Thursday 22 March 2018

PACE trial for chronic fatigue syndrome (still) being put through its paces

'Chronic fatigue trial results 'not robust', new study says' went the BBC headline reporting on the findings published by Carolyn Wilshire and colleagues [1].

Authors report peer-reviewed results following their re-examining various aspects of the PACE trial - "pacing, graded activity, and cognitive behaviour therapy: a randomised evaluation" - with regards to chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME).

This latest research and accompanying media attention continues a quite long-running saga (see here) known in some quarters as 'PACE-gate' (see here) where questions have been raised about a premier study that was "designed to examine the effectiveness of graded exercise therapy (GET) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)" in relation to CFS/ME. Quite a few of those interventions are set within the still unfortunately believed idea that CFS/ME represents a 'biopsychosocial' illness (see here) and that 'changing mindsets and/or behaviour' will magically transform peoples lives. I say 'still unfortunately believed' because patient experiences do not seemingly match some of the peer-reviewed science in this area (see here).

The various twists-and-turns (see here and see here) around the PACE trial have involved bigger discussions about trial design, outcome threshold 'issues' and even the accessibility of research study data. Indeed, the Information Commissioner here in Blighty has even played a hand in the PACE saga (see here) leading to some rather messy and very public arguments.

The paper by Wilshire et al continues a theme from this research group re-examining the PACE trial protocols and findings. It encompasses various elements in terms of definitions of 'overall improvement' and even 'recovery' (see here) between 'specified in trial protocol' and 'used in published reports'. Wilshire and colleagues report: "Our findings suggest that, had the investigators stuck to their original primary outcome measure, the outcomes would have appeared much less impressive."

Insofar as recovery rates - other work [2] related to the original PACE trial paper had indicated some impressive recovery rates following CBT and/or GET - Wilshire has more things to say here too. So: "when recovery rates were calculated using the definition specified in the published protocol, these were extremely low across the board, and not significantly greater in the CBT or GET groups than in the Control group." It might seem like common-sense to know what recovery should look like when it comes to CFS/ME, but again, the waters have been continually muddied (see here).

"Some notable strengths of the PACE study included the large sample size..., the random allocation of patients to treatment arms, the use of a well-formulated protocol to minimise drop-outs, and the reporting of the full CONSORT trial profile (including detailed information about missing data)." Wilshire et al illustrate how the PACE trial was, initially, a good piece of science from a methodological point of view, but: "the design, analysis and reporting of the results introduced some significant biases."

And now it may be time to move on: "The time has come to look elsewhere for effective treatments." CBT and/or GET are still the topics of study when it comes to ME/CFS (see here and see here) but are seemingly finding it more and more difficult to find acceptance. The recent news that NICE are looking to update their guidance on CFS/ME in light of 'changes' made by other official bodies (see here) and some significant patient (and political) power, reflect an increasingly changing mood. An increasing realisation that talking and exercise therapies might not be the best treatment options for a somatic condition that has the propensity to *significantly* drain both health and other aspects of quality of life (see here).


[1] Wilshire CE. et al. Rethinking the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome—a reanalysis and evaluation of findings from a recent major trial of graded exercise and CBT. BMC Psychology. 2018; 6: 6.

[2] White PD. et al. Recovery from chronic fatigue syndrome after treatments given in the PACE trial. Psychol Med. 2013 Oct;43(10):2227-35.


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