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A viral cause for chronic fatigue

October 16, 2011

Less likely by the day

In 2009 a paper in Science suggested that infection with a mouse leukaemia virus (XMRV) might be linked to chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).  The virus was found in 67% of sufferers but only 3.7% of controls.

It was a newsworthy claim.  A viral cause would open the way to antiviral treatment, and even if it didn’t, patients are desperate for a physical cause to be found – no-one likes being labelled as suffering from a psychosmatic illness.

But it didn’t sound likely.  CFS, which goes under a range of alternative names, myalgic encephalitis (ME), yuppie flu, and Royal Free Disease, does not behave like an infectious disease, and is not associated with any objective physical signs.  The only effective treatment is cognitive behaviour therapy.  Most experts believe that it is largely a psychological condition.  I certainly do.

Other scientists had doubts about the viral theory from the start.  Some were unable to replicate the findings, and others suggested that the CFS samples had been contaminated, accidentally, or deliberately with mouse DNA.

It turns out the doubters were right.  On 22 Sept Science published a careful study by nine different laboratories which failed to reliably find the virus in patients who had previously been reported as positive. In the same issue the editors partially retracted the original paper.

The latest news is an allegation here that it wasn’t just accidental contamination, but fraud.  The images in the original paper appear to be identical to images presented at a conference on CFS in Ottawa in September to prove something completely different.   The source, a cheeky graduate student’s blog, is well worth reading.

And the fraudster?

Judy Mikovits, the lead author of the 2009 paper is in the headlights.  She had worked at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Maryland from the 1980’s and was awarded her PhD in 1992.   Since then according to Google scholar she’s authored or co-authored about 30 papers, many highly cited and in high impact journals.  However she was rarely first or last author and in the five years after she left the NCI and moved to California in 2001, she published only five papers, all as a middle author, and all bar one referring to past work done at NCI.

It would not be a big stretch to wonder if her scientific career had peaked when in 2006 she was appointed research director of the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI), a private research foundation set up by the parents of a girl affected by CFS.

Her behaviour since 2009 certainly looks flaky.   She has claimed, without any evidence whatsoever, that XMRV might be implicated in Autism, Alzheimers disease and multiple sclerosis.  Long after her paper had been shown to be at best wrong she was travelling the country speaking at fringe CFS events supported by vitamin and nutritional supplement purveyors and touting her viral assay as a test.   Hardly the behaviour of a disinterested searcher after the truth.

Last week the WPI sacked her, albeit for some other misbehaviour, rather than for scientific fraud.

Jim Thornton

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 22, 2011 7:20 pm

    Blimey! She’s just been arrested in California. Accused of stealing lab books, and data from the Whittemore Peterson Institute. Details here.

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