Published December 22, 2011
The editors of the journal Science have retracted a controversial 2009 paper claiming to prove a link between a virus and chronic fatigue syndrome.
"Science has lost confidence in the Report and the validity of its conclusions," editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts writes in the journal. "We regret the time and resources that the scientific community has devoted to unsuccessful attempts to replicate these results."
Although many in the chronic fatigue syndrome community were thrilled to have found a cause for their condition, and some began taking drugs to fight the infection, scientists started raising questions about the paper almost as soon as it was published.
A number of teams were unable to replicate the findings, and some thought the supposed link was due to contamination of the samples by the virus.
In May, the editors of Science, one of the world's leading scientific journals, published an Expression of Concern about the study along with two studies casting doubt on it. That was followed in September by the retraction of parts of the paper, although a number of authors, most notably Dr. Judy Mikovits, stood by the original findings.
What appears to have prompted today's retraction were further questions that surfaced in October, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, about whether some of the images in the paper had been inappropriately manipulated in ways that lent more credence to the link between CFS and the virus, known as XMRV.
According to Science, the authors of the report have acknowledged to the journal that they left out "important information" about one of the images.
"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," Alberts writes in the retraction notice.
Although the move is the nail in the coffin for the paper, it is unlikely to be the end of the virus-CFS story. A group led by Ian Lipkin of Columbia University is testing blood samples from 150 patients with the condition for XMRV and other potentially linked agents.
Chronic fatigue syndrome, which affects an estimated 1 to 4 million Americans, is characterized by "overwhelming fatigue that is not improved by bed rest and that may be worsened by physical or mental activity," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The story of XMRV and CFS has also had dramatic twists for Mikovits. Last month, she ended up in a Ventura County, California jail for five days after her former employer, the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nevada, accused her of stealing lab notebooks, a computer and other materials. Earlier this week, a Washoe County, Nevada judge ruled in a civil case against Mikovits, saying that she had to return all of the materials to the institute.