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XMRV researcher sued, jailed

Posted Nov 21 2011 2:13pm

XMRV ( Xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus ) has been proposed as being somehow linked to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and autism. The link was made largely by a group led by Judy Mikovits of the Whittemore Peterson Institute .

The study went from publication in the highly prestigious journal Science in 2009, to multiple studies which couldn’t replicate those findings, to a nine-center study which tested the original samples and showed the results were “spurious”.

The lead researcher, Judy Mikovits was fired from the WPI. In the latest chapter in the story, Ms. Mikovits has been sued ( Lawsuit Filed Against Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Researcher by Former Employer ) and now jailed (C ontroversial CFS Researcher Arrested and Jailed ). In a statement from WPI quoted by ScienceInsider:

“The Whittemore Peterson Institute was required to report the theft of its laboratory materials to law enforcement authorities. These authorities are taking the actions that they deem necessary.”

I’m having a tough time figuring out exactly why Ms. Mikovits was arrested and jailed in this. ERV (who has covered the XMRV/CFS story as thoroughly as anyone, and much more thoroughly than me) discusses this as well in today’s article ( XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome: I fought the lawl and the lawl won ).

For those wishing a bit of history:

From a science perspective, the XMRV/CFS link quickly unraveled as multiple groups failed to replicate the results. In July Science published an Editorial Expression of Concern , including the statement:

Since then, at least 10 studies conducted by other investigators and published elsewhere have reported a failure to detect XMRV in independent populations of CFS patients. In this issue, we are publishing two Reports that strongly support the growing view that the association between XMRV and CFS described by Lombardi et al. likely reflects contamination of laboratories and research reagents with the virus.

In September, Science published two articles and a partial retraction on XMRV research. In False Positive , they reported that:

An October 2009 paper in Science found XMRV in the blood of two-thirds of the CFS patients examined, but more than a dozen labs have failed to replicate it to date. Millions of dollars have gone into clarifying the question, which has had far-reaching consequences for people with CFS and, if the virus lurked in the blood supply, the public at large. A nine-lab study published online this week by Science found that none of the labs could reproducibly detect XMRV or relatives of the virus in blood samples distributed under a blinded code

“False Positive” was a “news focus” article (i.e. not a research result) commenting on the research article, Failure to Confirm XMRV/MLVs in the Blood of Patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Multi-Laboratory Study .

The online supplemental material for the partial retraction finishes with: “We conclude the results in Figures 1 and S2 and Table S1 of Lombardi et al.(1) were spurious due to contamination with XMRV plasmid DNA.”

Simply put: Researchers from nine groups looked hard at the original samples for the paper linking XMRV with chronic fatigue syndrome. They found the results in the original paper were “spurious”, false positives, due to contamination. This led to the original paper being partially retracted.

To paraphrase one of the researchers involved with the nine-center check on the XMRV/CFS link: all three legs have been kicked out from under the stool supporting the idea that XMRV is linked to CFS.

And, now, the latest turn:

Last week ScienceInsider had an article, Lawsuit Filed Against Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Researcher by Former Employer

A little more than 1 month after firing Mikovits, the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease (WPI) on 4 November filed suit against its former research director. According to WPI, after Mikovits was terminated on 29 September, she wrongfully removed laboratory notebooks and kept other proprietary information on her laptop and in flash drives and in a personal e-mail account. WPI, a nonprofit organization that’s based on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno, also won a temporary restraining order that forbids Mikovits from “destroying, deleting, or altering” any of the related files or data.

Mikovits attorney, Lois Hart, said her client cannot speak to the media about the case, but she strongly denies any wrongdoing. In an e-mail to ScienceInsider, Hart stressed that “Dr. Mikovits’ integrity goes to the bone.”

and, this weekend’s report that the police had arrested Judy Mikovits ( Controversial CFS Researcher Arrested and Jailed )

Let’s recall, the idea that XMRV is related to autism had even less support than the XMRV/CFS link. The “link” is by anecdotal report. This was first broadly promoted as far as I can tell by David Kirby (). Since that time, no paper has come forth from the WPI group. Instead, two papers showing no link have: Lack of infection with XMRV or other MLV-related viruses in blood, post-mortem brains and paternal gametes of autistic individuals and PCR and serology find no association between xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV) and autism . These are the only two papers I find with a search of pubmed with the search terms XMRV, autism .

I’d like to predict that the CFS community will have a segment who will continue to believe in the XMRV/CFS link and will be showing support for Ms. Mikovits, but that is already true. Comments from ScienceInsider already include:

Dr Mikovits and the WPI have done so much good work on ME/CFS in just 2 years.

I hope there work continues.

and

I have donated to the Mikovits Legal Defense Fund and suggest others who want to see the truth do so as well

I could also “predict” that instead of moving on from this theory, it will just morph into a new version (think “MMR causes autism” morphing into “mercury causes autism” which have both morphed into “vaccines in general cause autism). From ScienceInsider (emphasis added):

Less than a day after a new study dealt what many consider a lethal blow to the controversial theory that a newly detected virus, XMRV, is linked to chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), proponents and skeptics of the theory squared off in a meeting. Judy Mikovits, the main champion of the idea that XMRV and its relatives play a role in CFS, didn’t make the case for XMRV, but instead, she offered new evidence that people with CFS had a virus “highly related” to XMRV. Her opponent, heavyweight retrovirologist John Coffin, stated that all three legs of the stool the hypothesis rested on had been kicked out from under it. Mikovits’s presentation underwhelmed several of the scientists attending.

One wonders if the drama of the lawsuit and arrest will only add to the support she is getting. If the CFS community has a parallel convention to AutismOne, one suspects that Ms. Mikovits will be given standing ovations and a “Gallileo Courage in Service to the Community” award. Given the purported autism/XMRV link, I wouldn’t put it past AutismOne to invite her.

People often decry the “conservative” nature of medicine. Here is a great example why. Some people put a lot of home into the XMRV story, both for CFS and autism. Some people will never let that hope go.

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