Field of Science

Chronic fatigue syndrome researcher arrested

A brief update today: I've written twice before about the mistaken hypothesis that chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is caused by a virus known as XMRV. After many followup studies failed to replicate the original findings, other scientists finally determined conclusively that XMRV was a contaminant in the original cells used in the experiments. Lead researcher Judy Mikovits continued to claim she was right and that everyone else was wrong, despite the evidence, but in a surprising move less than two months ago, all the authors (including Mikovits) retracted the paper. (Actually it was a "partial retraction", but they did admit that XMRV was a contaminant which pretty much blows up the whole claim.) Science is now investigating whether some of the data in the paper was falsified, as Trine Tsouderos reported in the Chicago Tribune last month.

In a bizarre twist in this saga, Mikovitz was arrested and thrown in jail on Friday in California. Science magazine's Jon Cohen reported that her former employers, the Whittemore-Peterson Institute, which fired Mikovitz on September 29, filed felony charges against her in Nevada for stealing their laboratory data. It appears that WPI claims Mikovitz kept data about her experiments on her personal computer and has refused to give it back to WPI. Mikovitz' lawyer denied the charges.

I suspect this isn't the last we'll hear of this story. But the science is done: XMRV isn't the cause of CFS, and the search for a cause continues.

6 comments:

  1. The key question is what JM's allegedly stolen data actually is and what it tells us about the paper. It would be very unfortunate if the legal case against JM meant that this data wasn't made available to scientists until the case is concluded.

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  2. I suspect Ian Lipkin will make substantial inroads into a search for the cause of ME/CFS, at least in subgroups, with his large, cutting edge metagenomics project that is underway.

    The one thing this project funded by the Hutchins Family Foundation through the Chronic Fatigue Initiative has in common with Lombardi et al is that patient selection will be narrowly defined using both a research definition and a clinical definition.

    Contamination isn't the only variable worth noting. Mixing in people without a disease into a study of patients who do have a disease is also a recipe for disaster. And practically speaking, conclusions based on tiny cohorts are difficult to extrapolate - particularly if multiple pathogens are involved for example. The scientific literature on CFS is littered with such examples.

    As for Lipkin's other study on XMRV, we can pretty much guess what the answer will be.

    P.S.

    Technically only the NCI lab under Robert Silverman stated that they had introduced contamination into the process through their cell line.

    As for falsification of data, post doc Abbie Smith aka ERV had a reader point out that the same slides had been relabeled to make very different points. Trine reported this.

    Dr. Frank Ruscetti has stated that the presentation where the altered captions were shown was rushed and a simple error was made. No idea if that is the truth or not - it's not improbable and since none of us were there nor have ESP it's hard for us to do more than speculate.

    Was it falsification of data in the actual paper? There is no such indication at this time.

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  3. "Mistaken Hypothesis" ? You go too far.
    All efforts to reproduce the original findings have been thwarted by the fact that the presumed template sequence (VP62) was in fact a contaminant.
    That doesn't make it a mistaken hypothesis.
    Error strewn reports such as this, unfortunately push open-minded opinion in the wrong direction and are not supported by the facts or evidence.

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  4. I follow Trine Tsouderos work and have heard her speak. She is absolutely the very best science writer/reporter working for a newspaper that I have come across and she completely outshines the hacks at the NYT. Thanks for the link as I don't take the paper or live in Chicago. I usually see her work through other skeptic writers.

    One of my woo-inclined friends is bound to bring this topic up, so thanks for giving me some good debunking material.

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  5. Lipkin cannot now be consudered a neutral as he is investigating CFS separately and the reasons for the multi lab study have been answered. The negative papers have been looking for the wrong viruses using clinically unvalidated assays. What we have is gag sequences that are polytropic, the same finding Lo et al made. Only when the isolates from Lombardi et al are fully sequenced will we know what host range those viruses are, but some will likely be another type of xenotropic, which is the largest host range for MLVs.

    There is no issue with Frank Ruscettis western blots as Science and Coffin the reviewer saw all the original data in 2009 and they asked for the label change.

    As for missing materials, it is only alleged that they are stolen and Mikovits could not have had the opportunity to take them. Moreover people who are hostile toward Mikovits/Ruscetti's discovery have been posting what is said to be the original raw gel from the Lombardi data since the 4th October.

    Trine as a food writer is best left to the chefs.

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  6. @Salzberg, did you know the retraction of Silvermans data proves the other studies have optimised to the wrong viruses? The viruses in people with ME are HGRVs not VP62/XMRV or the prostate cancer xenotropic MRVs.

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