The Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for the NIH ME/CFS Research Network was established to bridge the gap between researchers and the ME/CFS community with the goal of accelerating the pace of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) research. The CAC is a group of 15 individuals from various professional backgrounds, all of whom have lived experience of the disease.
The CAC Research Priorities working group has authored a report on the challenges and priorities to be addressed to achieve needed outcomes for people with ME/CFS. This has become especially urgent given the large number of people who already have, and are expected to develop, ME/CFS following COVID-19.
ME/CFS is a debilitating, chronic, complex disease that most often follows an infection and is associated with neurological, autonomic, immunological, and metabolic abnormalities. Patients experience a substantial impairment in functioning, and symptoms such as sleep dysfunction, cognitive impairment, orthostatic intolerance, pain, fatigue, and the hallmark post-exertional malaise (PEM), an exacerbation of symptoms following even small amounts of previously tolerated activity. An estimated 836,000 to 2.5 million Americans suffer from ME/CFS with a greater prevalence in females, adults and possibly people who are Black and Latinx. There are no validated biomarkers or FDA-approved treatments and patients can struggle to access adequate clinical care. An estimated 25% are homebound or bedbound and 75% are unable to work. Recovery is rare and patients can remain ill for decades.
Progress in understanding the etiology of ME/CFS and developing biomarkers and treatments has been constrained by a number of interrelated challenges, such as the inherent complexity and heterogeneity of the disease, inadequate study methods, challenges in collaborating across all stakeholders, misunderstanding about the nature of the disease, and lack of research funding and researchers in the field. But even with these challenges, substantial progress has been made in understanding some of the underlying pathology.
The pandemic has created the tragic opportunity to finally understand how an infection can result in chronic illness. At the same time, the knowledge and expertise gained from years of ME/CFS research has provided valuable insights for Long COVID research.
Leveraging this opportunity for ME/CFS requires ME/CFS-specific funding and a ME/CFS strategic research plan to expedite progress in ME/CFS diagnostics and treatments. It also requires the integration of learnings from ME/CFS research into the PASC strategy, not only to help accelerate research in Long COVID but to better understand ME/CFS onset, natural history, and pathology. A natural experiment is underway which cannot be replicated, and this calls for swift, decisive action before the window of opportunity to study early-onset ME/CFS closes as the pandemic resolves.
People with ME/CFS, including those who have developed ME/CFS following COVID-19, are waiting.
The CAC Research Priorities working group developed this comprehensive but concise report outlining the long-standing barriers that have constrained progress in ME/CFS and strategies for their resolution, as well as key short and longer term research priorities that need to be progressed to accelerate meaningful research and achieve outcomes for people with ME/CFS, including those whose ME/CFS developed following COVID-19. These recommendations can be used by researchers to generate new study designs and refine existing goals, facilitate collaborations between research domains and stakeholders, and by federal and private funders to guide award distribution and agenda setting.
The Research Priorities working group is available and eager to discuss the contents of this document with researchers. Please contact us at any time at: CAC.MECFS@gmail.com
The authors of this guide are: Mary Dimmock, Rochelle Joslyn (chair), Sabrina Poirier, Jaime Seltzer and CAC Director, Allison Kanas.
This work was supported by US Public Health Service grant 5U54AI138370 and 5U24NS105535. This content does not represent the official views of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or the National Institutes of Health.