Further XMRV reporting from the Wall Street Journal’s Amy Dockser Marcus, 1 June 2011

From the Wall Street Journal health blog, 1 June 2011 (story by Amy Dockser Marcus).

The journal Science has cast doubt on a 2009 paper it published linking the virus XMRV to chronic fatigue syndrome and requested the authors retract the research.

Health Blog readers who have been following our coverage of this issue might wonder what this latest development means for another high-profile study reporting a related finding: the discovery of the family of retroviruses to which XMRV belongs in the blood of CFS patients. That paper was published last year by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

PNAS editor-in-chief Randy Scheckman tells us he is closely following the scientific debate and what it means for the findings reported in that paper, the authors of which include renowned NIH infectious disease specialist Harvey Alter.

The PNAS paper, published last August, has a complicated backstory of its own. When doubts about the findings and worries about contamination were raised after the paper’s acceptance, Alter and his colleagues went back to eight of the patients whose stored samples they used and asked for fresh blood samples. All but one re-tested positive for the viruses.

Scheckman says it’s part of the scientific process for different groups to publish findings, for other groups to try to replicate them, and for researchers to debate conflicting results. Even if the original findings in a paper don’t hold up, “that is an unusual situation to retract a paper under.’”

The PNAS study gave Alter, who is best known for his work on hepatitis, a high profile in the CFS world. At a recent NIH conference on CFS, Alter presided over a spirited debate between John Coffin — a co-author of one of two papers published yesterday in Science calling the XMRV finding into question — and Judy Mikovits of the Whittemore Peterson Institute, which led the team of researchers that reported the CFS-XMRV link in 2009.

Scheckman says he is “interested enough in the debate that I will ask Dr. Alter for comment.”

The Health Blog asked too. Through an NIH spokesperson, Alter replies that the PNAS paper did not link XMRV to chronic fatigue syndrome but rather the larger family of polytropic murine leukemia viruses to which XMRV belongs. The paper never reported finding XMRV itself. Thus the finding that XMRV may be a contaminant traced to cancer cells in mice “does not pertain to the finding” published in PNAS, Alter says.

Since PNAS published the paper, the journal has received a half-dozen papers from other authors documenting no correlation between XMRV and CFS but “we declined to publish all of them because they are not substantial additions to the literature, just more of the same,” says Scheckman.

Alter and his colleagues will have another crack at this issue: their lab, along with Whittemore Peterson and others, are set to participate in an NIH study of XMRV and polytropic murine leukemia viruses that is getting underway.

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