The Penultimate Chapter in the XMRV-Chronic Fatigue Story?

By Carl Zimmer | September 23, 2011 11:03 am

I’ve devoted a few posts (here and here and here) to the saga of a disputed link between chronic fatigue syndrome and a virus called XMRV. This week marks the next chapter in the story, with more evidence that the original results were at least partly due to contamination and a partial retraction of the original paper. Two great writers at Science, Martin Enserink and Jon Cohen, have put together an epic telling of this affair, from the first reports two years ago to the latest developments. The magazine has wisely put the piece out in front of their paywall. Do read it.

As Enserink and Cohen note, this is not the final word. That will probably come early next year, when a larger study led by Ian Lipkin of Columbia. We’ll see then if the link is buried at last, or lives to see another day.

Comments (3)

  1. Kat

    Chronic fatigue manifests with a general cluster of symptoms but does not manifest in the same way for each person; it seems unlikely it is a single virus that causes the condition.

    Patient histories indicate many different viruses, or combinations of viral loads, can be the trigger for CFS. So I don’t understand why the medical model for research seems to be, search for a single viral cause (or the other assumption that if it’s NOT caused by a single virus then the condition isn’t ‘real’). It’s one of those complex psycho-immunological illnessness that requires a complex fully systemic explanation and both pyschological and biomedical support to recover from.

    The theory I’ve heard that most makes sense to me is that the body has a viral load coupled with a constantly triggered maladaptive massive stress response which has been going on over a period of time (eg the adrenals can be really fatigued). The amygdala stress response keeps people trapped in a loop of immuno-supressing exhaustion which does not allow them to overcome the viral load and from which their bodies cannot recover.

  2. Esther Siebert

    Actually, ME/CFS is a neurological disease affecting multiple body systems, most notably the nervous, immune, endocrine and gastrointestinal systems. WHO lists it as myalgic encephalomylitis or ME under neurological illness. Currently the CDC is considering listing it as a neurological disease and it would be wonderful if they’d change the name to ME as well.

    Many patients’ illnesses began with a viral infection but not necessarily all had the same virus. Something seems to have gone wrong with how the immune system dealt with this virus and they never got completely well.

    Many of us would appreciate it if our very serious illness would be called by its proper name.

    [CZ: The original XMRV paper uses the term “chronic fatigue syndrome.” So do all the follow-up papers I’ve seen. When and if the scientists make a change in what they call this condition, I will too.]

  3. Anne

    @CZ – the National Institutes of Health uses the term ME/CFS incorporating both terms as does the professional international organization for researchers (IACFS/ME.org).

    As for other scientists who are ME and CFS experts, last month the Journal of Internal Medicine (Carruthers et al 2011) , published an International Consensus Criteria for Myalgic Encephaloymelitis dropping the term Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

    Some of those authors were also authors of the 2003 Canadian Consensus Criteria which was the definition for patients used in Lombardi et al 2009 in addition to the 1994 Fukuda definition. According to researchers both the Canadian definition and the ICC select a far more severely ill population and both require what biomedical researchers believe is the key symptom of post exertional malaise which is optional in the Fukuda definition and absent from others such as the 1991 Oxford criteria used in the UK.

    Satterfield et al 2011 has a nice discussion about the differences between subgroups and the need to study patients more severely ill and closer to the patients group studied by Lombardi et al.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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