Best of 2011 // 97: Chronic Fatigue Mystery Deepens


In 2009, a controversial study published in the journal Science made a controversial claim: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, whose cause has long remained a mystery to doctors, could in fact be linked to a retrovirus first found in mice.

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According to RetroViral Immunologist Judy Mikovits from the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nevada, xenotropic murine leukaemia virus related virus – or XMVR for short(er) – was found in 68 out of 101 people with chronic fatigue syndrome, compared to only 8 out of 218 in a healthy test group.

Big scientific finds, such as this one, must be able to be replicated in another lab, however, and several studies conducted since were unable to corroborate the results.  Then, in September of 2011, Science published a a study by nine different labs, including Mikovits’ that all failed to confirm the presence of XMVR in patients with chronic fatigue.  Furthermore, researchers at the Wittemore Peterson Institute were unable to identify 4 out of 10 positive samples they themselves had supplied.  The Fatigue/XMVR theory came under even more scrutiny when one of the authors of the original article in Science, Robert Silverman, came forward to say that further research on his part clearly showed specimens from Chronic Fatigue syndrome had been contaminated by XMVR DNA.

All the authors of the original paper offered a partial retraction.

However, Mikovits was not done looking for a retor-viral cause for CFS.  In October, she presented her work at the International Association from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis in Ottawa, suggesting that a retrovirus related to XMRV was the cause behind Chronic Fatigue.  Other researchers had grown increasingly skeptical of her work, and that fall the Wittemore Peterson Institute announced it had terminated Mikovits.

The final word on the cause of Chronic Fatigue may have to wait until the completion of a larger study, being overseen by Ian Lipkin of Columbia University.

“Even if we cannot implicate gammaretroviruses like XMRV in chronic fatigue syndrome, their discovery must be credited with focusing new researchers and resources on this complex and crippling disorder” – Ian Lipkin

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