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.

She continued:

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.

10 thoughts on “Why didn’t XMRV-chronic fatigue syndrome researcher Mikovits — now fired — share data with Science?”

  1. Science is talking about the allegations against ERVs unnamed designer of the non blurry gels. As they would not have been in possession of the originals.

    1. Science is talking about the allegations against ERVs unnamed designer of the non blurry gels. As they would not have been in possession of the originals.

      I’ve seen some talk of this when I followed links to a couple CFI blogs and forums. It seems the allegations are the work of a nut (at least everyone (one person?) who is repeating them sure acts like a nut). First of all, it doesn’t matter because the images are clearly of the same gel in Lombardi et al and in the Ottawa slides. Where they came from is a distraction from the main point. Second of all, I don’t see the extra detail they keep talking about. Perhaps they are confused because the PDF that you can get behind the paywall has higher resolution figures than the reprint that’s been circulating on the CFI forums. It also seems that, from the Tribune article, there is a non-jpeg copy of the Ottawa slideshow, presumably with higher resolution images (and original gel labels preserved?) circulating via email amongst some scientists.

  2. I’d be really interested to know how many biochemistry/molecular medicine articles have been retracted due to dodgy Southern or Western blots. They seem to be incredibly easy to fake. Import into Photoshop, whack the contrast of one line to the maximum, reduce the contrast of another line… Even better, take a genuine set of bands and simply change the labelling on the top!

    It’s making me worry about the integrity of the tool, which is a problem since virtually every medicinal chemistry paper I’ve read uses one or more Western blots to “prove” the efficacy of a potential drug in vivo.

  3. Trends in Microbiology just published an interesting paper by a group at Imperial College London which addresses some of the scientific issues with the association between CFS and XMRV. I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in this controversy.


    Sorry if the link doesn’t work, the reference is… Trends in Microbiology
    Volume 19, Issue 11, November 2011, Pages 525-529.

    1. As a person with CFS/ME I can’t afford to pay 40 bucks to read an article, but, if what the outline indicates i.e. no gammaretrovirus is involved in CFS, then why are CFS patients responding to antiretroviral drugs?

      1. I’m sorry but I’m not familiar with the papers which show that CFS patients respond to antiretroviral drugs can you provide references? This is not my field of expertise so I’m not fluent in the literature.

      2. If a person with CFS (not necessarily you but other person) cannot afford the $40 dollars and thus cannot read the whole paper, then that person should likewise refrain from making ridiculous accusations. Adobe acrobat has a fancy function called “zoom in”. The images were the same and people that don’t know what they’re talking about shouldn’t comment or make up things like Science going after ERV’s gel image source (ironically the source is the Science paper). However, I’d also be interested in which paper you are referring to. If you provide a reference I’m sure any number of people would be interested. I’d also hope that you aren’t putting stock in anecdotes. Those are a dangerous thing.

  4. “The only conclusion is that they were contaminated in the Cleveland Clinic. We decided not to throw them under the bus.”

    Funny that, because my impression is that Dr. Mikovits *is* throwing them under the bus with the accusation that it was the Cleveland Clinic that was contaminated. The statement should read “We decided to throw them under the bus when it suited us.”

    And I wonder how the Cleveland Clinic managed to contaminate the samples in the WPI lab:

    1. And BTW, the point seems to have been lost here: Robert Silverman reported to have found XMRV VP62 *plasmid*, CMV promoter and all.

      As he writes:

      “It appears likely, therefore, that these XMRV sequences originated not from the patients but rather from the XMRV VP62 plasmid.”

      All the XMRV contamination that happened in other labs (or in cell lines for that matter) can be traced back to mice and were accidental. Either reagents or lab equipment was contaminated with trace amounts of MLV-like viruses, or cell lines were contaminated by MLVs by passage through mouse tissue. XMRV VP62 plasmid on the other hand is an artificial entity created for lab work and XMRV research. This makes an *accidental* contamination highly unlikely and it looks more like it was *put* there.

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