It’s been a hectic couple of weeks for Judy Mikovits. First, her controversial research on the viral cause of chronic fatigue syndrome was condemned by the journal that published it. Then, her alternative hypothesis — that a new gammaretrovirus closely related to the originally proposed culprit, xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV), is responsible for chronic fatigue — was received with misgivings by the scientific community at a major international conference. Add to the mix allegations of fabricated results and a blow-out with her boss, and Mikovits ended up being fired from her job at the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI) for Neuro-Immune Disease in Reno, Nevada.
The research that spawned the drama was originally published in Science in October 2009, and purported to show a link between the infectious retrovirus XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome in two-thirds of CFS patients examined. The study, conducted by Mikovits and her collaborators, was the first sign of an infectious cause for the disease. However, follow-up studies since 2009 showed that other labs could not reproduce these results and scientists began to suspect that Mikovits’ original patient samples had been contaminated.
On 22 September, a large study published by Science showed that, of nine national laboratories, none could find XMRV in their patients’ blood — including Mikovits’ own lab. Notably, Science issued a partial retraction of the original 2009 paper on the same day, stating that one of Mikovits’ collaborators had found XMRV contamination in the patient blood samples. The saga was documented in a long feature by Science, ending with Mikovits pledging to continue studying the CFS and its viral links.
The next day, Mikovits presented the results of the latest study negating her research at a CFS conference in Ottawa, Canada, where she shared the podium with retrovirologist John Coffin of Tufts University in Boston, an opponent of her hypotheses. As a Science news article reported, Mikovits did not make a case for XMRV, admitting she may have been wrong about it. Instead, she proposed that CFS patients were infected with an XMRV-like virus from the gammaretrovirus family. Few at the meeting swallowed this alternative theory. As Swedish retrovirologist Jonas Blomberg told Science: “It’s like the argument follows the availability of the data.”
Another controversy that came out of the Ottawa meeting was more serious: the Chicago Tribune reported that Mikovits used a figure from her original paper in her Powerpoint presentation — except it carried different labels and established proof of a different concept. The discrepancy was spotted by a graduate student from Oklahoma, who blogged about it on Friday. To assess if there had been figure manipulation, Science’s editors told the Tribune that they were investigating the allegations.
The biggest consequence of this particular controversy, according to the Tribune, seems to have been Mikovits’ termination from her position as Director of Research at WPI. However, the Wall Street Journal’s Health Blog throws in another confounding factor into the events of last week — a falling out between Mikovits and WPI President Annette Whittemore. The WSJ reported that Mikovits refused a direct request from Whittemore to turn over her patient samples to another scientist, leading to her termination from employment.
The situation is currently at a stalemate, with the grant funding, provided by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) hanging in the balance. The NIH has yet to decide whether Mikovits can take the money with her, or whether the WPI will continue to participate in the study, cutting Mikovits out of the story for good.
Something tells me we haven’t reached the end of this chronic saga.
Image: David Calvert/AP/Nature