Prof Julia Newton with ME Research UK chairman Dr Vance Spence at the unveiling of the plaque commemorating the Programme Grant to the University of Newcastle

Prof Julia Newton with ME Research UK chairman Dr Vance Spence at the unveiling of the plaque commemorating the Programme Grant to the University of Newcastle

On May 16th 2014, the trustees of ME Research UK gathered for a site visit to Newcastle University Medical School. The visit was to hear about progress of the research studies they are funding, and to unveil a plaque marking the charity’s latest award – a Programme Grant to Prof Julia Newton to advance biomedical research into ME/CFS. The funding awarded will be used mainly to advance scientific investigation into severe ME/CFS (see Severely affected ME/CFS patients – a geographically defined study), which will be undertaken by a newly appointed ME Research UK Research Associate. Some of the grant award will also be directed towards pump-priming smaller ‘proof-of-concept’ or early experimental investigations, as it can be very difficult for researchers to obtain funds for these initial studies. As Dr Vance Spence said, “ME/CFS is an ‘orphan’ illness in terms of clinical recognition and research, and Prof Newton leads one of the most successful and dedicated teams researching the condition anywhere in the world. In fact, she initiated this research herself after observing the profound impact of the illness on patients! This is the first ever Programme Award made by ME Research UK, and it is a measure of our confidence in the research undertaken by Julia and her impressive team of senior collaborators at Newcastle University.”

Researchers and students in discussion at the research presentations

Researchers and students in discussion at the research presentations

After the unveiling, there were a range of presentations from researchers engaged in work funded by ME Research UK. Research Associate Dr Audrey Brown described her fascinating studies into abnormalities in muscle cells of ME/CFS patients; her in vitro model involves simulating ‘exercise’ in isolated skeletal muscle cells using a C-Pace EP multi-channel stimulator, and observing changes in a variety of cell signalling molecules. Dr SarahJayne Boulton of the Institute of Cellular Medicine described her collaborative work developing intracellular nanosensors for the investigation of muscular dysfunction; in the context of ME/CFS, she and Prof Mark Birch-Machin are using spectrophotometry of cultured cell samples to examine the complexes of the mitochondrial electron transport chain. Dr Joanna Elson of the Mitochondrial Research Group at the University, who specializes in population genetics and computational methods, described her studies on mitochondrial DNA mutations and their relevance to ME/CFS. Dr Andreas Finkelmeyer of the Institute of Neuroscience, whose expertise is in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), described his efforts to tease out the role of autonomic nervous system dysfunction in the illness, with particular emphasis on changes in blood flow to the liver. Other presenters included Megan Lynn who is working on glucocorticoid receptors, and Zoe Gotts, Health & Life Sciences at University of Northumbria, whose area of interest is sleep and whether distinct sleep-specific subgroups of ME/CFS patients can be identified using polysomnography.

Trustee Jan McKendrick and Vice-Chair Sue Waddle examine the tilt-table used for autonomic nervous system testing

Trustee Jan McKendrick and Vice-Chair Sue Waddle examine the tilt-table used for autonomic nervous system testing

The site visit ended with a tour of the clinic area of the Falls and Syncope Unit in which some of the clinical studies take place, and the Cardiovascular Laboratory which is one of the largest autonomic testing labs in Europe and has all the necessary equipment and expertise for comprehensive autonomic testing. As Julia said rounding off the day, “For the past 8 years, ME Research UK has provided the pilot funding for many distinct projects, which have produced the data on which our successful applications to the MRC were based and which have resulted in a range of scientific papers. This shows what can be achieved by biomedical researchers and research charities working collaboratively to drive science forward.”

Dr Neil Abbot, Prof Julia Newton, and trustees Sue Waddle and Jan McKendrick

Dr Neil Abbot, Prof Julia Newton, and trustees Sue Waddle and Jan McKendrick

Further reading
Severely affected ME/CFS patients – a geographically defined study. Our newly funded investigation of housebound or bedbound patients.
£1 million of biomedical research. A special 32-page edition of our Breakthrough magazine reviewing ME Research UK’s projects.  
MRC grant awards. Awards by the MRC in 2012 to Professor Julia Newton, Dr Wan Ng and colleagues at Newcastle University, UK.