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Chronic fatigue syndrome scientist finds a temporary home

Judy Mikovits is taking her work on the road. The embattled chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) researcher will conduct her arm of a study sponsored by the US National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) on the condition’s link to certain retroviruses at another US government laboratory, the scientist overseeing the study told Nature today.

W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection & Immunity at Columbia University in New York, says that Mikovits will team up with her former mentor Frank Ruscetti at his laboratory at the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Frederick, Maryland. They are one of three groups testing dozens of blinded blood samples from CFS patients and healthy controls for XMRV and related retroviruses.

Mikovits had been slated to perform the study while at the Whittemore-Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disorders (WPI) in Reno, Nevada. But she was fired from her job in September for not sharing a cell line with another scientist there. She was arrested in California last month and charged in Nevada with possessing stolen lab notebooks and other materials that belonged to the WPI. She also faces a civil suit in connection to the materials, some of which have since been returned to the WPI (read ‘Embattled scientist in theft probe’ for more details).

Mikovits and Ruscetti collaborated on a 2009 Science paper that suggested that CFS patients were far more likely to be infected with XMRV than healthy people.

After numerous labs failed to find the virus, the NIAID tapped Lipkin last year to lead a multi-centre study examining the link. The ‘Lipkin study’ involves Mikovits and Ruscetti, researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the US Food and Drug Administration who identified sequences of viruses related to XMRV in CFS patients, and a team at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that has been unable to find any trace of XMRV (for a run-down of the entire episode see our story ‘Fighting for a cause‘).

“[The WPI is] no longer involved because the whole point was to have Mikovits try to reproduce her work, and having someone else at the institute do so wouldn’t address the questions,” Lipkin says. “It’s critical that she do the work. She doesn’t have a lab at present, so it’s going to be done at NCI.”

Lipkin had initially hoped to have the study done by the end of this year, but he now says that only about half of the samples are ready to send to researchers. He plans to meet with Ruscetti and Mikovits tomorrow to hear their plans for conducting the study. “We’re going to get through this as rapidly as we can, but make certain what we present to people is going to be complete,” Lipkin says.

Lipkin says that he is convinced by work from John Coffin’s team at the NCI, showing that XMRV emerged in the 1990s as a lab contaminant and is unlikely to underlie CFS (see Science raises questions about XMRV). But he says those findings do not rule out the possibility that CFS patients are infected with related retroviruses that, for some reason, only Mikovits has been able to detect.

Lipkin came to Mikovits’s defence in her latest troubles. He says that she should be entitled to keep a copy of her laboratory records and lamented her arrest. “It’s very, very ugly and the sooner we put all this behind us the better off we’re all going to be,” he says.

Neither Mikovits nor Ruscetti could be reached for comment, but we will update this post if they get back to us.

Hat tip to CFS: A novel blog, which reported today that Mikovits and Ruscetti were looking for a site to conduct their portion of the Lipkin study.

Image: David Calvert/AP


  1. Report this comment

    Justin Reilly said:

    Ms. Callaway,

    Thank you for updating us on Mikovits’ and Ruscetti’s important research. One point: you said that Mikovits was, for some reason, the only one able to detect these HGRVs (other than XMRV proper). Lo and Alter and NIH and FDA in their study and also presumably Ruscetti at NCI in the Lombardi et al. study detected HGRVs other than XMRV.

    Paul Cheney, MD, PhD, on his blog, seems to be saying that a few other groups have been detecting them with Next Generation Sequencing which is superior to PCR (although he calls them XMRV).

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