How the BBC covered the ‘Science’ magazine retraction

December 22, 2011

From BBC News, 22 December 2011.

UPDATED: 1.30pm, 23 December 2011

A study linking a virus to chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as ME, has been withdrawn by the journal which published it.

The 2009 study, in Science, suggested a mouse virus, XMRV, was linked to the illness.

But in September this year, the study's authors withdrew some of their findings, saying they were based on “contaminated data”.

The journal said it had “lost confidence” in the study.

In a statement, editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts, said the journal had decided to fully retracted the paper because of “poor quality control” – and because the findings had not been replicated.

It had already published an editorial “expression of concern” in September, saying that the validity of the study was “seriously in question”.

‘Too good to be true'

The initial research suggested that DNA of the XMRV virus had been found in 64% of CFS patients and just 4% of the general population.

But other scientists had been unable to find evidence of the virus and many argued that the most likely explanation was contamination of the laboratory samples.

A study also published in Science in September claimed the virus could not be reliably detected in ME patients, even in the labs which originally made the link.

The journal says there is evidence of poor quality control in a number of specific experiments reported in the paper, and raises specific concerns about some CFS samples being treated differently to others.

Mr Alberts wrote: “Given all the 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.”

Experts said they were not surprised that the paper had been retracted.

Prof Simon Wessely, of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London said: “The results were simply too good to be true.

“CFS is a complex mulfactorial condition with fuzzy boundaries, and almost certainly does not represent any single entity any more that it is caused by any single agent.”

But he added: “What is sad however is the degree of opprobrium hurled from some quarters at the scientists who correctly failed to replicate the original observation.

“This is not the kind of atmosphere that benefits science or patients.”

And Dr Charles Shepherd, medical adviser to the ME Association said, the withdrawal was “no surprise” and a “nail in the coffin” to the theory that XMRV was linked to CFS/ME.

He added: “As far as the patient community are concerned, they have been led down a path”, with this theory.

However Annette Whittemore, president of the Whittemore Peterson Institute, one of those that took part in the study said: “It is not the end of the story, rather it is the beginning of our renewed efforts.

“We remain focused on the patients who have been underserved and look forward to the rigorous review of our scientific research. ”

• The disease is thought to affect some 250,000 people in the UK
• Symptoms include extreme tiredness, problems with memory and concentration, sleep disturbances and mood swings
• There is currently no accepted cure and no universally effective treatment
• Source: ME Association

1 thought on “How the BBC covered the ‘Science’ magazine retraction”

  1. Science has no legitimate reason to have retracted. No other researcher has been able to find contamination in Mikovits or Ruscetti’s samples. They have no contamination hypothesis for the serology results that are specific to a MLV virus, not an endogenous virus. They also cannot explain how there is an EM of a virion that shows the core forming proving that the viruses are integrated into human DNA. The results from the paper shows polytropic sequences, which Lo and Alter also detected. This comment from another patient reflects how damaging this move was.

    What is most offensive to me is the general idea of retraction in such cases. YOU DO NOT THROW OUT POTENTIALLY VALID EXPERIMENTAL RESULTS. There is no proof that any element of the remaining parts of the study (after the partial retraction) were invalid.

    No one has published a replication of any aspect of this study. The majority of confirmation studies that have been attempted looked directly for XMRV-specific sequences or antibodies. YET THE EVIDENCE THAT THIS STUDY SPECIFICALLY FOUND “XMRV” HAS ALREADY BEEN RETRACTED, so those studies cannot be said to challenge the findings of the remainder of Lombardi et al 2009. They were misled by Silverman’s data into looking for the wrong virus. However, it is extremely important that the serological and other evidence for the existence of a human gammatretroviral infection in a majority of tested CFS patients remains in publication, as it is unrefuted evidence. So why the retraction??

    If journals can throw out any study whose results other researchers have not confirmed (and have not bothered to replicate) within the first two years of publication, then the scientific endeavor is in deep trouble.

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