disease where severe fatigue is a symptom. Inflammation occurs in the eyes and the spinal cord and fatigue is severe. He explained that in optic nerve myelitis, where the inflammatory substance IL6 is elevated in patients, drugs used for rheumatoid arthritis led to dramatic improvement of fatigue symptoms in these patients. Fatigue is closely related to the immune system and it is important to focus on the immune system.
Many of the ME patients examined demonstrated immune abnormalities. Detailed analysis of patients’ lymphocytes using state-of-the-art flow cytometry technology has shown some of the B cells with clear abnormalities. Since the drug rituximab targets B cells, it is consistent with rituximab being effective. There is a need to shift gears from conventional fatigue research to research for treatments that target the immune system, and there is momentum in this direction globally.
On June 14 there will be a meeting of the Federation of Clinical Immunology Societies in the United States, and the NIH has organized a special four-hour symposium. There will be a session to study information with other researchers on immune abnormalities in myalgic encephalomyelitis and Dr. Yamamura would participate; there was momentum, and he appealed to the study group that he wanted to bring relief to patients as soon as possible.
Japan ME Association president Mieko Shinohara gave brief remarks. She recounted that “I had an onset of ME while studying abroad in the United States in 1990, by 1992 I already knew that I had brain abnormalities by MRI, an immune modulating drug called Ampligen was being tested since 1988. The disease has been treated as the neuro immune disease in Western countries. The NIH study used the Canadian Consensus Criteria as the basis for its research, a document that points to the WHO’s classification of the disease as a neurological disorder, as with the clinical guidelines issued by the IACFS/ME in 2012. It is common knowledge in the West that the disease is a neuro (immune) disease.”
She also mentioned that the phase III trial study of rituximab being conducted in Norway would conclude in October, with patients all over the world awaiting the results. There are many patients who have been ill for 20-30 years. The Ministry of Health survey made clear that 30% of patients in Japan are severely ill patients who are bedridden or close. The patients want more than anything to get better and to have clinical trials proceed. We ask that politicians and Ministry of Health officals understand the situation that patients are in and to act in a way that brings relief to their suffering.
After showing the trailer for the documentary that the Association is filming, Mr. Hiraiwa from the Ministry of Health explained the current intractable disease law and reported on ME/CFS research so far.
A lively question and answer session followed. Among the questions asked were whether Japan would be ready to test rituximab if the Norwegian study published positive results; whether there was evidence of infectious disease in light of historical outbreaks; whether there were neurologists prepared to conduct clinical drug trials; whether a specialized outpatient practice at NCNP could be established; whether the disease could be designated as an intractable; and why ME and CFS were described together. Dr. Yamamura explained that if there is a positive study result for rituximab in Norway and it is approved for clinical use, information would need to be submitted by the drug maker to the Japanese review agency PMDA before it could be used in Japan; that while in many cases a virus has been involved in triggering the onset of ME, the abnormality of the immune system continues but there is no increase in the triggering virus in the patient’s body; and that the name ME/CFS is being used for official purposes. The Ministry of Health Disease Control Division expressed that the ministry would continue to consult with Dr. Yamamura and work together with the patient association.
Representative Yasuhiro Nakane gave closing remarks. “We would like to firmly understand the wishes of the patient association. The budget has been an obstacle in medicine and administration generally, but it is the role of politicians to do something. Please accept our best wishes as we work under the leadership of Mr. Haraguchi.”