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Scientist who linked chronic fatigue syndrome to XMRV is sacked

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d6541 (Published 11 October 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6541
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

Judy Mikovits, who led the research linking chronic fatigue syndrome to a mouse retrovirus called xenotropic murine leukaemia virus related virus (XMRV), has been sacked from her job, and Science, the journal that published the paper, is investigating allegations of image manipulation.

Dr Mikovits’s dismissal as research director at the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nevada, came on 29 September, the day before the allegations were made on a graduate student’s blog.

A BMJ email to her received no reply. But, according to the ScienceInsider blog and the Wall Street Journal’s health blog, the authors of which say they saw letters that had passed between Dr Mikovits and institute’s president, Annette Whittemore, the sacking was not related to the 2009 paper. She was dismissed for failing to pass on a cell line, unrelated to the gammaretroviruses in the study, to her fellow institute researcher Vincent Lombardi, the lead author of the 2009 paper.

The paper, “Detection of an infectious retrovirus, XMRV, in blood cells of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome” (Science 2009;326:585), brought new hope for patients with the syndrome because it seemed to point to a possible physical cause for the debilitating condition. Led by Dr Mikovits and Dr Lombardi, the study claimed to show that the virus was present in 67% of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome but in only 3.7% of healthy controls.

However, attempts to reproduce the results at other laboratories failed, and a BMJ study last year suggested that the samples were contaminated with mouse DNA (BMJ 2010;341:c1018, doi:10.1136/bmj.c1018).

On 22 September the authors of the Science paper retracted part of the paper after two of them learnt that samples were contaminated in their laboratory (BMJ 2011;343:d6097, doi:10.1136/bmj.d6097). The same day, Science published a nine laboratory study, including Mikovits’s laboratory, which failed to reliably find XMRV in blinded samples from patients who had previously tested positive (doi:10.1126/science.1213841).

Now Science is investigating the images published with the paper after a graduate student from the University of Oklahoma, Abbie Smith, in her “ERV” (endogenous retrovirus) blog, compared one of them with a slide shown by Dr Mikovits during a presentation at an international conference on chronic fatigue syndrome in Ottawa last month. They appear to be the same image but carry different labels and were said to illustrate two different things in the paper and at the conference.

Bloggers allege a range of concerns about the slides, but in interviews with Science and with Nature Dr Mikovits denies deliberate manipulation.

Science said in a statement: “As is our policy in cases of alleged figure manipulation, we will follow up with the research authors as soon as our own review of the allegation is complete.”

Mrs Whittemore said, “The Whittemore Peterson Institute has recently been made aware of these allegations about Dr Mikovits’s presentation. It is our understanding that some patient ID numbers may have been changed to a new set of coded numbers during the research to protect their privacy before publication. We will work with Science in hopes of addressing their concerns and to gain a full understanding of the cause of any potential discrepancies.”

The retrovirologist Jonathan Stoye of the UK Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research, told the BMJ, “To my mind, there is no evidence linking retroviruses and CFS [chronic fatigue syndrome]—or prostate cancer, for that matter.” He added that he suspected that studies showing a link between XMRV and prostate cancer would need to be re-evaluated.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6541