The Washington Post

Viruses acquitted in chronic fatigue case

Chronic fatigue syndrome, an illness that has long perplexed scientists, is not caused by a mouse virus, according to a federally funded study designed to end a bitter, long-running controversy on the issue.

The study, published online Tuesday by the scientific journal mBio, was headed by Columbia University’s Ian Lipkin, who led a team of scientists from different institutions — many of whom had published conflicting studies on the subject in the past.

The researchers said they could not find genetic traces of mouse virus in the blood of 147 chronic fatigue syndrome patients and 146 healthy people and therefore could not link viruses to the ailment.

Viruses became prime suspects for the disease — which afflicts more than one million patients in the U.S. and is characterized by extreme exhaustion not relieved by rest — in 2009, when Science magazine published a study by researchers led by Judy Mikovits, then at the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nev. The study found traces of XMLV, a mouse retrovirus, in the blood of chronic fatigue syndrome patients.

A second study led by Harvey Alter, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, and published in 2010, implicated a different, albeit related virus, pMLV. These findings raised hopes that researchers would be able to develop therapies to treat the illness.

But subsequent studies could not replicate those initial results. Last year, researchers reported that Mikovits’s samples of patients’ blood were most likely contaminated by mouse genetic material and that XMLV is apparently a virus strain that artificially arose in a laboratory in the 1990s — and so couldn’t be blamed for a disease first described in the 19th century.

In December 2011, Science magazine retracted the Mikovits study, after Mikovits herself refused to. Shortly afterward, the second team retracted its findings.

While at that point the majority of the researchers involved concluded that the mouse-virus theory had been debunked, some researchers, most notably Mikovits, continued to argue in favor of the virus theory. Mikovits was terminated by Whittemore in connection to the controversy.

But the debate is likely to end now, because the new study, in an unusual step, included Alter and Mikovits as collaborators and they agreed that no connection could be made between viruses and the disease. Both researchers were given blood samples independently and could not replicate their own findings from their initial studies.

“I applaud their courage,” said the study organizer Lipkin on Tuesday at a press conference that was attended by Alter and Mikovits. Lipkin speculated that the disease might be caused by several factors rather than a single agent, something that should be studied with modern methods. “It is simply not there,” said Mikovits of the suspected virus, “it is time to move forward now.”

Show Comments
Washington Post Subscriptions

Get 2 months of digital access to The Washington Post for just 99¢.

A limited time offer for Apple Pay users.

Buy with
Cancel anytime

$9.99/month after the two month trial period. Sales tax may apply.
By subscribing you agree to our Terms of Service, Digital Products Terms of Sale & Privacy Policy.

Get 2 months of digital access to The Washington Post for just 99¢.

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing
Read content from allstate
Content from Allstate This content is paid for by an advertiser and published by WP BrandStudio. The Washington Post newsroom was not involved in the creation of this content. Learn more about WP BrandStudio.
We went to the source. Here’s what matters to millennials.
A state-by-state look at where Generation Y stands on the big issues.