SMCI Ramsay Awards 2017: Meet Research Team 3March 20, 2018

(Pictured above, left to right: Fiona Newberry, Dr. Simon Carding, Dr. Tom Wileman)

The Ramsay Award program is a foundation of the Solve ME/CFS Initiative’s (SMCI) commitment to explore all worthy research avenues. This program aims to move the field forward by funding innovative research across many disciplines, bring new researchers in the the myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) field, and provide seed dollars so that researchers can go on to obtain funds for larger studies in their areas of expertise. In 2017, we chose five scientifically diverse teams to fund. We are proud to introduce you to our 2017 Ramsay Research Team 3.

Fiona Newberry, a PhD candidate at Quadram Institute and the University of East Anglia in the U.K., is leading a Ramsay 2017 project exploring the role of the gut microbiome in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Dr. Simon Carding of the Carding group at Quadram Institute and Prof. Tom Wileman, Director of the Biomedical Research Centre at the University of East Anglia, are co-Investigators on the project. The research group brings extensive expertise in microbe-host interactions and their role in the development of disease. Titled “Investigating alterations in the intestinal virome in CFS/ME”, the study will explore the role of lesser studied inhabitants of our guts – viruses. The team will use advanced techniques to characterize bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria and impact bacterial populations) in ME/CFS patient samples as compared to controls. Through this Ramsay study, Team 3 aims to get us closer to an answer for the complicated question they posed in a recent article in Clinical ScienceDoes the microbiome and virome contribute to ME/CFS?

Ms. Newberry credits “the Ramsay grant program [as] an excellent means of supporting researchers and attracting new investigators to the field.” You can read more about what motivates her to solve ME/CFS and the promising work she is undertaking in the interview below.

You can read the Research Team 3 study abstract here

SMCI: What compelled you to work on complex, multi-system disease like ME/CFS?
Newberry: I started taking an interest in human disease during my undergraduate degree at Swansea University. This interest expanded to the role of microbes in human disease during my Master’s degree at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Initially, I was compelled to research a complex disease like ME/CFS because of the mystery factor of the illness. Compared to other multi-factorial disease, very little is known about the cause of ME/CFS. As the project has developed, my reasons for research have shifted from purely scientific to patient orientated. I have visited severe patients in their homes and witnessed the effects of this illness. Now, I research this disease so patients do not have to struggle for years for a diagnosis and effective treatments are available.

SMCI: How will studying the virome, particularly bacteriophages, expand our understanding of gut microbiota in ME/CFS?
Newberry: Although it is known that the microbiome is altered in ME/CFS patients, specific changes have not been identified. Microbiome studies to date have focused on the bacterial component of the microbiome, neglecting the other constituents and in particular, the virome. Members of the virome able to greatly influence the structure and function of the microbiome as a whole. Of particular interest, are viruses that specifically target and infect bacteria (bacteriophages). Bacteriophages can change the microbiome structure by eliminating a bacterial species, allowing other bacteria (pathogenic or commensal) to occupy the space created. Additionally, bacteriophages are able to transfer DNA and genes between bacterial hosts which may be a beneficial for the bacteria, such as conferring antibiotic resistance.
It is important therefore to learn more about the virome in the development of chronic diseases such as ME/CFS that are often associated with virus infections and gut disorders.

SMCI: Why has the study of the gut virome lagged behind that of the gut bacteria?
Newberry: Bacterial genomes share certain genes which allows their accurate identification. By contrast, viruses have no shared or conserved genes that allows their unambiguous identification. This together with the sparsity of reference virus genomes on which to base the identification of unknown viruses are the major reasons why studies of the gut virome have lagged behind that of gut bacteria.

SMCI: What are the possible applications to more targeted treatments?
Newberry: As with any disease the most effective treatments come from identifying and then targeting the cause, as is the case for example in choosing the best antibiotic to treat a bacterial infection of known origin. The cause of ME/CFS is unknown making it difficult to determine the best treatment option. If our own research and that of others uncovers a causal role for the gut microbiome in ME/CFS, then several established treatment options proven to be effective in other chronic diseases that target the bacterial or viral component of the microbiome can be considered for ME/CFS. Such treatments can also be individualized and adapted for different patients according to the nature of the changes or alterations to their gut microbiome.