A bitter dispute between a prominent medical researcher and her former employer, related to the largely discredited theory that a mouse virus known as XMRV causes chronic fatigue syndrome, has turned even uglier with the scientist's arrest and brief jailing.
On Tuesday, Judy Mikovits, formerly the lead researcher at the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nev., turned herself in to sheriff's deputies in Reno on charges of stealing computer equipment and data belonging to the institute and possession of stolen property, the Associated Press reported.
She was quickly freed on her own recognizance, the report indicated. Her attorney told the AP that Mikovits maintains her innocence.
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Mikovits was the first and also nearly the last researcher to propose XMRV as a cause of chronic fatigue syndrome. She headed a group of researchers that, in 2009, published a paper in the journal Science that reported finding the obscure virus in most patients with the condition, but not in healthy controls.
Since then, however, most other researchers who attempted to replicate the findings were unable to do so. The emerging view was that the positive results stemmed from laboratory contamination, with one study suggesting that the virus had never circulated in the wild but had arisen in the laboratory through genetic recombination in cell lines.
Mikovits was fired by the institute in late September, a week after another paper -- which Mikovits helped to write -- that cast strong doubt on the XMRV theory of chronic fatigue appeared in Science. According to that paper, none of nine laboratories could reliably isolate the virus from patient samples, whereas several -- including Mikovits's -- found it in samples from healthy controls. That second study, unlike the first, used blinded samples.
The institute's director, Annette Whittemore, denied that Mikovits's dismissal was related to her research, instead accusing her of insubordination.
According to letters exchanged between Whittemore and Mikovits, shown to reporters from Science, the alleged insubordination stemmed from Mikovits's refusal to share a cell line with a former collaborator, Vincent Lombardi, PhD, the first author of the original 2009 paper that proposed the XMRV-chronic fatigue link.
Mikovits had told Lombardi, who ran a separate lab owned by the institute, that he shouldn't be pursuing the research related to the cell line, which she said was not related to the virus family that includes XMRV, according to the letters.
Whittemore told Science that she maintained her confidence in Lombardi, whereas Mikovits was "insubordinate and insolent." On Sept. 30, Mikovits was terminated and immediately locked out of her lab.
But an assistant, Max Pfost, was not. In court papers, the institute filed affidavits from Pfost saying that he went into Mikovits's former office at her direction and removed numerous notebooks, stashing them in his mother's garage before delivering them to Mikovits. Pfost said Mikovits had also kept a laptop she had used in the lab.
The institute filed suit in early November to seek return of the materials, obtaining a court order to that effect.
Whittemore Peterson's lawyers then persuaded authorities in California, where Mikovits had relocated, to arrest her, which they did on Nov. 18 on charges of being a fugitive from justice. She was released but ordered to attend an extradition hearing in December.
Instead, she returned this week to Reno and reported to the local sheriff's office where she was booked and released. Her next court appearance has not yet been scheduled.
Mikovits's husband told reporters that negotiations were underway with the institute to drop the civil litigation. But Annette Whittemore replied with a statement that she had no intention of withdrawing the suit.
"The damage to the Whittemore Peterson Institute is substantial and recent news coverage indicating that WPI may dismiss its civil case against Dr. Judy Mikovits is incorrect," the statement said.
Also still unresolved is the status of a $1.5 million grant to Whittemore Peterson from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, related to XMRV, which lists Mikovits as principal investigator.