Science Retracts Original Report Linking CFS to XMRV

Journal Highlights, Media Coverage, Research News | 22. Dec, 2011 by | 8 Comments

By K. Kimberly McCleary, President & CEO

ScienceIn its Dec. 23, 2011 issue, Science issued a full retraction of the 2009 paper by Lombardi et al. that first linked CFS to XMRV.

“Science is fully retracting the report “detection of an infectious retrovirus, XMRV, in blood cells of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome.” Multiple laboratories, including those of the original authors, have failed to reliably detect xenotropic murine leukemia virus–related virus (XMRV) or other murine leukemia virus (MLV )–related viruses in chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) patients. In addition, there is evidence of poor quality control in a number of specific experiments in the Report. Figure 1, table S1, and fig. S2 have been retracted by the authors. In response to concerns expressed about Fig. 2C, the authors acknowledged to Science that they omitted important information from the legend of this figure panel. Specifically, they failed to indicate that the CFS patient–derived peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) shown in Fig. 2C had been treated with azacytidine as well as phytohemagglutinin and interleukin-2. This was in contrast to the CFS samples shown in Figs. 2A and 2B, which had not been treated with azacytidine.

“Given all of these issues, Science has lost confidence in the Report and the validity of its conclusions. 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. 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.

Bruce Alberts, Editor-in-Chief, Science

News of the retraction was issued in a press release distributed by Science this morning. Within hours, dozens of news agencies reported on the rare editorial retraction. Some of the key players in the 20+ studies conducted over the past two years provided reaction. Portions of the Solve ME/CFS Initiative’s statement, the full text of which appears below, were quoted by The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, HealthDay and other outlets:

“The original publication of Lombardi, et al raised hopes and expectations for an expedited route to better diagnostics, treatment and validation for the millions whose lives have been devastated by CFS. Over the past two years, those hopes have been tempered by the lack of supporting evidence for a claimed association between CFS and XMRV/MLVs. Now, with Science’s retraction of the original report, at least 20 studies that have not been able to repeat the results and dissolution of the three-institution collaborative that produced the initial finding, the emphasis should shift to other solid leads for improved patient care. The heightened visibility that has resulted from this high-profile research has drawn new scientific and media interest to this serious, complex condition. The Solve ME/CFS Initiative will translate the momentum it has generated to expand research aimed at early detection, objective diagnosis and effective treatment.”


Dr. Ian Lipkin

From statements given to the press, the multi-lab study being funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and coordinated by Dr. Ian Lipkin at Columbia University will continue as planned. It will involve two authors of the retracted study — Francis Ruscetti (National Cancer Institute) and Judy Mikovits — and investigators at the Food and Drug Administration (Shyh Ching Lo) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Bill Switzer). Dr. Lipkin is quoted by David Tuller in the New York Times: “‘In my view, the investigation should be allowed to proceed while we sort out what’s real and not real,’ said Dr. Lipkin. Those with the illness, he added, are ‘a group of people who have had their hopes dashed more than once, and they deserve a full hearing of the data.’” According to statements given to Brian Vastag at The Washington Post and other reporters, Alberts disagrees. “He said Thursday there was no reason to continue the NIH-funded study. ‘I think this whole thing has been a tragedy for science,’ he said. ‘The scientific community has put so much time and effort into this.’” UPDATE: Dr. Lipkin posted a message to clarify the nature and scope of the study on Dec. 28, 2011. Link:

The lead author of the study, Judy Mikovits, is currently not employed full-time by any institution following her well-publicized dismissal from the Whittemore Peterson Institute in September for insubordination. Legal and ethical disputes, including civil and criminal charges, have emerged since then. Trine Tsouderos’ article in The Chicago Tribune outlines the timeline from publication to retraction. In Tuller’s report, Dr. Mikovits remains confident of her original finding and is one of the authors who would not sign off on the retraction. “Dr. Mikovits said in a telephone interview that she remained confident of retroviral involvement in chronic fatigue syndrome and believed that any retraction should have waited until the NIH study was completed. ‘That will be the definitive answer,’ she said. ‘If we’re wrong and we can’t reproduce it, then we’ll be wrong, and that’s how science works.’”


Dr. Judy Mikovits

Mikovits’ former employer, the Whittemore Peterson Institute, initiated the XMRV-CFS research and licensed XMRV tests to clinical laboratories with which it has ownership interests. Founder Annette Whittemore told Tuller, “Thursday’s retraction ‘is just one chapter in a very important process of scientific discovery. We remain focused on the patients who have been underserved and look forward to the rigorous review of our scientific research,’ she said.”

Robert Silverman of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the other authors of the retracted study, initiated a retraction of his data earlier this year, resulting in a partial retraction in September. On Dec. 22, he issued this statement to Jon Cohen at Science Insider and other news outlets:

“I requested a full retraction of our findings this summer after discovering that the blood samples were contaminated. I was in favor of a retraction of the entire paper at that time. I am pleased to see that the Journal has now granted a retraction of the entire paper, and I agree with that decision.”

According to several reports, Dr. Ruscetti refused to comment on the full retraction.

Blood safety concerns prompted by the original report led blood banking institutions in the U.S. and other countries to adopt deferral guidelines for patients with past or present history of CFS. A statement from the AABB issued after the two major blood safety study were reported this fall reflects no immediate plan to change the current policies.

Here are links to news stories by some of the major general and science press outlets:

We will update this page with new details and additional media coverage.

K. Kimberly McCleary has served as the Association’s chief staff executive since 1991.

December 22, 2011