On science blogs this week: Negative
Written by Tabitha M. Powledge Blog
XMRV AND CHRONIC FATIGUE SYNDROME AND PROSTATE CANCER AND MANY MORE COMPLICATIONS. You probably thought the XMRV-does/does not-cause-chronic-fatigue saga was over last Tuesday. That's when the definitive final ultimate last-word paper was published showing that the murine retrovirus found in CF patients' cells was definitely a laboratory contaminant and definitely doesn't cause chronic fatigue syndrome.
Nope. The XMRV story goes on and on.
On the chronic fatigue paper, and the very long and very complicated tale leading up to it, read the splendid (as always) summary by Carl Zimmer at The Loom. But by all means see also the comments for sensible discussion of whether/how the extended mess over this supposed link could have been prevented. And also how some CF patients are making lemonade out of this lemon, arguing that the dispute over the paper's validity can only be good because it has brought increased research attention to their controversial disease.
More on the new CF paper: From the horse's mouth, a podcast interview between the well-known virologist Vincent Racaniello and Ian Lipkin, senior author of the CF paper. (Lipkin is a subject of Carl's post cited above.) The link is from Racaniello's Virology Blog.
At Mermaid's Tale, Anne Buchanan recaps the XMRV-chronic fatigue story but also explores the utility of falsifiability — the attempt to show that a scientific finding is wrong — as a test of its validity. Falsifiability is not always the last word, she argues. (She also notes that Arthur Conan Doyle, in his Sherlock Holmes persona, came up with this idea years before it popped out from the brain of philosopher Karl Popper.)
MOVING RIGHT ALONG TO XMRV AND PROSTATE CANCER AND EVEN MORE UNEXPECTED DEVELOPMENTS. But the most intriguing twists to the XMRV story aren't about chronic fatigue at all. They are about prostate cancer.
Published less than a day after the CF paper (but in a different journal, PLoSONE) comes a paper showing that XMRV isn't linked with prostate cancer either. XMRV first surfaced in 2006, in a PLoS Pathogens paper announcing the virus's discovery and suggesting that it might figure in prostate cancer. This was some years before XMRV was proposed as the cause of CF. This week's paper shows that XMRV is a lab contaminant in prostate cancer cells as well as CF patient cells.
As the new prostate cancer paper was published in PLoSONE, PLoS Pathogens retracted the 2006 paper, according to a post at the PLoSONE blog EveryONE by Gilda Tachedjian, who edited the new paper.
At Retraction Watch, Ivan Oransky recounted that the journal's editors did the retracting without consulting the first paper's authors, many of whom were also authors of the new paper rescinding the earlier finding. Ivan also reports that Kasturi Haldar, the editor of PLoS Pathogens, claims the authors were emailed for comment on the retraction in August but the journal received no reply.
Ivan linked to a piece at ScienceNOW wherein Martin Enserink reported on the unilateral retraction and the shocked reaction of the papers' senior author Robert Silverman of the Cleveland Clinic. Silverman pointed out that the 2006 paper was reporting discovery of a new virus as well as its presence in prostate cancer cells. Since the discovery still stands, Silverman argued, the proper procedure would be publication of an erratum explaining why it was in the cells, not retraction of the entire paper.
Robert Silverman. Credit: Cleveland Clinic
So I was very glad to see ERV's post bestowing warm praise on Silverman and his colleagues. The behavior of Silverman et al in falsifying their own papers, ERV said, was "shocking" for this reason:
This was a lot of hard work, organized by the very people who would be ‘embarrassed’ if XMRV was not connected to prostate cancer ... This research was carried out, voluntarily, by individuals who had ‘something to lose.’ In Science, people mess up. We don't have all the necessary information before we start. We are shooting into the dark. When people take new information to discover something new, or take new information to correct an old error, it is Science moving forward. The advancement of science was more important to these folks then the advancement of their personal egos/careers/pocketbooks. In this crazy world, there are people who do the right thing.
The unilateral retraction of their initial paper by the journal, involving as it did no consultation with the authors, seems like a shabby response to scientists doing exactly what scientists are supposed to do. For once it was scientists not behaving badly.
SO IF NOT XMRV, WHAT CAUSES PROSTATE CANCER?. I've never written about chronic fatigue syndrome, but just so you know, I'm biased on the subject of prostate cancer. I've looked hard at the epidemiological and genetic evidence and am persuaded that at least some cases of prostate cancer probably have an infectious cause. It's also plausible that at least some cases of prostate cancer are, like cervical cancer, transmitted sexually.
Not least because it would be a lovely bombshell of a story, I've tried to sell this tale to an assortment of editors. What a juicy piece it would be, proclaiming the intimate origins of (at least some cases of, she qualified carefully once more) the second most common cancer in men (first is non-melanoma skin cancer) and the second most common cause of cancer death in men (first is lung cancer). And what a juicy hed: Prostate Cancer is (probably) an STI.
But I have sent off my proposals (and even complete mss) to no avail, she sighed wistfully. The evidence is indirect, intricate, and requires a lot of explanation. Hard to avoid the eyes-glazing-over factor, which is doubtless my fault.
Still, it breaks my heart to know that I will probably never get to tell this tale. But someday somebody will, and this post will at least establish that I had it first.
Nyah, nyah, nyah.
And — last-ditch effort here — if any editor out there is intrigued ...
BEST SCIENCE BLOGGING 2012. The formal title is The Best Science Writing Online 2012. Now published by Scientific American-Farrar Straus and Giroux, this volume is the latest iteration of the science-writing annual series formerly known as The Open Laboratory, the brainchild of Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker, also fathers of the extraordinary annual meeting known as Science Online. But let's get real, the book is mostly a collection of science blogging — very high-order science blogging. Knight Science Journalism Tracker Deb Blum tells you all about it.