SMCI Ramsay Awards 2017: Meet Research Team 5May 23, 2018

Thomas Vogl, a postgraduate at the Weizmann Institute, is working with Dr. Eran Segal on the Ramsay 2016 project “Deciphering antibody reactivities against autoantigens & the microbiome in ME/CFS”

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 5.

Eran Segal, PhD, is a computational biologist specializing in the role of the human microbiome in  health and disease. He focuses on the development of personalized medicine approaches that combine human genetics, the microbiome, and nutrition. Dr. Segal summarizes his work in a fascinating TEDx talk here.

Dr. Segal is lead investigator of a Ramsay 2017 project exploring the gut microbiota-immune system interaction in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). His research group is using a multidisciplinary approach that combines both experimental and computation-based methods. You can read more about the study, titled “Deciphering antibody reactivities against autoantigens & the microbiome in ME/CFS”,  in an interview with Dr. Segal and Thomas Vogl, a postgraduate student in his group, below. 

You can read the Research Team 5 study abstract here.

SMCI: What are some of the advanced techniques you use in your research, and what about ME/CFS motivated you to apply this approach?

ES & TV: We are applying machine learning algorithms such as artificial neural networks to gain insights into complex biological phenomena. We have for example developed an algorithm to predict personalized diets from a person’s gut microbiome (the billions of microorganism growing on and in our body). In addition to these data driven approaches, we have also developed experimental strategies allowing to study the function of thousands of biological sequences in parallel. While affecting a surprisingly large percentage of the population, the cause(s) and exact disease mechanism(s) of ME/CFS have been difficult to study in the past. A data driven approach using novel experimental approaches and unbiased machine learning algorithms could lead to new insights by tackling these challenges from a different angle.

SMCI: You have tracked the role of the microbiome in other disease states. Are there any lessons that can be applied to ME/CFS regarding the potential mechanism of microbiota action in an autoimmunity state?

ES & TV: Over the last few years the microbiome has been shown to be involved in a plethora of disease conditions. There is also growing evidence that the microbiome composition can take part in the disease mechanisms of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Also altered microbiome compositions of ME/CFS patients compared to healthy individuals have been reported. These dysbiotic gut microbiota could affect disease progression in similar manners as currently studied autoimmune diseases.

SMCI: The study design for your Ramsay project was informed by evidence of autoimmunity in at least a subset of individuals with ME/CFS. Do you think an emphasis on defining patient subgroups will produce tailored approaches to treatment and management in the near future?

ES & TV: ME/CFS patients do not appear as entirely homogeneous population hinting at a disease with different manifestations and possibly variable causes. Identifying biological markers to define patient subgroups could be key to provide personalized treatments tailored towards patients’ specific needs. To this end, patients’ microbiome signatures or immune responses could be promising directions to mine for such markers.

SMCI: Do you view the Ramsay competitive grant program as a good way to support dedicated researchers and attract new talent to the field?

ES & TV: Despite affecting a similar number of individuals as HIV in the US (Maxmen, 2018), the general awareness of ME/CFS is much lower, possibly due to ME/CFS’s status as non-communicable disease. The Ramsay competitive grant program is a great way to bring also the attention of the scientific community to the many unsolved research questions surrounding ME/CFS. Programs such as the Ramsay competitive grants are a key factor in ME/CFS research gaining momentum, to increase our understanding of this complex disease and to develop treatment strategies.