Listening to NPR
There was a third incitement to this blog that I have not yet mentioned, as I am not currently in possession of an asbestos suit, but I feel the time has come to discuss it. I was driving to work listening to NPR's Morning Edition last month when I heard, "We have news, now, of a scientific breakthrough about a disease that affects over a million people in the U.S."
My ears perked up, wondering what major breakthrough I had missed. I learned from the interview that an article had been published in Science linking the retrovirus XMRV with chronic fatigue syndrome. On the usually reserved and balanced NPR, I was startled to hear the interview proceed in such a way as to assume that the study was accurate and that it proved wrong all those who had questioned CFS as a single disease entity. I had the sense listening that either the interviewer or the producer of the piece had a personal stake in the outcome of the story.
The article in Science reported that 67% of patients with CFS and 3.7% of healthy controls had XMRV DNA. A news story reported that, after the submission to Science, the authors of the study improved their assay for XMRV antibodies and found them in 95% of patients with CFS. Is it plausible that 95% (or 67%) of patients diagnosed with CFS really have a single disease caused by the retrovirus XMRV?
Plausibility in medicine is a tricky concept. Almost any result can be argued to be biologically plausible by someone with a modicum of creativity. And yet, biologic plausibility often does not pan out so well when it meets real life. When I was in training, beta blockers were considered absolutely contraindicated in patients with heart failure and the incipient notion that peptic ulcers were an infectious disease was considered absurd.
There's a different kind of plausibility, though, for which I have greater fondness. It has to do with prior probabilities developed from a fair-minded look at the epidemiology of diseases or from prior trials that test some similar notion to the current idea under scrutiny. For instance, while JUPITER found a 44% reduction in its composite primary endpoint, it seems highly implausible to me that rosuvastatin really lowers risk by this much. Nearly every statin seems to lower risk in primary and secondary prevention by 20-25%; why should rosuvstatin have such a marked effect in a fairly low risk population? It seems more likely that the effect was exaggerated when the trial was stopped early for benefit than that we can really expect these sorts of results from rosuvastatin in patients with low LDLs and mildly elevated CRPs.
Evaluating the Evidence
The article in Science is an odd read for a clinician. The same article in a medical journal would spend a lot of time describing who the patients and controls were, and how the patients were diagnosed with CFS, but none of that is in the article. Like most articles in Science, it spends its time on bench methodology (how the retrovirus was detected) rather than on the methods by which CFS was diagnosed and the blinding used when the samples were analyzed.
That raises an initial question of "are these CFS patients similar to those who walk into a primary care physician's office carrying a diagnosis of CFS?" That is, can the results be generalized to the broad group of people who are said to have CFS? Without a more detailed description in the article, I have no way to be sure.
But beyond that, what has happened with other CFS "breakthroughs"? Back in the 1990s, after an article showing much higher rates of neurally mediated hypotension in patients with CFS (22 of 23 patients) than in healthy controls (4 of 14 controls), I made the same argument on Usenet that I'm in the process of making here. That article led to patients with CFS being treated with fludrocortisone and similar agents. Eventually people concluded that the neurally mediated hypotension story didn't really make sense and clinicians and patients moved on.
From my point of view, given the patients I have seen carrying the label CFS, it seems extremely unlikely that any single etiology will explain 95% of cases. Patients carrying the label CFS in the real world (rather than in research studies) seem to be a mixed bag. Many seem to have atypical depression or another psychological cause of fatigue (thus my need for the asbestos suit). Others, though, likely have a missed diagnosis or have some condition that is, as yet, unknown to medical science (retroviral infection with XMRV would have previously fit in this category).
Interpretation and Proof
Why does it matter? From the clinical perspective, many people with depression (typical or atypical) can be helped by standard therapies. Avoiding the label of depression for those who are depressed is no kindness (though it is also of no help for doctors to insist that symptoms are due to depression when they are not; I do not believe that all patients with CFS really suffer from depression). And getting therapies for purported etiologies that don't pan out (such as fludrocortisone for neurally mediated hypotension) simply exposes patients to side effects, harms, and costs, without resulting benefits.
Beyond that, though, this issue is at the intersection between evidence, experience, and opinion. I have no expertise in retroviruses, know nothing about XMRV or the methods used to detect it, and am lacking detailed evidence about how the study in Science was performed. But evidence about diseases still must be interpreted through the lens of clinical experience.
Ultimately, many of the arguments between clinicians about CFS (let alone the arguments joined by patients) have to do with differing clinical interpretations of whether CFS feels like a believable single disease process. This is an area where a discipline like EBM doesn't provide much of a road map. Yet expert clinicians must make these sorts of judgments all the time when they decide whether to consider a cluster of signs and symptoms as an individual disease. Before HIV was discovered, I listened to expert clinicians reject the arguments for multiple immune system insults or inhaled nitrates as causes of AIDS, and instead point out that AIDS would turn out to be caused by a virus that was transmitted similarly to hep B given the similar epidemiology of the two diseases. There is no path from evidence to understanding that does not rely on expert interpretation, and, ultimately, no mechanical measure of sufficient evidence or proof outside of what counts as proof to those patients and providers who must make decisions.
XMRV may yet turn out to be the cause of CFS, but given the track record of such causes, I think we need better evidence. Before NPR describes a "scientific breakthrough" and gets the hopes up of so many, I wish they would spend more time thinking and interviewing and looking for some balance. I have to believe they could have found an expert or two who would have urged caution in interpreting these results.
If future studies confirm the XMRV hypothesis, those out there now who are infuriated by my comments can feel free to say "we told you so." But if XMRV turns out not to be a very good etiology for real world cases of CFS, perhaps there might be more patience for those of us who urge not trying to explain all the many chronically fatigued patients with a single disease entity. In either case, it's worth recognizing the role that expert interpretation plays in medical controversies.
This post is long enough, and the second virus from the title of this piece will need to wait for a future post: I'll discuss the likelihood that we've really found an effective vaccine for HIV.
(After I wrote this, Marilyn Mann pointed me to a blog posting with some similar concerns about CFS having a specific viral etiology.)