A very bad week for the XMRV causes disease idea

5 Oct

I opened a recent article with the statment: “Xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV) has been suggested as linked to chronic fatigue syndrome and autism. This has been rather controversial in both cases.”

The story gets more tangled. The lead researcher promoting the idea has been fired. The Science Insider blog (affiliated with the journal Science) has an article: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Researcher Fired Amidst New Controversy. Trine Tsuderous at the Chicago Tribune has an article: High-profile 2009 chronic fatigue syndrome study in dispute: Lead researcher fired as journal, institute investigate alleged figure manipulation.

Yes, Judy Mikovits has been released from her post at WPI. The Institute has released a statement on their facebook page:

The Whittemore Peterson Institute is announcing the departure of Dr. Judy Mikovits from WPI. We wish to thank her for her previous work and commitment. The WPI remains committed to a comprehensive research program. Our research team and program remains active, and our lab open to authorized employees. We will continue the critical work of finding answers to M.E. and related diseases.We will use the opportunity created by the departure of Dr. Mikovits to do a full evaluation of our research lab and current research projects. WPI is dedicated to the highest standards in research and patient care, and to advocating for the patients, families and caregivers we exist to serve.

What happened? One big piece of this can be found on the ERV blog as XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome: For your enjoyment– A magic trick. It really is worth going over there and reading through the discussion.

I am going to take two pieces of data, from two independent experiments, establishing ‘proof’ of two different concepts, presented in to different formats and to different events…

Yes, two figures were presented at different times–and with different interpretations. But, in the end, they were only one dataset.

As ERV points out in the comments section of her article:

As RRM stated, Im sure there is a TOTALLY REASONABLE explanation for this. Im SURE it wasnt intentional. But even if it were that damn post doc again– what does this say about QC at the WPI? What does this say about their standards? What does this say about how carefully and how critically Mikovits is looking at her own work?

The discovery of the two-figures-which-are-one and the release of researcher Mikovits from WPI comes after a huge blow to the science behind the proposed link between XMRV and Chronic Fatigue syndrome. From Science Insider:

The issue came to a head with the recent publication by Science of the nine-lab study. The so-called Blood Working Group, which included the labs run by Mikovits and Ruscetti, failed to reliably find XMRV or other gammaretroviruses in blinded samples from people who previously had tested positive for these viruses. Both Mikovits and Ruscetti co-authored the paper, which invalidated their own assays for XMRV.

Why bring this up on an autism blog? Because XMRV has been proposed as being linked to autism. More recent studies fail to find a link (e.g. PCR and serology find no association between xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV) and autism).

How did the XMRV/autism discussion get started? Well, as David Kirby wrote a few years ago:

As Dr. Mikovits explained to a television news program in Nevada, “It is not in the paper and not reported, but we have actually done some of these studies (in ASD children) and found the virus in a significant number of samples that we have tested for. It could be linked to a number of neuro-immune diseases, including autism. It certainly won’t be all, because there are genetic defects that result in autism. But there are also the environmental effects; there is always the hypothesis that, ‘My child was fine and then they got sick, and then they got autism.'”

So, the XMRV/autism story got started with unpublished data by the now fired Mikovits, who claimed that she found XMRV in the blood of autistic children.

For those who remember David Kirby, the idea of him taking extremely weak evidence and creating a sensationalist story out of it is not surprising. Acting without apparent regard for the harm he could be causing, Mr. Kirby linked XMRV to autism through vaccines. Classic David Kirby:

The discovery raises more questions than it answers. What, exactly, is it about immunization that might switch on XMRV viral expression? Could the effect of heavy metals upon cytokine balances be at play? Where did this retrovirus come from, and how did it apparently become so prevalent in children with autism? Did these children inherit the virus from a parent, or was there some other unexplained route of transmission? Why has the NIH said nothing about XMRV in association with autism, and did Dr. Insel know about these findings without sharing them with the IACC?

Mr. Kirby’s style is well represented in the above paragraphs. Pose sensationalist, unsupported ideas as questions. Gives him the chance to put his ideas out there while keeping himself at a distance from the statements.

Now that the XMRV research by Dr. Mikovits is in serious doubt, will David Kirby retract his article on the subject? Will he at least put out an article which informs his readers of the current state of research? Or will he quietly move on to his new project (Death at SeaWorld – Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity) without regard for the harm he has caused to the autism community?

I single out Mr. Kirby as an example of the sort of messenger who has promoted ideas like XMRV and autism or XMRV and chronic fatigue. The mercury-causation idea fell apart, but no word from people who promoted it a great deal (like David Kirby). What will happen now that XMRV and autism and XMRV and chronic fatigue are falling apart?


6 Responses to “A very bad week for the XMRV causes disease idea”

  1. Science Mom October 5, 2011 at 14:35 #

    Now that the XMRV research by Dr. Mikovits is in serious doubt, will David Kirby retract his article on the subject? Will he at least put out an article which informs his readers of the current state of research?

    I know you are being rhetorical but it bears mentioning that the answers are a resounding NO. He is a darling of AoA, who as you know, have glommed onto Kirby’s “thesis” and running with it as though it is an accepted medical finding. So he will never do anything that could alienate him from his base.

    • Sullivan October 5, 2011 at 18:57 #

      Science Mom,

      I was using my “Kirby Voice”. Let’s pose our position as a series of questions!

      For people who followed Mr. Kriby, that was a strange post. He usually tried to stay a little more out of the fight. In that one, he was picking up the themes from AoA on how the IACC was bad. He even directly linked to an AoA piece on the supposed COI for Tom Insel since his brother was involved with vaccines. The Tom Insel bashing was rather popular on AoA at the time. To me, David tipped his hand a bit more than was his habit. He usually didn’t make it so clear his position as publicist for the groups behind AoA.

      Now that we know that Mr. Kirby basically co-wrote “Evidence of Harm” with Lyn Redwood of SafeMinds, his supposed journalistic distance is pretty clearly exposed as false.

  2. Science Mom October 5, 2011 at 14:36 #

    Oh yes, that and the usual cries of conspiracy and silencing a sacred cow will inevitably ensue.

  3. Prometheus October 6, 2011 at 04:41 #

    My prediction:

    Now that the last bit of scientific evidence supporting the idea that XMRV causes any disease has been cut away, the “XMRV-in-vaccines-causes-autism” legend will become immortal.


  4. Liz Ditz October 8, 2011 at 22:37 #

    As others have pointed out, this is looking more and more like the “MMR autism causation” mythology.

    Some other sources:

    Retraction Watch: Why Didn’t Mikovits share Data with Science

    X Rx (a blog by a chronic fatigue patient who believes that XMRV caused her illness)– on the Mikovitx firing.

  5. daedalus2u October 9, 2011 at 01:25 #

    The anti-MMR was driven by the litigation (paid for by the vaccine injury funds) and less by any science. There is no one to sue for an XMRV infection, and if there is no ongoing infection, then ongoing treatment isn’t going to do anything. CFS patients are not as sympathetic victims as are children, so even if there was someone to sue or scam, even if there was some science to sue over, the odds of winning the legal lottery are slim.

    Antiretrovirals are going to make patients with CFS worse (much worse is my prediction based on the anti-mitochondrial effects that antiretrovirals have). In the US, health insurance companies are not going to pay for antiretrovirals without evidence that they are effective. I hope that people with CFS don’t take antiretrovirals because it could really hurt them, like give them dementia through mitochondrial depletion in the brain and/or ALS through depletion in motor neurons, or liver/kidney failure. Susceptible tissue compartments will be those with high mitochondria content, brain, liver, kidney, heart.

    The Blood Working Group result showed that WPI can’t find true positives and can’t exclude true negatives. None of their results will stand up to scrutiny in court. Maybe the anti-vax crowd will try to resurrect an anti-vaccine case via an XMRV theory, but they will have to do so without the WPI results because WPI just showed that their results are unreliable.

    There may be a small group of CFS patients who cling to JM and the XMRV story, but I don’t think that WPI will be in the picture. I think that WPI will go out of business. They sold a lot of XMRV tests for a lot of money to a lot of people. There will probably be a class action lawsuit to get that money back. I don’t think that any reputable institution will take on JM.

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