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Study linking virus and chronic fatigue retracted


NEW YORK » A prestigious scientific journal is retracting a controversial 2009 report that linked chronic fatigue syndrome to a virus.

In an unusual move, the journal Science is taking that step on its own. Normally, authors retract their own research papers when serious problems arise after publication.

But Science has lost confidence in the report and the validity of its conclusions, editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts writes in Friday’s issue. He said most of the authors have agreed in principle to retract the paper "but they have been unable to agree on the wording of their statement." A retraction signed by all the authors "is unlikely to be forthcoming," Alberts wrote.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is characterized by severe fatigue for at least six months, impaired memory and other symptoms.

The 2009 paper, from scientists at the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nev., the Cleveland Clinic and the National Cancer Institute, reported finding a virus called XMRV in blood cells of some patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. That raised hope that a cause of the mysterious illness had been found, although other viral suspects over the years had proven to be false leads.

But follow-up studies found no evidence of such a link. Last May, Science published two reports suggesting the original finding was due to lab contamination.

At the time, Alberts published a statement declaring that the validity of the study was "now seriously in question."

Then in September, the authors retracted some of the data, citing contamination.

In his statement on the full retraction, Alberts said the authors had also acknowledged omitting important information about the study’s procedures in an illustration of some lab results.

Robert Silverman of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the paper’s 13 authors, said in a statement Thursday that he was pleased by the full retraction. He said he had sought one this summer after finding that blood samples were contaminated.

Through a spokeswoman, another study author, Francis Ruscetti of the cancer institute, declined to comment.

Annette Whittemore, president of the Whittemore institute, said in a statement that her organization remains committed to discovering the roots of the disorder. "It is not the end of the story, rather it is the beginning of our renewed efforts," she said. "We … look forward to the rigorous review of our scientific research."

A key figure in the research, Judy Mikovits, is no longer with the Whittemore institute.

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