Study linking virus to chronic fatigue syndrome retracted amid controversy

December 22, 2011

A two-year scientific controversy all but ended Thursday when the prestigious journal Science retracted a study linking a strange virus to chronic fatigue syndrome, a sometimes-debilitating disorder with no known cause.

The journal’s editors “lost confidence” in the study after at least a dozen attempts to replicate the finding failed, Editor in Chief Bruce Alberts wrote in a retraction notice to be published Friday.

Further, the study’s authors “omitted important information” from some of the figures in the paper, Alberts wrote.

The retraction formally removes the study from the scientific record.

“I think it’s 99 percent the end of the story,” said John Coffin, a virologist at Tufts University who worked on a team that could not replicate the original study.

Published in October 2009, the retracted study generated a wave of hope among chronic fatigue patients that a cause of their illness had finally been found. Led by scientists at the privately funded Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease in Reno, Nev., the study reported that a bizarre virus, xenotrophic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV), was found in the blood of 68 of 101 chronic fatigue patients.

But as laboratories worldwide failed to replicate the discovery, criticism of the original report mounted.

In May, two reports detailed how XMRV was likely a lab-borne contaminant, not a blood-borne virus. The case further unraveled in September, when nine laboratories tested for the virus in 15 people previously found to carry it. Only two of the labs found the virus in the supposedly infected individuals. The labs also reported conflicting results from the blood of 15 healthy individuals.

“As far as virologists go, the story ended a long time ago,” said Vincent Racaniello, a virologist at Columbia University, referring to the September report. “There’s no evidence at the moment that any virus is associated with chronic fatigue syndrome.”

The story took a bizarre turn in November, when the scientist at the center of the controversy, Judy Mikovits, was jailed in California.

Mikovits was an author on the retracted report and a chief champion of the notion that XMRV or a similar virus is linked to chronic fatigue. She was fired from Whittemore in September for insubordination. The institute then accused Mikovits of stealing laptop computers, flash drives and laboratory notebooks.

Ventura County, Calif., sheriffs arrested Mikovits on Nov. 18 on a felony “fugitive from justice” charge stemming from the allegedly stolen materials, according to court records.

Audrey Young, a spokeswoman for Whittemore, said Thursday that Mikovits, now out of jail, “did turn over some of the materials, including a laptop which she had wiped clean. She did not turn over all of the material, and that’s an enormous problem.”

A civil lawsuit filed by Whittemore is requesting the return of all of the lab materials. Mikovits could not be reached for comment Thursday.

One prominent patient advocate said the saga has been a “roller-coaster ride.” But most patients have now “moved on,” said Kim McCleary, president and chief executive of the CFIDS Association of America. “They’re certainly disappointed and discouraged that this did not pan out the way it was initially promoted. But they understand there’s no point in pursuing a dead end.”

Last year, the original study prompted the American Red Cross to ban blood donations from chronic fatigue patients.

On Thursday, a Red Cross spokeswoman said the group’s policy remained unchanged. “If somebody tells us they have chronic fatigue syndrome, we will continue to defer them,” said Stephanie Millian, although not because of fears of XMRV transmitting through the blood supply. Rather, Millian said, the Red Cross was “following the lead” of patient advocacy groups that advise ill patients not to donate blood.

Between 1 million and 4 million Americans are thought to have chronic fatigue syndrome, a mysterious disorder that causes prolonged and severe fatigue, body aches and other symptoms.

While the retraction removes the original study from the scientific record, it can’t undo two years of expensive sleuthing, including a $2.3 million National Institutes of Health study now underway.

That study is searching for XMRV in 150 patients and 150 healthy subjects. The scientist leading it, Columbia University’s Ian Lipkin, said in an e-mail that it was important to finish the study to “rigorously address the controversy.” NIH will continue to support the study through its conclusion next year, said a spokeswoman for the NIH branch funding the study, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Alberts disagrees with that decision. He said Thursday there was no reason to continue the NIH-funded study.

“I think this whole thing has been a tragedy for science,” he said. “The scientific community has put so much time and effort into this.”

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