Chronic Fatigue Study That Sparked Ban May Have Been Flawed

A 2009 study on chronic fatigue syndrome that led to a ban on blood donations from sufferers of the disease may have been spoiled by laboratory mistakes, according to the science magazine that published the research.

While the study linked the syndrome to the mouse virus XMRV, at least 10 trials since then haven’t been able to duplicate the results, the journal Science said in an editorial published today. New research also indicates the blood samples used in 2009 likely were contaminated with the virus in the lab, Science said.

The study’s validity “is now seriously in question,” Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, said in the editorial.

Science requested a voluntary retraction from the 2009 study’s authors, said spokeswoman Natasha Pinol in a telephone interview. Judy Mikovits, one of the study’s authors, contacted the journal on May 30 to inform them she disagreed with the editorial expression of concern, Pinol said.

“We feel this is an extremely premature action which is not in the best interest of the scientific community or human health,” Mikovits said in a letter to Science published on the website of the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease. “We respectfully request that you allow the scientific process to run its course unhindered by bias.”

A phone call to Mikovits’s office at the Whittemore Institute in Reno, Nevada, wasn’t returned. The trial was led by Vincent Lombardi of the institute and Francis Ruscetti, a National Cancer Institute scientist in Frederick, Maryland.

Extremely Disappointed

“We are extremely disappointed that the editor of Science has published an ‘editorial expression of concern,’” said Annette Whittemore, president of the Whittemore Institute, in an e-mail. “The authors of the Lombardi study believe that it is premature to conclude that the negative studies are accurate or change the conclusions of the original studies and we fully agree.”

The study led the American Red Cross, the largest U.S. supplier of blood products, to announce in December 2010 that it would no longer allow donors with chronic fatigue syndrome. The U.S. National Institutes of Health is sponsoring studies to determine if a link between XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome can be confirmed.

Clinical Trial

The study of 150 patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and another 150 healthy volunteers should be complete by early 2012, said Ian Lipkin, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University in New York, who is leading the effort. Until the research is complete, it’s too soon to know whether there is a link between a virus and chronic fatigue, he said.

“Calls to retract the paper at this point are premature,” said Lipkin, director of Columbia’s Center for Infection and Immunity, in a telephone interview. “We need to let this study take its course, look at the data in a coherent fashion and figure out what it tells us.” While interesting, “the publications don’t dissuade us from continuing our work.”

More than 1 million people in the U.S. have chronic fatigue syndrome, more than those with multiple sclerosis, lupus, or lung cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The condition, which saps people of energy for months or years, has no proven cause and mostly affects women ages 30 to 50, according to the National Institutes of Health. Women are four times more likely than men to develop the disease.

Original Conclusion

The study, published in October 2009, found XMRV in the blood of two-thirds of tissue samples taken from people with the condition and 3.7 percent of a group of healthy individuals.

Scientists led by Jay Levy, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a study today that the link was probably because chemicals and cell lines used in the lab where it was detected were contaminated with XMRV.

Levy’s group examined 61 patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, 43 of whom had been previously reported as infected with XMRV. Using a similar procedure to the original paper, the scientists tested the blood. They didn’t find any evidence of XMRV or any other mouse-related virus.

In addition, the Levy study demonstrated that human serum quickly kills the virus, making an infection unlikely.

‘Totally Surprised’

“When that paper came out I was totally surprised and suspicious,” Levy said today in a telephone interview. “Who knew there would be pressure on the government to do these expensive studies? I’ve never been around anything quite so dramatic and misleading and misunderstood for so long. There are financial ramifications, and medical and health ramifications.”

The Whittemore researchers didn’t claim the virus caused chronic fatigue syndrome. People with the condition may be more vulnerable to the virus or it may be a so-called passenger virus, one that shows up in diseased tissue without being a cause of the illness, the researchers said.

A second paper also published today by Science showed that XMRV was created by recombining two mouse leukemia viruses while scientists passed a human prostate tumor to mice. The cell line derived from that graft is the best explanation for the detection of XMRV in human samples.

“Taken together, these results close the door on XMRV as a cause of human disease,” John Coffin, a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston and a co-author of the paper, said in a statement.

To contact the reporters on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in New York at elopatto@bloomberg.net; Michelle Fay Cortez in Minneapolis at mcortez@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.