The journal that published a high-profile paper linking chronic fatigue syndrome to a retrovirus is now investigating allegations that a figure in that report was manipulated.
The appearance in Science of the 2009 paper caused an immediate sensation among patients who have yearned for an explanation for their condition. Its authors said they had found evidence of a retrovirus called XMRV in the blood of people with chronic fatigue syndrome more frequently than in the blood of their healthy peers.
The report included a figure purporting to depict lab test results from seven blood samples, including two from chronic fatigue syndrome patients whose blood appears to show evidence of XMRV and five from healthy people whose blood does not.
But the leader of the team that authored the 2009 paper, researcher Judy Mikovits, apparently presented the same figure -- carrying different labels and supporting a different point -- in a talk given at a conference on Sept. 23 in Ottawa.
A copy of her PowerPoint presentation circulating among an email group also reveals an apparent third version of the image, with a third set of labels, when formatting is turned off.
"As is our policy in cases of alleged figure manipulation, we will follow up with the research authors as soon as our own review of the allegation is complete," the editors of Science wrote in a statement. "In particular, we will request additional information from the authors as one of the next steps."
Attempts to interview Mikovits were unsuccessful, and her employer, the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Diseases in Reno, Nev., announced Monday that she had been terminated.
Institute president Annette Whittemore said in a statement that the institute was also looking into the allegations.
"It is our understanding that some patient ID numbers may have been changed to a new set of coded numbers during the research to protect their privacy before publication," Whittemore said. "We will work with Science in hopes of addressing their concerns and to gain a full understanding of the cause of any potential discrepancies."
Almost immediately after the 2009 Science paper, researchers from across the globe, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, initiated follow-up experiments but came up with no evidence XMRV was infecting people. Instead, most evidence pointed to XMRV as a laboratory contaminant.
Even so, some patients paid for non-FDA-approved blood tests for XMRV, and some reported taking antiretroviral drugs.
A day before Mikovits' Ottawa talk, several other figures associated with the Science paper were retracted after scientists discovered lab contamination associated with part of the study.
That same day, Science also released the results of a study in which nine independent labs, including the Whittemore Peterson Institute, tested blinded blood samples from patients and healthy people for evidence of XMRV. Seven labs found nothing. Results from the other two, including the institute, were inconsistent.
The reappearing figure came to light after an Oklahoma graduate student in retrovirology, Abbie Smith, compared Mikovits' presentation with the original Science figure.
"Ladies and gentlemen, a magic trick," Smith wrote Friday on her blog, ERV. "I am going to take two pieces of data, from two independent experiments, establishing 'proof' of two different concepts, presented in two different formats and two different events. ... And turn them into the same figure."
Patients in online forums reacted swiftly. "I have been a big supporter of WPI, sending them a lot of money whilst having only little. But this is very serious. At best they are incredibly sloppy and disorganized," one person wrote on the Phoenix Rising forum.
Retrovirologist Jonathan Stoye, who co-wrote a supportive commentary accompanying the 2009 study, said of the recent events: "It is a tragedy in every respect."