Why didn’t XMRV-chronic fatigue syndrome researcher Mikovits — now fired — share data with Science?
The saga of XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) continues, with the news that Judy Mikovits, a main proponent of the link between the virus and CFS, has been fired from her post at the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease (WPI) in Reno. From a blog post yesterday on X Rx:
Breaking news. The entire WPI research program has been closed by the institute’s CEO, and the facility is now locked down. It’s former principle investigator, Dr. Judy Mikovits, is in active discussions concerning institutions to which she may move to continue her grant-funded research.
We spoke to Mikovits last week, apparently within a day of her being fired, according to the sequence of events reported today on the Wall Street Journal Health Blog. We were interested in her reaction to a comment to Retraction Watch by Science executive editor Monica Bradford about why the 2009 study Mikovits had co-authored had been partially retracted — a rare move, as we noted:
While we were aware that other co-authors had tested samples and claimed to not find evidence of plasmid contamination, those co-authors were unwilling to provide their data for examination so we were unable to comment on the validity of the other experiments.
The contamination Bradford refers to had been reported to Science by two of the 2009 study’s co-authors, both of whom are at the Cleveland Clinic. According to the notice:
…two of the coauthors, Silverman and Das Gupta, analyzed DNA samples from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) patients and healthy controls. A reexamination by Silverman and Das Gupta of the samples they used shows that some of the CFS peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) DNA preparations are contaminated with XMRV plasmid DNA (2).
We spoke to Mikovits for a while, during which time she walked us through a presentation she gave on September 23 at a CFS meeting in Ottawa. Mikovits stressed that she believes a number of XMRV relatives are linked to CFS, and that the family needs a new name: HGRV, for human gammaretrovirus.
When we asked about the samples, Mikovits told us last week:
The reason why we didn’t give the actual data to Science and start a spitting match is that the point in science isn’t to place blame. The point is to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
But in getting to the bottom of what was going on, Mikovits became convinced that, in fact, one lab was to blame:
The only conclusion is that they were contaminated in the Cleveland Clinic.
Unfortunately, three of the six samples from the Cleveland Clinic were the ones used to derive the whole sequence of the virus. But, says Mikovits:
We decided not to throw them under the bus. We don’t believe it’s in the interests of science. People make mistakes. They worked very hard to sequence the virus, and now we have to do the next generation.
I told all the editors all this, and they agreed there was no reason to retract the whole paper.
By not providing the data, however, Mikovits has left everyone wondering about her samples. And what led to her firing seems to have been a similar situation. From the WSJ Health Blog report:
In a letter from Whittemore Peterson President Annette Whittemore to Mikovits, which was reviewed by Health Blog, Mikovits was terminated after refusing Whittemore’s direct request that cell lines be turned over to another scientist at the institute who wanted to do research on them.
In a letter of response, Mikovits said that the cells were for use in a specific NIH-funded project and that it would be inappropriate to use them for another purpose without her knowledge and consent.
We’ll of course keep an eye on this rapidly evolving situation.
Update, 7:30 p.m. Eastern: The Chicago Tribune’s Trine Tsouderos, who has been covering the XMRV-CFS story for years, just tweeted the following comment from Science, apparently in response to questions about a story she’s about to file:
“We are aware of allegations of mislabeled images in 1 of the figures in the 2009 Science paper + in meeting slides.”
Tsouderos’ story comes on the heels of a post by Abbie Smith alleging such image manipulation.
Update, 8 p.m. Eastern: Here’s Tsouderos’ story, with details and a response from WPI.
Update, 7 p.m. Eastern, 10/4/11: A story by Science‘s Jon Cohen with more on the images, and Mikovits’ firing.