Emeritus Professor Warren Tate sits in his office surrounded by papers, thank you cards, photos of family and colleagues, and a striking sculpture.
He speaks with passion and insight about the lives of those affected by just one of the diseases he’s spent years studying. He obviously cares.
What the internationally-renowned biomedical scientist/molecular biologist only alludes to are the distinguished awards he’s won, including the 2010 Rutherford Medal and the 2018 Marsden Medal.
The 75-year-old mentions awards simply because he wishes his research team would also be recognised. The two longest-serving members have 60 years’ combined laboratory experience.
Professor Tate’s office is in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Otago in Dunedin, where he arrived 55 years ago.
He’d already developed a noteworthy research career when, in 1990, his daughter Katherine caught glandular fever at the age of 14.
A few months later, she came down with what is now known as myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).
“She was a lively, vibrant young teenager who was very interactive,” he says.
But the debilitating illness meant she found it impossible to be as social with friends or to remain at school beyond 10 a.m.
Clinicians said Katherine just didn’t want to go to school; however, the scientist knew this wasn’t correct because he knew his child, and that her fatigue stemmed from a virus.
To say that it’s a perception disorder is grossly insulting.”
Between at least 20,000 and 25,000 people suffer from ME/CFS in New Zealand and symptoms include severe fatigue, impaired memory and/or mental concentration and insomnia.
In its acute phase, patients may be bed or house bound for three or four years and then the disease usually becomes chronic with relapses.
But no diagnostic blood tests exist and some doctors in this country and others still deny it is a real physical illness.
Early struggles with funding
In the early 1990s, Professor Tate and his team couldn’t get ME/CFS research funding, despite their notable work with other brain conditions.
About 2012, when he thought he was nearing the end of his career, he started a programme to see if he could find a biological basis for the disease.
As a parent whose daughter had suffered from ME/CFS for 22 years by then, he totally believed it had a biological basis.
He says if the evidence had led to another conclusion, that would have been fine.
Since funding wasn’t forthcoming, families of people with the illness donated about $500,000 for two, four-year studies and the Associated New Zealand ME Society (ANZMES) also gave generously.
However, it wasn’t easy.
“It was like on a Friday, sometimes we didn’t know if we’d have enough money to go on. Then suddenly we’d have a $100,000 donation,” he recollects.
“A little bit on the smell of an oily rag, we kind of set out.”
The first study involved 10 patients and 10 controls. An ME clinician expert in Auckland, Dr Rosamund Vallings, had diagnosed each patient based on a Canadian clinical consensus.
The second study was longitudinal and involved two young ME patients whose blood was sampled over a year, and a healthy young woman who was the control.
As expected, the two ME patients suffered relapses during the year, one for a month and the second for two months.
The scientists found many molecular differences between the patients and controls.
Professor Tate says they studied immune cells and discovered molecular signatures for the disease, one in immune cell proteins associated with energy production and one in DNA.
He explains how DNA contains an epigenetic code, which is like light switches going on and off, or dimming. This code determines the activity of all the body’s genes and aims to look after a body’s needs.
They discovered that the ‘light switch’ code is finely honed and ME patients had 20 to 30-fold higher unstable epigenetic codes.
“We found the first examples of specific molecular signatures that we could ascribe to the disease.”
Through both studies, the team found that ME/CFS has a firm biological basis. Their findings were peer-reviewed and published in the Clinical Epigenetics and Journal of Translational Medicine in 202o.
Professor Tate hopes that as well as encouraging those with ME, the findings will lead to therapeutic ways to alleviate symptoms.
During its ground-breaking work, his research team has also developed a promising molecular diagnostic test.
Living with ME
Professor Tate says ME destroyed his beloved Katherine’s teenage years; however, there was joy when she gave birth to a son seven years ago.
“She lives with ME every day. Every day’s a struggle,” he says.
Another member of his family has also developed the illness.
While the lifelong disease can have devastating effects, people “can live constructive lives within their limitations.”
He has much respect for ME patients who, in his experience, are very gracious. Working with them has been humbling.
He also speaks glowingly of his research team, which once numbered 25 and is now smaller. Technician Tina Edgar has been with him 40 years and Assistant Research Fellow Katie Peppercorn, 20 years.
“I’ve been blessed to have really loyal, talented people in my research team,” he says.
“I’m getting close to 76, but there’s still a lot to do,” he concludes.
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