An Outstanding Preview Screening of our ME Documentary Film

Japan ME Association hosted its first preview screening of “Hope to these Hands: The Reality of ME/CFS,” our original documentary film depicting the situation of severely ill ME/CFS patients in Japan which we began filming in 2014, at the TKP Shinagawa Conference Center in Shinagawa, Tokyo on October 22, 2017. Despite rain from a typhoon, many people turned out for the event and we were able to hold a highly successful premiere of the film. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to everyone who attended, as well as to those who worked tirelessly to raise funds to make production of the film possible.

With JMEA board member Dr. Isu Shin, MD moderating, JMEA President Mieko Shinohara  thanked Director Seiji Arihara for making the film and expressed that the objective of making and screening the film before audiences in Japan was to raise accurate awareness about ME and to advance research for the disease.

Mr. Arihara then gave a candid introduction to the film, revealing that when he and Ms. Shinohara  first produced a Japanese-subtitled version of the American documentary film “I Remember Me,” many years ago, he had never imagined that he would one day be making a Japanese documentary about Japanese ME patients. He explained that it was a film that required acquiring a deep understanding of the disease, and expressed his apologies to the many patients who agreed to be filmed but who were not depicted in the final version of the documentary.

The film depicts the lives of patients who are severely affected by this neuroimmune disease, the activities of the patient association amidst a society that does not recognize or understand the illness, the consequences of patients’ inability to obtain Disability Certificates with an ME/CFS diagnosis, the personal and economic difficulties faced by patients, recent research developments in Japan and abroad, and finally the hope surrounding the recent research into effective treatments.

We received immediate feedback on the film after the screening. Comments included: “Thank you for making this film,” “The film captured patients’ thoughts and troubles concisely,” “It was encouraging to learn about all the research being done in the United States,” “I was happy that the film makes clear that ‘stress’ is not the cause of the illness,” “I felt encouraged to overcome the difficulties that I experience,” “The film achieved a balance between subjective patient experiences and objective information,”  and “I want the severely ill patients who couldn’t make it to the screening to see the film as soon as possible.”

After a short break, former JMEA Vice President Dr. Miwako Hosoda spoke about the remarkable journey of Japan ME Association’s efforts in engaging medical researchers, government policymakers, social scientists, other non-profit associations, and the media to improve the situation of patients’ lives.

Finally, Dr. Takashi Yamamura, Director of Immunology at the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry (NCNP) gave a presentation entitled “Directions in ME/CFS Research.” Dr. Yamamura, a specialist in multiple sclerosis (MS) who is now also engaged in ME/CFS research, gave the example of developments in MS, where after 25 years of having no effective treatments, there are now around five drug treatments for the disease, with many patients able to work; when one drug emerges, the landscape can change dramatically within 10 years. Neurological diseases often are not detected by standard medical tests, as is the case with ME/CFS. He opined on the importance of research on inflammation in the brain and about the potential for major research advances in Japan; Japan should not merely depend on research to come out of the United States, especially with the high level of Japan’s immunological research, with its research institutions possessing the same technology as research universities like Stanford University. Dr. Yamamura emphasized the importance of detecting the disease early in patients going forward, and the possibility of using existing drugs to treat the disease. 

Finally, we held a press conference.  We answered questions including how we planned to use the documentary to spread awareness in Japan, whether the name “chronic fatigue syndrome” would change, and what steps were necessary to obtain the necessary funding to advance medical research.

Democratic Party Hosts Study Group on ME/CFS

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.”

The Japanese National Diet Adopts the Association’s 2016 Petition

We are very happy to report that both Houses of the Japanese National Diet adopted of Japan ME Association’s 2016 petition during this year’s extraordinary Diet session. With our last petition adopted by the House of Councillors in 2014 and by the House of Representatives in 2015, success on our petitions at the legislature for the third year in a row is a truly remarkable achievement. Our petition was the only one adopted by the House of Councillors’ Health, Labour and Welfare Committee during this Diet session and just one of two adopted by the House of Representatives.

Thanks to the hard work of many, 105 bipartisan Diet members across seven political parties and two independent Diet members agreed to introduce the petition, and we gathered nearly 14,000 signatures. The signatories included not only patients and their families, but people who learned about ME for the first time through the petition who wished to help improve the situation of patients. We express our heartfelt gratitude to everyone. The petition will be delivered to the Cabinet, and the Cabinet will issue updates on the petition items to the House of Representatives approximately twice annually.

We believe that our October international academic symposium (supported by the Ministry of Health and Japan Medical Association, sponsored by the Nippon Foundation, and where the President of the Japan Neurology Association gave remarks) had a positive impact on the petition’s adoption. We continue to hope for advances in research for ME by specialist researchers, the establishing of a national medical system where ME patients may receive medical treatment, and for research into effective treatments for the disease similar to that which is being conducted abroad. We thank you in advance for your continued support towards these important goals.