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Another study finds no link between mouse virus and chronic fatigue syndrome

February 19, 2010 |  3:58 pm

For the second time in as many months, researchers have been unable to replicate a controversial study which showed that many patients with chronic fatigue syndrome carry a virus that might be linked to the disease. Researchers are now trying to figure out whether the discrepancies result from studying different patient populations or from fundamental problems between the laboratories involved.

Chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS), is thought to affect at least 1 million Americans and more than 17 million worldwide. It is characterized by debilitating fatigue, chronic pain and depression, in addition to other symptoms. Many doctors, however, have argued that it is not a real disorder because there are no characteristic biochemical markers that define it. The only effective treatments have been behavioral changes and antidepressants, and they have been of limited benefit.

Sufferers were overjoyed last October, therefore, when researchers from the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease in Reno reported in the journal Science that they found a mouse virus called xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus, or XMRV, in blood from  68 of 101 patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, but in only eight of 218 healthy patients. In a separate study, researchers reported that they found the virus in about a quarter of prostate cancer patients. At last, it seemed, science was moving toward finding a cause for the perplexing disorder.

In January, however, a team from University College London reported in the journal PLoS One that they could find no trace of the virus in blood samples from 186 chronic fatigue patients. Critics charged that the lab's assays were not sensitive enough to identify the virus.

Now, virologist Kate Bishop of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research (Britain's equivalent of the U.S. National Institutes of Health) and her colleagues have reported in the journal Retrovirology that they too could not find the virus, this time in 170 chronic fatigue patients and 395 controls.  Outside researchers agreed that their tests should have been sensitive enough to detect the virus if it was present.

The contradictions have left many experts confused. Virologist Suzanne D. Vernon, scientific director of the CFIDS Assn. of America, argues that part of the problem may lie in the type of patients chosen. The new study used patients who had been diagnosed for less than four years and whose disease was relatively mild. The first study, in contrast, involved patients who had suffered longer and had more serious forms of the disorder. She also argues that more standardization between laboratories needs to be achieved. Until that occurs, she says, confusion will continue to reign.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II

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Comments (6)

Neither of the 2 UK studies could be considered "replication studies". Replication entails using the same methods and the same patient populations-this was not the case in either UK study. It is curious that those UK researchers did not take advantage of WPI's offer of materials that would have enabled them to replicate the XMRV/CFS study.
Patients are eagerly awaiting true replication studies: those results should be available later this year, and are expected to confirm the findings of the WPI/NIH/NCI's XMRV/CFS study.

Your paper really shouldn't be 'reporting' on health issues when you don't even have the essential facts on the illness you purport to report on. The symptoms of CFS do not include depression and effective treatments do not include psychotherapy and antidepressants. So called studies purporting to show they are effective have been shown to be bogus and in some cases, fraudulent.

Regarding the 'studies' you mention, the first one in PLOS ONE specifically excluded patients with organic illness because in UK the government run health establishment regarding ME/CFS is under the control of a psychiatrist who has denied patients even the right of being tested for the many known organic abnormalities seen in ME patients. They are diagnosed as having a mental disorder and may be forced to take "treatment" of exercise and talk therapy, to get them out of their "illness beliefs". Google "Sophia Mizra" or look her up on you tube, for the story of how one bedridden ME patient was forcibly committed to a mental institution when she was unable or unwilling to go the government mandated exercise program, how she subsequently died because of this abuse, and how her autopsy showed serious inflammation of her spinal chord.

The second study was probably bona fide science, unlike the first, but the researchers went about it as if they were looking for an HIV-type retrovirus, which is where their expertise and experience lie. They ignored the WPI study's information that the XMRV retrovirus replicates very slowly, thus requires longer incubation and amplification procedures in order to find it. There are also questions about how the blood was drawn and handled. They also probably had patients similar to those in the first study, since the official stance in UK is that ME/CFS does not exist except in the minds of sufferers, despite decades of evidence that there are many physical abnormalites found in ME/CFS.

In the US, CFS sufferers have had to contend with the same governmental attitudes as those in UK, until recently. Just this month the CDC removed the primary obstacle to real scientific enquiry into the organic causes of CFS, a guy who also tried to foist off the idea of psychological causes onto doctors and patients.

XMRV has been found in UK patients by WPI, so far at about 50% of patients tested. It is also found in Japan, Ireland, Germany and Australia. If these two studies FAILED to find it in UK, the question is why?

In the WPI's response to this second negative study, they state that the other labs' failure to culture the samples might be the sticking point in them not finding any XMRV-

"Perhaps the most important issue to focus on is the low level of XMRV in the blood. XMRV is present in such a small percentage of white blood cells that it is highly unlikely that either UK study’s PCR method could detect it using the methods described. Careful reading of the Science paper shows that increasing the amount of the virus by growing the white blood cells is usually required rather than using white blood cells directly purified from the body. When using PCR alone, the Science authors found that four samples needed to be taken at different times from the same patient in order for XMRV to be detected by PCR in freshly isolated white blood cells."

It's a simple thing really. It's common knowledge that when you replicate a study, you use the exact assays and data collection. period. This has been recognized and used as a critical element in all stages of virology. Does the U.K. know this? Of course they do. So, you need to really just ask what was their intention all along by Not following the essential assays carried out by WPI.


One of the co-authors of this study, Simon Wessely, has a vested interest in the outcome of such virus studies. Simon has staked his entire academic career on the idea that neurological diseases like chronic fatigue syndrome are caused by purely psychological factors.

Therefore Simon Wessely would be the last person you would want in a study like this: if he finds the virus in CFS patients, he shoots himself in the foot, and his career may never recover. So I wonder just how hard he looked for this XMRV virus.


Simon Wessely and his network often use a different set of criteria to select the patients for their "CFS" studies (such as the Oxford Criteria). These selection criteria are set up so as to include lots of people that are just depressed, and do not have CFS at all.

As a consequence, it is not surprising many studies, based on the Oxford Criteria or similar, find that patients do not have XMRV, or can be cured by antidepressants: they studied the wrong people.

In other words, when Simon Wessely says "CFS", he actually is talking about "depression".

The original XMRV research at the Whittemore Peterson Institute used the Canadian Consensus definition of CFS/ME. The advantage of these Canadian Consensus inclusion criteria is that they actually do select CFS patients.

Thank you Thomas Maugh II for your thoughtful article.

However, you appear to be totally in the dark regarding treatment for CFS/ME.
There are many treatments that can make a huge dent in CFS, such as meds for sleeping, pain medication for muscle pain, migrane treatment, help for bladder and bowel maladies...I could go on and on.

CFS experts state that between 50 and 70% of all patients suffer from POTS, which is autonomic nervous system damange effecting the cardiac system and usually causes the patient to be lacking a large percentage of their blood volume and 20% or so of their red blood cells, as well as constant dizziness and fainting. Treatments such as medication, salt overloading, fluid overloading, saline IVs and the like can turn a patient's life around. It did mine.

No "marker" is missing for the 50-70% of CFS patients with the subset of POTS, as it is clearly diagnosed with specific cardiac testing (such as tilt table tests) that verify major, and dangerous, life-altering circulatory issues that no objective physician can protest.

America - CFS is NOT a mystery any longer. Only the instigating cause is unclear; the condition and its complications are mostly clear to anybody that gives the disease (yes, disease) more than a cursory glance.

And apparently neither the media, nor the CDC, can be bothered to do that. Again, thanks for the post.

EDIT: Just saw oregano's comment below. I second that, big time.


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