Dr. Judy Mikovits published a paper back in 2009 in the journal Science showing that patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome had a significant incidence of infection with a murine (mouse) virus following testing. Later studies revealed however that there was a strong likelihood of accidental contamination of the tests in the laboratory and that there was no causal connection between the disease and infections.
CFS, Lyme Disease, and XMRV Claims
Dr Judy Mikovits, who held a $1million research grant for her work at the Whittemore Peterson Institute investigating causes of Neuro-Immune Disease, was fired in August this year from her post as Research Director. The institute, which is based in Reno, Nevada, at the university there, the filed a suit against her in September, alleging that she had removed notebooks and other proprietary information from the company without consent. Working alongside Vincent Lombardi, Mikovits created a furore over a possible viral cause of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and many others followed with theories of the role of xenotropic murine leukemia virus–related virus (XMRV) in chronic Lyme disease, and even conditions such as autism.
Research Contamination and Theft
Testing for XMRV was made available to the public by some companies, although others removed such tests from their product range immediately that the results were under dispute. The inability of other researchers to replicate Mikovits’ findings led to an almost unprecedented editorial comment in the journal that published the original paper and two of the paper’s authors asked for their names to be removed from the study. Mikovits was asked to retract the paper by the journal but declined to do so and has continued to protest that her results stand and that there is a connection between XMRV and CFS. The firing of the doctor was apparently not connected to the XMRV debacle but due instead to her refusal to turn over cell samples to her fellow researcher Vincent Lombardi, who is now acting as research director at WPI. After she left the institute it was discovered that several laboratory notebooks were missing, along with flash drives containing years of research data.
Mikovits as Fugitive
Mikovits was put under a temporary restraining order forbidding her to destroy, alter, or delete any of the information relating to her research at the WPI, but the researcher continued to deny the charges of theft. As she apparently left Nevada and crossed state lines she was held on a fugitive warrant in California relating to the civil lawsuit brought against her by WPI. It is thought that Mikovits enlisted the help of an intern at the institute to access the stored information and pass it to her without the need for her to break into the institute itself. Mikovits was arrested at home in California on the 18th of November before appearing in court following four days in jail without bail. In a case that became increasingly bizarre, a research assistant and intern both came forward claiming that Mikovits had asked them to help her remove data and even patient samples and cell lines from the laboratory, with one assistant carrying out such activities and the other declining the alleged request.
XMRV Research Notebooks Returned to WPI
Mikovits gave herself up to the University of Nevada Campus police on the 28th November, thus avoiding an extradition hearing to remove her from California to Nevada. The notebooks have been returned to the WPI and are currently being checked to ensure all data is accounted for. At first it appeared that the WPI would drop charges against Dr Mikovits should the material be returned but now the founder of the institution, Annete Whittemore has denied the possibility of such leniency.
XRMV presented a unique opportunity for researchers looking into the causes of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Mikovits’ findings sparked hopes of finding a treatable infection that could have a profound effect on the lives of millions of people around the world. Recent research in the UK suggests that as many as one in a hundred schoolchildren may be suffering from CFS/ME, and in Mikovits’ study the mouse retrovirus was present in 67% of blood samples of CFS patients. The WPI also studies fibromyalgia, chronic Lyme disease, and Gulf War illness, meaning that it is rarely short of controversy in the medical community.
How XMRV Triggers Lyme Disease
The retrovirus was first identified in patient samples by Robert H. Silverman, working at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute, and looking at cancer. Silverman noted that all those infected with XMRV had a specific immune system defect which adversely affected their ability to fight off viruses, and the speculation ensued that conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and Lyme disease were triggered in part by infection with this retrovirus. Mikovits, and other researchers made the claim that, despite Lyme disease’s bacterial nature, the retrovirus played a part in the condition’s development and even coined the term XAND (X-associated Neuro-Immune Disease) to replace CFS nomenclature.
What Now for Mikovits?
The CFS research enjoys considerable support in the patient community with some protesters attending her court dates to wave banners and shout demands for her to be released. The hope of these patients is that Mikovits’ research connecting CFS and XMRV was correct and that her continuation of such research, using the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant that is under dispute with WPI, would proffer a cure for their illness. The consensus amongst most medical doctors and researchers is however that the presence of the murine virus was simply an artefact of laboratory contamination and that there is no connection between XMRV, Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, or, most likely, any other illness or condition in humans. More recent research does suggest that an alternative tick-borne pathogen, a virus, may be the cause of symptoms similar to chronic Lyme disease, however.
Crawley, E.M., Emond, A.M., Sterne, J.A.C., Unidentified Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME) is a major cause of school absence: surveillance outcomes from school-based clinics. Paediatrics. BMJ Open 2011;1:e000252 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2011-000252.
Paprotka et al. Recombinant Origin of the Retrovirus XMRV. Online Science. May 31, 2011.
Knox et al. No Evidence of Murine-like Gammaretroviruses in CFS Patients Previously Identified as XMRV-infected. Online Science. May 31, 2011.
Hué S, Gray ER, Gall A et al., Disease-associated XMRV sequences are consistent with laboratory contamination, Retrovirology. 2010, 7:111doi:10.1186/1742-4690-7-111
Marcus, Amy Dockser, Chronic-Fatigue Paper Called into Question, Online Wall Street Journal. May 31, 2011, WSJ.com http://on.wsj.com/kDzay7
Lombardi, et al: Detection of an infectious retrovirus, xmrv, in blood cells of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. Science 2009, 326:585-589
Satterfield, et al: Serologic and pcr testing of persons with chronic fatigue syndrome in the United States shows no association with xenotropic or polytropic murine leukemia virus-related viruses. Retrovirology 8:12