(Originally posted on Oct. 5, 2011; updated periodically as documented below and reposted on Nov. 19, 2011.)
By K. Kimberly McCleary, President & CEO
A story that began developing in the blogosphere in the last days of September broke loose on Oct. 3, with a story in the Wall Street Journal that reported Judy Mikovits, Ph.D., director of research at the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI) and senior author of the study that first linked CFS to XMRV, had been let go. The news had first been announced the night before on the blog X Rx. The reason given was not waning support for the XMRV hypothesis, but rather a disagreement over sharing of laboratory materials related to a grant from the National Institutes of Health. See, “Scientist who led XMRV research team let go,” by Amy Dockser Marcus. The WPI posted this message on its Facebook page that afternoon.
RetractionWatch, a blog that monitors scientific journal retractions, posted notes from an interview with Dr. Mikovits conducted a few days earlier about the partial retraction of data from the Science paper on Sept. 22. The post also referenced the split with WPI. See, “Why didn’t XMRV-CFS researcher — now fired — share data with Science?” by Ivan Oransky.
Later that evening came a story in the Chicago Tribune that added another twist. An image used by Dr. Mikovits in a slide presentation given at the IACFS/ME research conference in Ottawa was alleged to be the same as one published in the 2009 Science paper that launched at least 20 studies attempting to validate the link between CFS and XMRV. The apparent overlap was identified first on a blog called ERV on Sept. 30, just a week after the Ottawa presentation. The labels on the image, and the experiments it was used to illustrate, were different in each case. Graduate student Abbie Smith contacted authorities with her comparison of the images. The Tribune article confirmed that editors at Science had launched an investigation to examine the potential misrepresentation of data in the paper. See, “Manipulation alleged in paper linking virus, chronic fatigue syndrome,” by Trine Tsouderos.
On Oct. 4, two journalists at Science who have followed the XMRV-CFS connection for the past two years, provided more details about the fast-moving story of the contested image. Dr. Mikovits’ collaborator at the National Cancer Institute, Francis Ruscetti, Ph.D., confirmed the two images were the same, and that some details of the original experiment were not “germane” and were therefore not reported in the 2009 Science paper or descriptions of the methods published subsequently. Additional perspectives of Dr. Mikovits’ dismissal were provided by Dr. Mikovits and Annette Whittemore, the WPI’s founder and chief executive. See, “CFS researcher fired amidst new controversy,” by Jon Cohen with Martin Enserink. The Scientist, a magazine of the life sciences that has covered XMRV after major study announcements, posted a short article. See, “Chronic fatigue researcher fired,” by Edyta Zielinska. Late that evening, Ms.Whittemore released this letter on the WPI’s Facebook page.
Nature, a top scientific journal, has regularly reported on developments in the XMRV story although it has not published any original studies on CFS. On Oct. 5, Nature News provided an update on the latest. The story delved into the ramifications of the omission of details from the 2009 Science paper and provided explanations for the labels of the full image that had been cropped for use in both the Science paper and the Ottawa presentation. The article indicates that Dr. Mikovits had already complied with a request from Science to provide editors with the original images. See, “Integrity issues follow fired researcher,” by Heidi Ledford.
The Oct. 7 issue of Science included news of Dr. Mikovits’ transition and its investigation in the “Newsmakers” column of the magazine. See, “CFS Researcher Fired” (available only to subscribers).
BioTechniques, the international journal of life science methods, has kept tabs on the XMRV story and published an update on Oct. 7. See, “Partial XMRV retraction, group study leader leaves.” The Australian, a daily newspaper, covered the story on Oct. 8. See, “Fatigue syndrome takes its toll in the U.S.,” by Leigh Dayton. She quoted two Australian experts on CFS who stated that “the XMRV story illustrates why patients and doctors must remain sceptical of such claims until they’re replicated.” The British Medical Journal featured this article on its home page on Oct. 11, “Scientist who linked chronic fatigue syndrome to XMRV is sacked,” by Clare Dyer. The BMJ published one of the first negative studies of XMRV in Feb. 2010.
On Nov. 4, 2011, the Whittemore Peterson Institute filed a lawsuit against Judy Mikovits in Washoe County Court (Nevada). Annette Whittemore made a public statement about this action in a Nov. 11 post to the WPI’s Wings of Hope blog titled, “Our Responsibility.” At issue is a collection of materials referred to in the legal documents as “misappropriated property” that has been missing from WPI since on or about the date of Dr. Mikovits’ separation from WPI. This legal dispute has been discussed on other CFS-related online forums and blogs, with some people close to both parties offering additional details. In her blog post titled, “A Bitter Divorce,” Hillary Johnson included text of a letter sent by Dr. Mikovits’ attorney Lois Hart in response to the temporary restraining order. There has been no formal public reply made by Dr. Mikovits directly. Jon Cohen reported on this development for ScienceInsider on Nov. 14, 2011, “Lawsuit filed against CFS research by former employer.” Jeff Askt at The Scientist reported, “Chronic fatigue researcher sued,” on Nov. 15, 2011.
Late on Nov. 18, unconfirmed reports indicating that Dr. Mikovits had been arrested appeared on several websites. At 7:34 a.m. on Nov. 19, Reuters editor Ivan Oransky reported details of the arrest in a Retraction Watch post titled, “Chronic fatigue syndrome researcher Judy Mikovits arrested.” According to the public arrest record (booking number 1259336), Dr. Mikovits is being held without bail at the Todd Road Jail facility until a hearing on Nov. 22 at 1:30 p.m. in the Ventura County (California) Superior Court. Dr. Mikovits is charged with a felony, as a “fugitive from justice.” Dr. Mikovits is also scheduled to appear in Second Judicial Court of Washoe County (Nevada) at the same time and date for a hearing related to the legal action being pursued by the Whittemore Peterson Institute. There were additional entries made to the case record on Nov. 18, suggesting the occurrences are linked. Dr. Mikovits was expected to participate in a panel discussion at a patient conference sponsored by Dr. Derek Enlander on Nov. 20 at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York. Jon Cohen posted a story for ScienceInsider, “Controversial CFS researcher arrested and jailed,” on the evening of Nov. 19. His article includes statements from Dr. Mikovits’ attorney and Annette Whittemore. Dr. Steven Salzberg, who has written about XMRV for Forbes, posted to his blog on Nov. 21 about the latest events, “CFS researcher arrested.” Brendan Maher at Nature reported on the court case and the uncertain status of the RO1 award made in 2009 to WPI in a story for Nature News Blog, “Researcher arrested over missing lab notebooks” (Nov. 21, 2011).
Trine Tsouderos, science writer at The Chicago Tribune, added new information about the arrest in a column posted late in the evening of Nov. 21, “Discredited chronic fatigue researcher in California jail.” She reports that the University of Nevada-Reno police issued the warrant for Dr. Mikovits’ arrest following a report of theft of property filed by the Whittemore Peterson Institute. The article quotes from Tsouderos’ earlier interviews with Dr. Mikovits for Tribune stories about XMRV and includes a timeline of events from 2006 up to the present. The story appeared in print in the Nov. 22 edition of the Chicago Tribune. Also on Nov. 21, additional details were added to the public record for the Washoe County case.
In response to media inquiries received on the morning of Nov. 22, I released this statement about the hearings scheduled for later that day:
“The high-profile split at the Whittemore Peterson Institute, the investigation by Science and ensuing legal actions are of deep concern to many in the patient and scientific communities. Because of the hope that XMRV raised for better care, Dr. Mikovits and the WPI have both attracted considerable support that is now being tested as details of civil and criminal charges are made public. We remain concerned for the well-being of all who are affected by this dispute and hope that the various investigations will yield an equitable resolution. The CFIDS Association maintains its focus on research to improve the diagnosis and treatment of CFS, and efforts to end the life-altering disability, stigma and isolation CFS imposes.”
In the early afternoon of Nov. 22, Tsouderos updated her article to reflect details revealed in sworn affidavits submitted to the Washoe County court on Nov. 21 by WPI employees Max Pfost, a post-doc who had been supervised by Dr. Mikovits, and Amanda McKenzie, a lab assistant. According to these statements, Dr. Mikovits compelled Pfost to steal 12-20 laboratory notebooks the day after her dismissal and to conceal them until Mikovits could return to Reno in mid-October. Mikovits asked McKenzie to take other lab materials and send them to National Cancer Institute researcher Frank Ruscetti, a collaborator on the original 2009 Science paper; McKenzie refused according to her sworn statement. The affidavits were posted to the Tribune website and, later in the day, to the WPI’s website.
Cohen of Science magazine attended the Nov. 22 court hearing in Ventura County, but was denied permission to provide extended coverage of the proceedings. Prior to the hearing he posted an update for ScienceInsider, “Details emerge of the criminal charges against embattled CFS researcher.” According to public information posted to the court docket, Mikovits was released on $100,000 bail and has an extradition hearing pending Dec. 19, 2011. A report, “World-known researcher set to be released on bail,” in the Ventura County Star by Tom Kisken documented that the parties are negotiating over rights to the property at issue. Dr. Mikovits released a statement to supporters via her husband, David Nolde, asking them to tone down criticism of the WPI. At 10:49 p.m., Cohen posted this report to the ScienceInsider site, “Inmate Mikovits meets judge.” Brendan Maher updated coverage for NatureNews blog with “Researcher confesses to stealing lab notebooks,” describing details in the affidavit by Pfost.
These other journalists and news outlets covered the story:
- Andy Coghlan for New Scientist: “Chronic fatigue researcher arrested in U.S.”
- Frank X. Mullen, Jr. for the Reno Gazette: “Reno chronic disease researcher behind bars”
- Steve Conner for The Independent: “Fugitive ME scientist arrested”
- Jeff Askt for New Scientist: “Chronic fatigue researcher arrested”
- United Press International (UPI): “Chronic fatigue researcher arrested”
- Tia Ghose at The Scientist: “Mikovits extradition delayed”
- Nigel Hawkes at the British Medical Journal: “Researcher who linked CFS to mouse virus is arrested” (subscription required)
- Nina Weber at Der Speigel: “Well-known CFS researcher must appear in court” (via Google translate, from German)
- Trine Tsouderos’ Tribune article of Nov. 22 was syndicated by the Tribune company and has appeared on at least a dozen other news sites and publications.
On Nov. 23, the Whittemore Peterson Institute posted a message titled “Happy Thanksgiving” on its Facebook page that reads, in part, “We are thankful that most of our property has been returned.” There were no details provided and questions posted below the message about the statement were not answered. The Associated Press reported on Nov. 28 that Dr. Mikovits’ husband indicates the parties are trying to reach an out-of-court settlement in “Dec. 19 extradition hearing for Nevada researcher.” Later that evening, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported that 18 notebooks had been returned to the WPI and were being checked for completeness. See, “Missing notebooks returned to Reno chronic disease lab,” by Frank X. Mullen, Jr.
On Nov. 29, News4 (television) in Reno reported that Dr. Mikovits had turned herself in to Reno/Washoe County authorities; she was released hours later on her own recognizance. The news report by Dina Kupfer included an exclusive interview with her attorney, Scott Freeman. Scott Sonner of the Associated Press reported the same afternoon that Dr. Mikovits returned the notebooks but maintains her innocence in the criminal case; see “Scientist surrenders in Reno research theft case.” Medscape, a leading site for physicians, also reported on the story on Nov. 29, although the report by Janis C. Kelly did not reflect the latest developments. Jon Cohen reported on Science Insider later that afternoon that, according to a statement issued by Annette Whittemore, the WPI’s losses were substantial and it was not dismissing the civil case against Dr. Mikovits. A two-page story, “Dispute over lab notebooks lands researcher in jail,” by Cohen ran in the Dec. 2 issue of Science, filling in additional details about the unfolding events and reaction to them. (Subscription or pay-per-view required.)
Additional coverage followed in these outlets:
- Frank X. Mullen, Jr. for Reno Gazette-Journal: “Chronic disease researcher surrenders in Reno” (Nov. 29)
- Ewen Callaway for NatureNews: “Embattled scientist in theft probe” (Nov. 29; updated Nov. 30)
- John Gever for MedPage Today: “XMRV-chronic fatigue saga takes a bizarre turn” (Nov. 30)
- John Timmer for Ars Technica and Wired.com: “How a collapsing scientific hypothesis ended in arrest” (Nov. 30)
- Julie Rehmeyer for Slate: “Stolen notebooks and a biochemist in chains: How did the study of CFS come to this?” (Dec. 2)
- John Gever’s MedPage Today story reposted to ABC News site: http://abcn.ws/uHWYxC (Dec. 3; archived video story is unrelated to current news)
- Staff report in The Nevada Sagebrush: “Researcher faces allegations of theft” (Dec. 5)
Jon Cohen interviewed Scott Freeman, the defense attorney representing Judy Mikovits for a ScienceInsider article posted on Dec. 5, “Criminal attorney speaks for controversial CFS researcher.” He told Cohen, “‘She maintains her innocence and we anticipate defending her aggressively,’ says Freeman, who is based in Reno, Nevada. ‘Obviously, she’s not someone who is a criminal.’”
Dr. Mikovits was one of six people in the scientific community featured by Nature in its “2011 Yearbook,” published in the Dec. 2011 issue of Nature Medicine. DISCOVER magazine, The Scientist and Science News all referenced in the dissolution of XMRV’s association with CFS in their year-end wrap ups.
When the split occurred at the end of September, WPI stated its commitment to a full research program and Dr. Mikovits expressed her intention to continue her research at another institution. The National Institutes of Health remains committed to completion of the multi-lab study of XMRV and related viruses being coordinated by Ian Lipkin, M.D., at Columbia University. Ewen Callaway reported for Nature News Blog on Dec. 15, that Dr. Mikovits would participate in the Lipkin study from the labs at NCI. See “CFS researcher finds a temporary home.” The R01 award made to WPI by NIH is being reviewed according to a prescribed process. On Dec. 17, Lenita Powers at the Reno Gazette-Journal reported a lengthy story titled, “Whittemore Peterson Institute vows to get past setbacks.”
The civil case filed by WPI was heard in Washoe County Court (Nev.) on Dec. 19. According to Cohen’s report for ScienceInsider, “Civil court rules against CFS researcher,” WPI prevailed on all counts, which included breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets. Mikovits pleaded the Fifth Amendment in her defense, but the judge dismissed her written replies to the complaint. While some of the property was returned, notebooks that recorded details fo experiments conducted between 2006 and 2009 are still missing and a computer returned by Mikovits had its hard drive wiped clean. WPI will seek monetary damages for the losses it has incurred. An arraignment for the criminal case will be held in Reno Justice Court on Jan. 10, 2012.
The outcome of the civil case was reported here:
- Victoria Campbell at KRNV News4 (Reno): “WPI prevails in lawsuit” (Dec. 19)
- Ewen Callaway for Nature News: “Institute claims victory in civil suit Judy Mikovits” (Dec. 20)
- Tom Kisken for the Ventura County Star: “In lawsuit, judge rules against researcher from Ventura” (Dec. 20)
- Jeff Askt for The Scientist: “Court rules against Mikovits” (Dec. 21)
In its Dec. 23, 2011 issue, Science issued a full retraction of the 2009 paper by Lombardi et al. linking CFS to XMRV. The notice of editorial retraction states that the editors have “lost confidence in the Report and the validity of its conclusions.” Regarding the figure that came under scrutiny on Sept. 30, editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts writes,
“In response to concerns expressed about Fig. 2C, the authors acknowledged to Science that they omitted important information from the legend of this figure panel. Specifically, they failed to indicate that the CFS patient–derived peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) shown in Fig. 2C had been treated with azacytidine as well as phytohemagglutinin and interleukin-2. This was in contrast to the CFS samples shown in Figs. 2A and 2B, which had not been treated with azacytidine.”
More details, reaction to and media coverage of the retraction can be found here: http://www.research1st.com/2011/12/22/retraction/. On Dec. 26, 2011, the authors of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper that identified sequences from MLV-like viruses retracted their paper. Details here: http://www.research1st.com/2011/12/26/pnas-retraction/.
Dr. Mikovits was arraigned in Reno Justice Court on Jan. 10, 2012. According to this report by News4 Reno, the next court date in the criminal case will be March 15, 2012.
On Jan. 27, 2012, former business partners of Harvey Whittemore, Tom Seeno and Albert Seeno, Jr., filed a lawsuit in Clark County, Nevada, alleging that Mr. and Mrs. Whittemore had embezzled and misappropriated millions from the business, Wingfield Nevada Group Holding Company, over a period of several years. Named in the lawsuit specifically are payments from Wingfield for salaries, travel expenses and other expenses paid on behalf of the Whittemore Peterson Institute without the knowledge or consent of the other partners. A $100,000 donation from Nevada Energy to the WPI is identified as not having been disclosed to the business partners; Nevada Energy was a major participant in a large land development project undertaken by Wingfield. Several Nevada news outlets covered the news of the lawsuit and KRNV posted a link to the civil court filing. The Reno Gazette-Journal reported that the allegations had been provided to local law enforcement as well. It is reported that the Reno Police Department and the State Bar of Nevada are conducting investigations. The Whittemores have told the media that the allegations are false and that they will take “all steps necessary to preserve their reputation.” A post to the WPI’s Wings of Hope blog made on Jan. 27 made no mention of the various legal actions in which the family is involved.
- Francis McCabe for the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Ex-business partners accuse Whittemore of embezzlement in lawsuit” (Jan. 27, 2012)
- Martha Bellisle for the Reno Gazette-Journal: “Lawsuit claims Harvey Whittemore embezzled millions of dollars from former business partners” (Jan. 27, 2012)
- Steve Green for VegasINC: “Lawsuit alleges Harvey Whittemore embezzled from companies” (Jan. 27, 2012)
- KRNV: “Harvey Whittemore facing embezzlement charges” (Jan. 27, 2012)
- Associated Press: “Lawsuit: Ex partners accuse developer of misappropriating funds” (Jan. 28, 2012)
- Martha Bellisle for the Reno Gazette-Journal: “Suit claims Wingfield developer Whittemore embezzled millions” (Jan. 28, 2012)
- Jon Cohen for ScienceInsider: “Lawsuit alleges misuse of funds by founders of Whittemore Peterson Institute” (Jan. 30, 2012)
- Nick Divito for Courthouse News: “Partners claim lobbyist blew millions” (Jan. 30, 2012)
- Cristina Luiggi for The Scientist: “More trouble for Nevada Institute” (Jan. 31, 2012)
- Francis McCabe for Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Lobbyist-developer accused of embezzlement” (Feb. 1, 2012)
On Feb. 1, the Whittemores filed a $180 million suit against the Seenos, alleging that the Seenos ”were guilty of racketeering, extortion and fraud, and saying they threatened him and his family with death if he didn’t follow their orders,” according to a Reno Gazette-Journal story by Martha Bellisle, “Lobbyist Harvey Whittemore strikes back at former business partners.”
- Frances McCabe and Jeff German for the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “Embattled developer files lawsuit against former partners” (Feb. 1, 2012)
- Andrew Del Greco for KRNV: “Whittemores fire back at Seenos in a suit that alleges extortion and death threats” (Feb. 1, 2012)
- Associated Press: “Nevada developer, partners in Coyote Springs planned city trading lawsuits and denials” (Feb. 2, 2012)
- Nick Divito for Courthouse News: “Nevada business dispute gets nasty” (Feb. 2, 2012)
- Steve Green for VEGAS INC.: “Whittemore lawsuits moving into stranger than fiction category” (Feb. 2, 2012)
- Mathias Gafni for Contra Costa Times: “Lawsuit accuses wealthy California family of threatening to kill Nevada lobbyist after land deal soured” (Feb. 3, 2012)
On Feb. 9, 2012, the FBI launched an investigation into political campaign contributions made by Harvey Whittemore. WPI was one of some 30 locations in Nevada involved in the investigation. According to a statement in a Las Vegas Review-Journal article by Jeff Germain and Frances McCabe, “FBI investigates campaign spending by Whittemore,” Annette Whittemore confirmed that the WPI is cooperating with the investigation and that a WPI employee was interviewed by FBI agents on Feb. 9. On Feb. 10, Sen. Harry Reid and other elected officials stated that they were donating to charity contributions received from the Whittemores and their close associates.
- Martha Bellisle for the Reno Gazette-Journal: “Nevada congressional delegation give away Harvey Whittemore’s campaign contributions” (Feb. 10, 2012)
- Martha Bellisle for the Reno Gazette-Journal: “The shocking collapse of a power partnership (and what it means to you)” (Feb. 12, 2012)
- Martha Bellisle for the Reno Gazette-Journal: “Wit and work made lobbyist, Harvey Whittemore, an institution” (Feb. 12, 2012)
While these controversies may remain news for the next while, regardless of the outcome there are many promising research studies under way that warrant continued support and merit hope for better ways to diagnose and treat CFS. The CFIDS Association is committed to translating the heightened attention and deeper engagement XMRV has attracted into sustainable progress to solve CFS.
We will continue to update this post with additional coverage and details, as warranted.
K. Kimberly McCleary has served as the Association’s chief staff executive since 1991.
- Oct. 6 at 9:20 a.m. to add link to article from The Scientist
Oct. 6 at 6:11 p.m. to add info about brief article in Oct. 7 issue of Science.
Oct. 7 at 6:24 p.m. to add link to the article from The Australian.
Oct. 10 at 3:23 p.m. to add link to the article from BioTechniques.com
Oct. 11 at 3:27 p.m. to add link to the BMJ article.
Nov. 13 at 9:13 a.m. to add links to Washoe County case information and blog post by Annette Whittemore.
Nov. 14 at 7:21 p.m. to add link to the ScienceInsider article.
Nov. 19 at 9:02 a.m. to add links to The Scientist article and information about Dr. Mikovits’ arrest on Nov. 18 as reported on RetractionWatch.
Nov. 19 at 1:19 p.m. to add links to the Osler’s Web blog post.
Nov. 19 at 9:10 p.m. to add link to ScienceInsider article.
Nov. 21 at 10:11 a.m. to add link to Genomics, Evolution and Pseudoscience blog post by Dr. Steven Salzberg.
Nov. 21 at 5:24 p.m. to add link to Nature News Blog article.
Nov. 21 at 11:40 p.m. to add link to Chicago Tribune article.
Nov. 22 at 11:14 p.m. to add information from new affidavits and additional media coverage.
Nov. 23 at 12:42 a.m. to add links to UPI, Ventura County Star, ScienceInsider and NatureNews articles.
Nov. 23 at 3:15 p.m. to add link to The Scientist article.
Nov. 23 at 11:51 p.m. to add information about the syndication of the Chicago Tribune article and the WPI Facebook page statement.
Nov. 24 to add link to BMJ article.
Nov. 25 at 11:17 a.m. to add link to Der Speigel article.
Nov. 28 at 6:40 p.m. to add link to AP story
Nov. 29 at 9:00 a.m. to add link to RGJ story.
Nov. 29 at 6:58 p.m. to add links to the News4 and Medscape stories.
Nov. 29 at 11:14 p.m. to add link to ScienceInsider story.
Nov. 30 at 12:57 p.m. to add link to the AP story by Scott Sonner.
Nov. 30 at 7:35 p.m. to add link to latest news stories.
Dec. 1 at 4:12 p.m. to add link to Science article.
Dec. 3 at 9:06 a.m. to add links to Slate article and ABC News post.
Dec. 6 at 8:20 a.m. to add links to the ScienceInsider story.
Dec. 7 at 2:01 p.m. to add link to The Nevada Sagebrush story.
Dec. 13 at 10:49 a.m. to add link to Nature Medicine’s 2011 Yearbook.
Dec. 15 at 7:32 p.m. to add link to Nature News Blog report.
Dec. 19 at 5:30 p.m. to add link to the RGJ report.
Dec. 23 at 8:30 a.m. to add information about the civil case
Dec. 14 to add information about the editorial retraction by Science.
Jan. 11 at 9:26 a.m. to add information about the PNAS retraction and arraignment hearing.
Jan. 28 at 12:01 p.m. to add information about the lawsuit filed by Whittemore’s fomer business partners.
Jan. 28 at 7:04 a.m. to add additional news stories
Feb. 3 at 7:39 a.m. to add information about counter lawsuit.
Feb. 4 at 2:24 p.m. to add additional news stories.
Feb. 10 at 9:39 a.m. to add information about the FBI investigation.
Feb. 12 at 7:51 p.m. to add additional news stories.