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Science retracts controversial Chronic Fatigue Syndrome study without the consent of its authors

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A scientific controversy of operatic proportions has reached a significant turning point today. The drama kicked off in 2009, with a publication in Science that reported a startling link between chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and a virus called XMRV. But today, following a partial retraction issued back in September, Science has decided to withdraw the paper entirely:

"Multiple laboratories, including those of the original authors, have failed to reliably detect xenotropic murine leukemia virus–related virus (XMRV) or other murine leukemia virus (MLV)–related viruses in chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) patients," the retraction notice reads. "In addition, there is evidence of poor quality control in a number of specific experiments in the Report."

"[Given] these issues, Science has lost confidence in the Report and the validity of its conclusions."


We first reported on the surprising link between XMRV and CFS — a rare, albeit debilitating, disease with unknown origins — back in 2009. At the time, we noted that while there was no evidence for a causal link between the disease and XMRV — a retrovirus linked to leukemia in mice — the researchers' findings were compelling enough to merit further investigation.


As this morning's statement from Science alludes to, however, further investigations have come up empty handed. Since the original paper's publication in 2009, over a dozen labs have failed to replicate the original team's findings; many of these labs have concluded that contamination must have occurred in the original experiments.

To many, this retraction has not been unexpected. What is unusual, however, is that the paper has been retracted without the explicit consent of all its authors. The retraction notice reads:

We note that the majority of the authors have agreed in principle to retract the Report but they have been unable to agree on the wording of their statement. It is Science's opinion that a retraction signed by all the authors is unlikely to be forthcoming. We are therefore editorially retracting the Report.

In an interview with Nature, retrovirologist Jonothan Stoye explained that it was "no surprise" that the paper had been retracted. "The writing's been on the wall for a time and the font's been getting larger," he said. "From the time the first contamination papers came out there were suggestions that was the explanation for everyone's inability to find the virus when they looked for it. I don't think it can be a surprise that they finally retracted it."

"Mistakes will happen," continues Stoye, "and science does tend to be self-correcting. It has done that, and actually it's done that remarkably efficiently [in this case]."


For an excellent, in-depth examination of the controversy surrounding the link between XMRV and chronic fatigue syndrome, check out this piece by Jon Cohen and Martin Enserink, published in Science earlier this year.

[Science via Nature]
Top image by M. Hicks via Science