‘Scientist Who Led XMRV Research Team Let Go’, Wall Street Journal health blog, 3 October 2011

October 3, 2011

From the Wall Street Journal health blog, 3 October 2011 (story by Amy Dockser Marcus).

Judy A. Mikovits, the embattled scientist who led the research team that found a possible link between the retrovirus XMRV and patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, has been terminated from her job as director of research at the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease in Reno, Nev.

The controversial finding, published in a 2009 Science paper, excited patients and researchers who have long been searching for a cause for chronic fatigue syndrome, which has an array of debilitating symptoms that include cognitive difficulties, severe pain, and overwhelming fatigue. On Sept. 22, the authors of the paper, including Mikovits, published a partial retraction of the findings in Science, after two of the 13 study authors found contamination in blood samples from patients.

A week later, Mikovits was fired, she told Health Blog.

In a letter from Whittemore Peterson President Annette Whittemore to Mikovits, which was reviewed by Health Blog, Mikovits was terminated after refusing Whittemore’s direct request that cell lines be turned over to another scientist at the institute who wanted to do research on them.

In a letter of response, Mikovits said that the cells were for use in a specific NIH-funded project and that it would be inappropriate to use them for another purpose without her knowledge and consent.

Whittemore told the Health Blog that she and Mikovits were “not seeing eye-to-eye” on who controlled the cells. Research on retroviruses and their possible connection to CFS as well as other diseases continues, she said. “We will keep going down that path as long as it continues to show promise,” Whittemore says.

Mikovits is a principal investigator on an ongoing NIH-funded study that will test CFS patients and healthy controls for XMRV or related viruses, and she said that she plans to take her grant with her to a new institution where she wants to continue her work on CFS.

But like many things in the long-running XMRV saga, this may not be simple. Whittemore says that the institute wants to continue to participate in the NIH study and has “the research capacity, the lab and the researchers” to follow through on the work. In terms of the fate of that grant, “‘it is an NIH call,” Whittemore says.

In a statement on their Facebook page today, the Whittemore Peterson Institute say:

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.

Annette Whittemore posted this message on the WPI Facebook page on 5 October 2011:

Dear Patients and Friends,

While I can't speak for Judy I can tell you how I feel. I feel terrible that our relationship is ending this way. It's easy to understand why you might think of our separation as a divorce. Judy has been with me since 2006 when we first began the institute. I hired Judy to work with me to help solve the problems that are affecting millions of people like yourself. You are now personally invested in the outcome, just as we are. Judy has been a valuable member of a team that many of you have never met. I have asked her to speak on behalf of the scientific efforts of this entire institute and she has done so with great enthusiasm. In the course of her travels she has offered her hand to patients, in friendship and support, and for that we are all very thankful. However, Judy had another important job to do as an employee of the WPI. She knows that she, like everyone else at the institute, has to abide by a common set of rules that apply to one's conduct. Without those rules there would be anarchy and injustice in the work place. Judy chose a course of action which I had to respond to. I am deeply disappointed by her choices. Now we have to move on. As adults, we can chose to lash out with hatred against one another or try to make the best of a difficult situation and minimize the damage to the innocent bystanders like yourself. You are part of a caring group of people who must feel awful about having to watch this public display of cruel mud slinging on the internet. You are right though, it isn't fair to anyone to be forced into taking sides. I believe we have a better choice and that is to get along with each other and truly wish each other well. Because you asked, I will tell you how I am feeling about Judy leaving. I'm sad for me for you and for Judy. I will miss Judy's friendly smile and her enthusiasm for the science. I have learned so much from her. I will miss our discussions and our trips together to various conferences and meetings. But I have a job to do. As the leader of this institution I have to continue to do all I can to keep our team focused and moving forward; building on the progress that we have already made in science and advocacy. I'm lucky that I am not alone in these important efforts. WPI has a wonderful team of researchers, doctors and administrators who are working hard every day on your behalf. They are dedicated and passionate about making a difference in some one else's life. Your lives. I hope that Judy will keep building, as well. Just like a dear friend who is moving away, I wish nothing but good things for Judy. I hope that everyone will soon begin to understand that they do not have to take sides to care about either one of us, because in the end we all want the same thing; answers and healing. I hope too, that before long, Judy will feel the same way. Thank you for caring, Annette

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