Now it turns out that, like many initially exciting reports, this one has a much more mundane explanation: contamination.
The new study by Hue et al. from University College London (Retrovirology 2010, 7:111) is titled "Disease-associated XMRV sequences are consistent with laboratory contamination." The title pretty much tells the story, but here's a brief synopsis.
Well, it turns out that a common tumor cell line called 22Rv1 is infected with MLV-X. It also turns out that all the XMRV sequences from human patients are far more similar to the exact same strain of MLV-X that is in the mouse cell line. The tumor cell line was in the lab doing the experiments: ergo, it's contamination. Elementary, my dear Watson. Or, as Hue et al put it:
"We provide several independent lines of evidence that XMRV detected by sensitive PCR methods in patient samples is the likely result of PCR contamination with mouse DNA.... We propose that XMRV might not be a genuine human pathogen."The initial Science paper by Mikovits and colleagues generated three published "Comments" in the journal, an unusually high number, which alone is enough to raise some red flags. The comments pointed out multiple methodological problems, including the possibility of contamination. In one of them, the authors (van der Meet et al) warned that
"Over the past few decades, we have witnessed a long series of papers claiming the discovery of the cause of CFS. None of these claims has been confirmed. Each time, this gives false hopes to large numbers of patients who seek a solution for their suffering. Shortcomings in the study by Lombardiet al. now raise concerns about the role of XMRV in the pathogenesis of CFS."After the 2009 Science paper, several other studies looked at patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and failed to find anyone with XMRV (for example, this study from the CDC last summer). This was strikingly different from Mikovits' report that 67% of patients had XMRV. The latest report, by explaining where the false positive results came from, should put the final nail in the coffin for the XMRV hypothesis.
In retrospect, Science shouldn't have published the flawed study, and you could argue that peer review failed. On the other hand, the final resolution illustrates the self-correcting mechanism of science at its best. All of this is very reminiscent of the scientific response to Andrew Wakefield's notorious 1998 study claiming that autism was associated with the MMR vaccine: multiple followup studies, most of them conducted far more carefully, failed to reproduce the results. But in that case, bad scientists (Wakefield) aided by gullible journalists and non-scientists (Jenny McCarthy, Jay Gordon) have kept the story alive, causing continuing damage to children in the form of preventable illnesses and even deaths. Even after the story last week in the journal BMJ that explained Wakefield's outright fraud, he continues to push his discredited notions. (I love the title of the BMJ's editorial: "Wakefield's article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent.")