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Researcher arrested over missing lab notebooks

news574-i1.0.jpgThe travails of Judy Mikovits and the Whittemores have all the makings of a soap opera serial. On Friday 18 November, Mikovits, a chronic fatigue syndrome researcher, was arrested and jailed by Ventura County police in relation to a lawsuit brought by her former employer, the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI) in Reno, Nevada claiming that she had absconded with lab notebooks and proprietary information. She is being held without bail and may face extradition to Nevada.

As lawyers and patient advocates line up to debate who is right and who is wrong in this bitter dispute, there is still the question of what will become of a US$1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) that is held by WPI with Mikovits as the principal investigator.

Mikovits had authored a controversial paper in Science in 2009 linking chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as myalgic encephalopathy) to a mysterious retrovirus called XMRV. The veracity of this link had been strongly questioned and all but dispelled early this fall when a working group that included Mikovits failed to replicate the findings and several authors on the original Science paper retracted their contributions, blaming contamination.

On 29 September Mikovits’ was fired from her post as research director at the WPI, a private non-profit research institute in Reno, Nevada set up by Annette Whittemore and her husband Harvey Whittemore a powerful attorney with ties to US Senator Harry Reid. The Whittemores’ daughter, Andrea, has CFS, and the institute was set up on the campus of the University of Nevada to study this disease and similar neuro-immune disorders. The reason given for Mikovits’ dismissal was that she had refused to share cell lines with a colleague, the Science paper’s first author, Vincent Lombardi, who is now the interim director of research.

Last week ScienceInsider reported that on 4 November, the WPI had filed a lawsuit against Mikovits demanding that she return several laboratory notebooks, a laptop computer and flash drives with propriety WPI information and all emails pertaining to work-related matters from her personal Gmail account. Through a lawyer, Mikovits has said that she does not have the notebooks and files in question and has not returned to the lab since her dismissal. WPI requested and was granted a temporary restraining order to prevent her from destroying the property.

ScienceInsider reported on the arrest on Saturday,* and it appears from the Ventura County Sherif’s office website that Mikovits is being held in for felony charges, as a fugitive from justice, without possibility of bail. She is set for a hearing tomorrow (22 November) the same day that an injunction trial will be held in Nevada on the civil suit. The complaint and request for a temporary restraining order made no mention of extradition and did not stipulate that Mikovits not leave the state. Annette Whittemore, the President of WPI issued a statement to ScienceInsider saying that they merely reported the theft to the authorities “These authorities are taking the actions that they deem necessary.”

Through a representative, Whittemore told Nature that the “notebooks hold many years of research data which has yet to be fully evaluated.” And that they are “used to support patent filing which may one day prove to be a valuable resource for patient diagnostics as well as financial support for further research.” As we reported in March the WPI owns a company that had been charging individuals with CFS about $549 for an XMRV test. But they had reportedly put testing on hold after the recent negative results. This testing business may figure into the “irreparable harm” claimed by the institute, although no mention in the complaint was made of the remainder of a five-year R01 research grant from NIAD, awarded in 2009 and worth about $300,000 per year.

Officials at NIAID would not comment on the status of the grant or whether missing notebooks could jeopardize a grant. They did however point to NIH policy which stipulates that grants generally remain in the possession of the institution and can be transferred to a new investigator as approved by the NIH. The grant doesn’t stay with the investigator, although in less drama-filled interactions grants are generally transferred to an investigator’s new institute. Whittemore said, “Fortunately, most of the data from the R01 is also on the WPI lab computer.”

Image: D. Calvert/AP/Nature

*Note: Retraction Watch actually carried the story of Mikovits’ arrest several hours earlier on Saturday.


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    Maxine said:

    End of para 2, should be “principal” investigator, not “principle”.

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