By Sasha Nimmo

‘Meet the Scientists’ is a series of interviews with researchers working on Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (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.

Dr Christopher Armstrong is an Australian scientist researching Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). He moved to California late last year to take up a position at the Open Medicine Foundation.

Previously Dr Armstrong worked on biochemistry and molecular biology in the Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute at the University of Melbourne.  He researched ME for eight years at the University of Melbourne, where he completed a PhD to pioneer the application of metabolomics.

Dr Armstrong published the first comprehensive ME (Canadian Consensus Criteria) metabolomics study on blood and urine in 2015. These studies were first to recognise an alteration in energy, amino acid and purine metabolism in ME. The most outstanding observation was that people with ME appear to use less sugar and more amino acids for energy production signalling a systemic stress response. From there he observed how stool-sourced bacteria and their metabolites related to altered host metabolism in ME. These studies highlighted biochemical findings that represent the cellular reaction to a chronic stressor in ME.

In 2016 Dr Armstrong, Fane Mensah and Geraldine Cambridge received the Ramsay Award from USA’s Solve ME/CFS Initiative.

Move to the Open Medicine Foundation
Dr Armstrong recently moved to the USA to join the Open Medicine Foundation as their Science Liaison, who said they are thrilled to have him.

“I’m looking forward to working with the Open Medicine Foundation in California. The Open Medicine foundation is trying to build a collaborative network with focused funding on collaborative centres, currently at Stanford and Harvard,” said Dr Armstrong.

“Our ideas on research strongly align and I hope to use this time to build a research network connecting the US and Australia.

“The Open Medicine Foundation is nurturing an open environment and a collaborative culture that significantly expands the knowledge base and helps refine critical ideas,” said Dr Armstrong.

“The value of collaboration is not just about efficiency for time, money or sharing patients but for looking at large amounts of data. The collaboration relies on individual expertise and this gives the ability to apply science to the same cohort of patients; from the microbiome, metabolism, mitochondria metabolism and epidemiology.”

“The National Institute of Health’s strong focus on collaboration in its funded projects is a really positive step forward. I am also encouraged by the formation of the Australian ME/CFS Discovery Network. Scientists in the network can publish individually or collectively, IP can be kept, It is not exclusive and we have an open door policy to others wanting to join,” he said.

“While working at the Open Medicine Foundation I will be finishing a number of research papers and helping the continuance of research at the University of Melbourne through two part-time scientists. I’m looking forward to working on a plan for new projects and continuing on the research in the coming months.”

Using technology to track patient data
Dr Armstrong has also worked with others on a digital health platform to collect and track data on symptoms in patients. Called ‘Symplist’, it allows scientists, clinicians and researchers to create surveys target specific participants. Patients can then respond and answer questions about their symptoms via an app.

This data, in conjunction with the samples collected and analysed, will provide detailed information for research. The app will have a broader application than just people with ME, it could be used to study a variety of conditions.

Individuals can download the app to track their own symptoms and activities, independent of participating in surveys. People can also indicate their interest in participating in surveys and then researchers can sent invitations to participate in research.

Symplist will go into beta testing in the next few months.

Outside the lab
Dr Armstrong is known for his community engagment and is generous with his time and expertise, joining ME Australia to lobby government and explain promising Australian scientific research.

He was one of the scientists on SBS’ Insight program about chronic fatigue syndrome and ME, broadcast in October last year.

Bio21 hosted a screening of the film ‘Unrest at Melbourne University and Dr Armstrong presented at the event. In a few weeks he will be presenting at the 2019 ME/CFS International Research Symposium in Victoria, Australia.

Throughout 2018 Dr Armstrong met with federal politicians, including Health Minister  Greg Hunt, to ask for funding for biomedical research into ME. He also briefed Australia’s Chief Medical Officer on the latest Australian and international biomedical research into ME, along with Dr David Tuller and Fane Mensah.

“Community and political engagement is important because someone needs to speak up. In some ways I wish I didn’t have to do it. I wish there was a stable scientific environment with enough funding,” said Dr Armstrong.

“Patients themselves have been patient enough.”

chris 3
Dr Christopher Armstrong with Fane Mensah

See a list of Dr Armstrong’s publications and read summaries of his work:

Australian metabolomics study of young women with ME/CFS (CCC)

Metabolomic study finds amino acid deprivation impacts pain