By Janis C. Kelly, Medscape Medical News
November 29, 2011 ( Updated December 2, 2011 ) — The world of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) research took a dramatic turn this month when a prominent researcher was put (briefly) behind bars, accused of stealing data and suborning theft of research materials, and the fate of nearly $1 million in research funding was put in doubt.
The XMRV Papers
The researcher is Judy A. Mikovits, PhD, who until September 29 was research director at the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI) for Neuro-Immune Disease in Reno, Nevada. Dr. Mikovits led the WPI research team that has been mired in controversy since reporting an apparent association between xenotropic murine leukemia virus–related virus (XMRV) and CFS. As previously reported by Medscape Medical News, attempts by others to replicate the findings were unsuccessful, and the emerging consensus is that the association was an artifact of laboratory contamination. Parts of the paper were subsequently withdrawn, and 2 of the original authors asked to have their names removed from the paper.
Dr. Mikovits’ departure from WPI apparently was due not to problems with the XMRV study but to her refusal to turn over cell samples to fellow WPI researcher Vincent C. Lombardi, PhD. Dr. Lombardi, who was first author on the original XMRV paper, is now interim research director at WPI.
After Dr. Mikovits’ departure, WPI discovered that 12 to 20 laboratory notebooks and flash drives containing years of research data were also missing.
18 Notebooks Returned, Dr. Mikovits Surrenders in Reno
Dr. Mikovits was arrested at her California home on November 18 and held without bail in the Todd Road Jail in Santa Paula, California. On November 22 she appeared in Superior Court in Ventura, California, for an extradition hearing on felony charges that she was a fugitive from justice and in possession of stolen property from WPI. Jon Cohen, reporting for Science Magazine, described the “They sat in a large room-within-the-room that had white metal bars for walls. They looked like they were in a cage. Four bailiffs with Taser guns strolled around the open part of the court. The other inmates included heavily muscled and tattooed men and street-tough women. The 53-year-old scientist, who has been in jail since last Friday, appeared composed but wildly out of place.”