December 23, 2011 in Nation/World

Chronic fatigue paper retracted

Researchers believe that lab contamination skewed findings
Trine Tsouderos Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – A scientific paper embraced by many chronic fatigue syndrome patients as a ray of hope in the gloomy history of their illness has been retracted after a tumultuous year that included allegations of data manipulation and the arrest of the study’s lead researcher on a felony charge of possessing stolen property.

In the paper, published in 2009 by the journal Science, researchers reported they had found evidence of a retrovirus called XMRV in the blood of patients diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome much more frequently than in the blood of healthy peers. The paper immediately caused a stir and led scientists around the world to try to confirm the findings.

Patients rejoiced at the possibility of an explanation for their illness, which has long confounded researchers. Some patients even began taking antiretroviral drugs designed to treat a different retrovirus, HIV.

At the same time, the paper’s lead researcher, Judy Mikovits, then employed at the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease in Reno, Nev., began linking XMRV to other frustrating disorders, including autism and Gulf War Syndrome, without publishing data to support her statements.

Soon, independent teams of scientists began reporting they could not find evidence of the retrovirus in the blood of CFS patients or anyone else. Researchers hypothesized that lab contamination could have caused the original findings. Science staff attempted to get the papers’ authors – including Mikovits – to agree to a full retraction, but the group could not agree on the wording, Science executive editor Monica Bradford said in an interview.

“Science has lost confidence in the Report and the validity of its conclusions,” Science’s editor, Bruce Alberts wrote. “We regret the time and resources that the scientific community has devoted to unsuccessful attempts to replicate these results.”

Attempts to contact Mikovits were unsuccessful.

Shortly after the paper came out, she spoke at the Autism One conference in Chicago, joining a lineup of speakers that included disgraced autism researcher Andrew Wakefield, who had lost the right to practice medicine in Britain for professional misconduct. There she linked XMRV to autism, a baseless assertion that has since been picked up by some in the autism community.

In September, the WPI fired Mikovits and later filed a civil lawsuit alleging Mikovits possessed key lab notebooks and other property belonging to WPI.

Just before Thanksgiving, Mikovits was arrested in California and spent five days in jail. An arrest warrant issued by University of Nevada at Reno police listed two felony charges: possession of stolen property and unlawful taking of computer data, equipment, supplies or other computer-related property.

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