By Sasha Nimmo
‘Meet the Scientists’ is a series of interviews with researchers working on ME and chronic fatigue syndrome. We hear about current research directly from scientists and meet the people doing such important work to improve our health. The series will introduce early career researchers through to interviewing scientists and clinicians who have been working on the problems for decades.
Professor Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik is the co-director of the National Centre for Neuroimmunology and Emerging Diseases (NCNED) at Australia’s Griffith University, along with Prof Don Staines, and they have been working in the field of chronic fatigue syndrome and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis for nine years. She is an author of the International Consensus Criteria for ME
NCNED last month hosted the ‘CFS/ME International Conference’ at Griffith University and announced they have been awarded $2.2 million in fellowships from the Stafford Fox Foundation which will help researchers discover the pathology, develop a diagnostic test for GPs and treatment. This is in addition to $6.1 million NCNED received from the Foundation in the past five years at NCNED.
Prof Marshall-Gradisnik is on the Australian government’s National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC’s) advisory committee on ME and CFS. The committee’s draft report to government will soon be open for public consultation.
Your work spans natural killer cells (and here and here), cytokines, brain function, dietary interventions, possible treatments, epidemiology and clinical guidelines. Which areas interest you the most? Which will have the most impact for patients?
All research that is hypothesis driven with correct study design and analysis in the field of ME/CFS is important and of great interest to me. The areas I have authored, for example immunological and brain function investigation are addressing the pathomechanism of this disease. Importantly, these novel and pioneering findings are enabling us to develop a screening/diagnostic test.
How far away are we from being able to go to the GP for a diagnostic blood test?
We have validated our findings in a number of cohorts, however, we need to be considered when projecting a timeline. Let us just say we are confident this will not be pipedream.
When do you think there will be a treatment?
We are currently looking at this area and this is based upon our novel research findings in the past twelve months. It is important to understand we are testing drugs in-vitro against immune cells from patients. Again the drugs we are targeting are based upon our research data and we will not be embarking on a clinical trial until we reproduce this data in a number of separate in vitro experiments. In the past there has been initiatives that have not taken this considered scientific approach.
How many papers have you published on CFS and ME?
I do not really count the number of papers I have published, however, I do know I have published over 70 peer reviewed ME/CFS papers!
My real interest and drive is to develop and design experiments that answer important questions to unravel the pathomechanism of this disease. My efforts and focus are to provide answers to the patients.
Tell us about your early career, before working on CFS and ME.
My area of investigation and speciality was luckily Natural Killer Cells. In my previous role I was investigating the possible role of performance enhancing agents on NK cell function. This research was the first in the world to report significant decreases in NK cells following administration of these agents. I was awarded a national research award for these findings.
You and Prof Staines have worked hard to ‘bust myths’ on social media, in the news and speaking at conferences, what sort of responses have you had to that?
The responses are always amazing from the patients with any communication platform we use. Professor Staines and I really try hard to ensure our novel significant research findings, as well as educational information, are communicated to patients through numerous platforms. It is important patients hear this information first hand. We want to ensure ME/CFS patients’ are continually given up-to-date information which, at the same time, increases public awareness of this disease.
Recently you spoke to parliamentarians in Canberra about your work at a Parliamentary Friends of People with ME and CFS meeting, do you think there is enough understanding at the political level?
Our presentation to parliamentarians was received extremely well from all sides. We presented our recent scientific findings that have identified dysfunction of a family of receptors using the gold standard, known as patch clamp. This data provides a major step forward for identification of the pathology of ME/CFS. We are excited to finally present this data as this has taken eighteen months of long hours in the laboratory to troubleshoot and refine these experiments. Many overseas researchers have complemented us on these novel and important findings.
What are you most proud of in your career, so far?
Knowing every day I am going to work with the most amazing team is my proudest achievement. Everyone in the team has the same objectives: To find the answers to identify the pathology of CFS/ME, develop a test and identify pharmacological interventions for the treatment of this disease.
What would you like to achieve?
Restore ME/CFS patients’ health and well-being.
I would also like a better work-life balance, however, I think a large majority of the population would like to achieve this objective.
What do you enjoy doing, outside work?
If I am not working on our family farm with my husband, I am usually spending time with my active teenage son who has many interests and keeps my husband and I very busy. I am also fortunate that my parents live close by as family is the most important part of my life.
See a list of Prof Marshall-Gradisnik’s publications.