Journal Retracts Faulty Chronic Fatigue Study

Science statement puts to rest two-year controversy, dashes hopes for treatments

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Dec. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Laying rest to a long-simmering controversy, editors at the journal Science have retracted a paper that pinpointed a specific virus as the likely cause of chronic fatigue syndrome.

The 2009 report suggested that xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV) was the probable culprit behind chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), which causes crippling fatigue, aching joints, headaches and other symptoms in about 1 percent of the world's population.

Follow-up findings failed to confirm the report, leading to Thursday's unusual action. Science announced the retraction to media today; it will be published in the Dec. 23 issue of the journal.

"Science has lost confidence in the Report and the validity of its conclusions," said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of the journal, in a statement.

"We regret the time and resources that the scientific community has devoted to unsuccessful attempts to replicate these results," he added.

While the retraction ends speculation about the research, conducted by scientists from three institutions, it also dashes hopes that a cause for this mysterious malady had finally been identified.

"The original publication . . . raised hopes and expectations for an expedited route to better diagnostics, treatment and validation for the millions whose lives have been devastated by CFS," said a statement issued Thursday by the Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS) Association of America. "Over the past two years, those hopes have been tempered by the lack of supporting evidence for a claimed association between CFS and [these viruses]."

One study published earlier this year dealt a blow to the virus theory when it found that the XMRV pathogen spotted in human samples in the first study were the result of contamination. At that time, the Science editors issued an unusual "expression of concern."

In another paper published in Science in September, nine laboratories, including two involved in the 2009 report, tested the original human blood samples used in that study.

This time, the only labs to detect XMRV were the two from the original study and, even then, they found the virus just as often in people with CFS as in healthy controls.

In all, at least 20 studies have failed to replicate the original results, according to the CFIDS Association statement.

Normally, a retraction comes from the study authors, rather than the publication itself. In this case, Alberts said, most of the authors were willing to retract the report, but they could not agree on the wording of a statement.

"It is Science's opinion that a retraction signed by all the authors is unlikely to be forthcoming," Alberts stated. "We are therefore editorially retracting the Report."

The journal's statement also said it had evidence of poor quality control regarding some of the research. And Alberts noted that after questions arose about the validity of the study, the authors admitted they had left out important information.

Although disappointed, some experts have said that the debacle has a silver lining, in that it has brought renewed attention to CFS.

The CFIDS Association agreed.

"The heightened visibility that has resulted from this high-profile research has drawn new scientific and media interest to this serious, complex condition," the organization stated. "The CFIDS Association will translate the momentum it has generated to expand research aimed at early detection, objective diagnosis and effective treatment."

According to the CFIDS Association statement, "the emphasis should shift to other solid leads for improved patient care."

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on chronic fatigue syndrome.

SOURCES: Dec. 23, 2011, Science; Dec. 22, 2011, statement, CFIDS Association of America

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