POSTED ON AUGUST 22, 2012:
OSU biomedical researcher says science, not belief, will prove existence of skin disorder Morgellons
Oklahoma State University Associate Professor Randy Wymore chooses his words carefully when describing the latest research into Morgellons, an often self-diagnosed malady involving claims of strange and inexplicable skin sensations.
Sufferers feel something like bugs or parasites constantly crawling on or beneath the body's surface. They also frequently spot oddly-colored fibers poking through their skin. The greater scientific community dismisses these claims as delusions.
Not so Wymore, a trim man who wears a hoop earring. But the biomedical researcher still maintains scientific skepticism when describing research done by others.
In June, the nonprofit Charles E. Holman Foundation -- a major donor to Wymore's research -- praised a study by researchers claiming a possible link between Morgellons fibers and material in cows with a disease called bovine digital dermatitis.
"The new study confirms that Morgellons disease is not a delusional illness, as some in the medical community maintain," the foundation said in a statement. The findings were similar to a 2011 study by the same researchers.
Wymore, however, described the research with decidedly less enthusiasm.
"Those two papers about the cow disease, I mean we wouldn't have published them in that form. It would have to have been way further along," said Wymore, who heads research at OSU into Morgellons. He's quick to add he's attempting to check out some possible links to the bovine disease himself, while also making clear how his work differs.
"There are plenty of doctors who have been able to look at those papers and say, 'Well, what about this, this.' They can go down the list of things," Wymore said. "Our paper just won't be published until those sorts of concerns have already been addressed."
In the vast holdings of research database PubMed, Wymore's name links to 12 scholarly articles -- none of which deal with Morgellons. His early career involved studying cellular biology, with his work published in reputable academic journals like Circulation Research. The peer-reviewed journal ranks fourth out of 117 cardiac and cardiovascular system journals, according to its publisher, in terms of "impact factor," a way to gauge the number of times articles in the journal are cited by other researchers.
This was Wymore's professional life before he began studying Morgellons "as a curiosity" several months after arriving at Oklahoma State University's campus on the west side of town in 2004. He had left a similar post at the University of Tulsa.
"Once I sort of came to the conclusion that, wow, there's something interesting going on here, I knew people were suffering. And I couldn't just say 'Wow, you people have a really weird disease, sorry you're suffering and nobody believes you, good luck,'" said Wymore, crediting his personal philosophy as a Unitarian concerned with community as reinforcing his commitment to studying Morgellons.
Early on, he spoke with people who said they had the disease, later also discussing Morgellons publicly on CNN and the ABC News program Nightline. Wymore, the lone voice with backing from a research university to say Morgellons exists, said he concluded Morgellons is real because "it was just the evidence was slowly building, looking at samples."
About 30 patients complaining of Morgellons were seen over a period of roughly four years by OSU physicians, Wymore said. Most had Morgellons, according to Wymore. No single "a-ha" moment sealed his conviction, though Wymore said a colleague's study of material exhumed from beneath the unbroken skin of a patient meant that Morgellons can't be explained by clothing fibers working their way into an open wound.
Many people adamantly complain online about their Morgellons symptoms, often plaintively and with deep concern for their health. Along with the sensations and fibers, people with Morgellons describe unexplained lesions and fatigue, as well as a mental toll that, whatever its origin, seems to be debilitating. Roughly 10,000 people have registered with OSU as at least potential Morgellons sufferers.
However, Wymore no longer answers his phone in an effort to avoid lengthy and ultimately fruitless conversations with Morgellons sufferers. But he said he gets calls and responds every week to doctors who take Morgellons seriously.
"They do think there is a psychiatric component to it. But what they're willing to say is, the disease is causing the psychiatric component, rather than the disease is purely psychiatric. That's a big distinction there," Wymore said.
Past attempts at scientific collaboration have fizzled, which Wymore blames not on skepticism but the pressures on modern scientists to remain competitive with their peers.
He continues on despite a January study from the well-respected Centers for Disease Control in which researchers failed to find anything like Morgellons in a sample of people who claimed Morgellons-like symptoms.
"We were not able to conclude based on this study whether this unexplained dermopathy represents a new condition, as has been proposed by those who use the term Morgellons, or wider recognition of an existing condition such as delusional infestation, with which it shares a number of clinical and epidemiologic features," researchers wrote, advising psychiatric treatment for people claiming Morgellons.
Wymore, part of a group that examined the experiment's data prior to publication, said the research had fewer than 50 weaknesses, including a small sample size of people who participated in every step of the study.
"No one was observed to have had fibers emerging from the skin, and so my feeling is that, just by default, they did not have a Morgellons population," Wymore said.
Of course, if such fibers don't exist in the way Wymore says he's observed them, the finding would make perfect sense. CDC researchers stated that fibers from biopsy specimens were "compatible with cotton fibers."
Funding hasn't noticeable dropped off since the CDC report, according to Wymore, and it includes enough money for a lab technician. Notably, if tax-deductible donations to OSU's Morgellons research foundation reach $50,000, it's eligible for a $100,000 grant from an endowment fund set up by T. Boone Pickens upon Pickens' death, Wymore said.
So Wymore stays in the lab, Morgellons his full-time research topic, though he has other university duties. He conducts broad sweeps of samples to search for a connection between Morgellons and a particular fungi or bacteria. "Is there anything different we see about a Morgellons patient from the control, unaffected population as far as bacteria on the skin?" Wymore said, describing one question he's trying to answer.
He's also working on a case study of a Morgellons patient, which could be complete within the next six months.
"We're going to go for the highest-profile journal we can," Wymore said.
Wymore said he sees colleagues doing interesting, less controversial research and sometimes longs to participate. But his immediate future lies with Morgellons.
"My goal has pretty much always been that I will keep doing this Morgellons research until other labs better suited to it completely just get involved and quickly make progress and I'm not necessary, that would be one condition. Or we, or someone else, figures out the cause of this," Wymore said. "So I guess, in either case, I'll keep doing this until I'm not necessary."
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