‘Wall Street Journal’ health blogger on the ‘Science’ expression of concern, 31 May 2011

From the Wall Street Journal health blog, 31 May 2011 (story by Amy Docker Marcus)

The journal Science today published two papers it says “cast further doubt” on a study it published in 2009 linking chronic fatigue syndrome to the retrovirus XMRV.

As reported in today’s WSJ, the editors of the journal last week asked the authors of the 2009 study to voluntarily retract it. In a written response Friday reviewed by the WSJ, study co-author Judy Mikovits of the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease said “it is premature to retract our paper” given that studies into the question are still underway.

The 2009 paper found XMRV in a greater proportion of CFS patients than healthy controls. It raised patients’ hopes that treatments might be identified and sparked public health concerns over possible implications for the nation’s blood supply.

But today Science published an “editorial expression of concern” written by editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts saying that the two studies support the view that the association between XMRV and CFS seen in the earlier paper is the result of lab and lab-supply contamination. It noted that “at least 10 studies conducted by other investigators and published elsewhere have reported a failure to detect XMRV in independent populations of CFS patients.” The journal “eagerly awaits” the outcome of NIH research on a possible link and “will take appropriate action when their results are known,” the statement says.

The newly published studies and editorial expression of concern will make it very difficult for XMRV research in the area of CFS to move forward.

In one paper, 61 patients treated for chronic syndrome in the practice of Dan Peterson — a Whittemore Peterson Institute namesake — were tested for XMRV. Forty-three of them had previously tested positive for XMRV, the paper said. None tested positive in this study.

The second paper, by researchers at the NCI and Tufts University, has been presented at scientific meetings before, most recently at the NIH’s state of the knowledge meeting on CFS. In this paper, researchers argue that the origins of XMRV may be in the lab. Two mouse viruses may have combined to form XMRV during scientific research into prostate-cancer tumors.

As we’ve reported, virus-hunter Ian Lipkin is heading up the NIH’s efforts to see whether XMRV appears more frequently in CFS patients than in the general population. In her response to Science, Mikovits said her team was looking forward to participating in that research.