Journal Retracts Paper Linking Mouse Virus to CFS

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The first scientific paper that reported a strong association between a mouse retrovirus called XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) has been formally retracted.

Science posted a statement early Thursday from editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts indicating that the journal had "lost confidence" in the first article to link XMRV to CFS, published in 2009 by Vincent Lombardi and other researchers at the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nev.

"We note that the majority of the authors have agreed in principle to retract the report but they have been unable to agree on the wording of their statement," Alberts wrote.

"It is Science's opinion that a retraction signed by all the authors is unlikely to be forthcoming. We are therefore editorially retracting the report. We regret the time and resources that the scientific community has devoted to unsuccessful attempts to replicate these results."

Alberts had been pressing the authors to retract the paper since May, when Science published an "expression of concern" about the 2009 paper's validity.

In justifying his decision to retract the paper now without the authors' full consent, Alberts cited the inability of other laboratories to reproduce the findings. In what was probably the fatal blow to the XMRV-CFS theory, tests on blinded clinical samples sent to nine research groups failed to consistently show the virus in patients' blood.

Those labs included those of Lombardi and Judy Mikovits at Whittemore Peterson and also that of Dr. Shyh-Ching Lo of the FDA, who had corroborated the findings in a separate study published in August 2010.

Other attempts to replicate the findings instead found evidence that reagents used in many labs were contaminated with XMRV. One group concluded that XMRV had originated in cell lines through a recombination event and had never circulated in the wild.

Alberts also cited "evidence of poor quality control in a number of specific experiments" in the 2009 paper, and the omission of important information from a key figure included with the article.

Mikovits and Whittemore Peterson's director, Annette Whittemore, have continued to argue that the XMRV theory of CFS is still viable.

However, the two have had a falling out, culminating in Mikovits's dismissal from the institute in late September and her subsequent arrest on charges that she arranged the theft of lab notebooks.

Commenting on the Science retraction, Annette Whittemore said in a statement that the institute remained committed to research on "myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME)," its preferred term for CFS.

"This is just one chapter in a very important process of scientific discovery to understand ME and similarly presenting illnesses. It is not the end of the story, rather it is the beginning of our renewed efforts," Whittemore said.

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