Controversial Study Linking Virus to Chronic Fatigue Is Retracted

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The journal Science is retracting a contentious 2009 paper linking chronic fatigue syndrome to a mouse retrovirus called XMRV.

The paper’s original findings — that XMRV had been found in the blood of people with the syndrome — galvanized researchers and sufferers of chronic fatigue, a condition of unknown cause that leads to pain, debilitating fatigue and cognitive problems. But since the paper was published, it has repeatedly come under fire — no fewer than 17 follow-up studies have failed to replicate the link between chronic fatigue and the retrovirus.

In May, Science published two reports suggesting that the original findings were due to laboratory contamination. At the time, the journal’s editor, Bruce Alberts, said the paper was “now seriously in question.” In September, the authors of the study issued a partial retraction, acknowledging the contamination of some of their original blood samples, but did not retract the full paper. On Thursday, the journal announced it was retracting the paper fully, without the authors’ consent. Typically, retractions come from the authors, but in this case, the journal said the authors couldn’t agree on the wording of a retraction statement.

“It’s kind of a surprise that it took so long,” John Coffin, a retrovirologist at Tufts University in Boston, who co-authored an editorial in Science supporting the original paper, told Science Insider’s Jon Cohen, regarding the journal’s retraction.

Cohen reports:

Science Executive Editor Monica Bradford says the journal always prefers authors to sign retractions. “It’s the authors’ work, and it’s a very clear signal to scientific community that there can’t be accusations of other agendas,” says Bradford. Alberts says they simply had been “spun” by the authors too many times for too long. “If our editorial retraction helps to end the resources to go into this fruitless endeavor, I think we’ve made a contribution to the scientific community,” he says.

Stay tuned for more on this story from Healthland’s Alice Park.

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