Chronic fatigue and ‘RNA rumor viruses’ – Can we learn from history?

Arguments aired by Robin Weiss in  A cautionary tale of virus and disease”, published in September in BMC Biology, now seem vindicated by four independent publications in Retrovirology, suggesting that recently reported associations of xenotropic retrovirus XMRV with both prostate cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome are more likely to be due to laboratory contamination. Recent discussions of a vaccine therefore seem sadly premature. 

The earlier article from Robin Weiss sets the scene for this with remarkable prescience. Originally inspired by four papers published last year from laboratories unable to confirm the well publicized 2009 report associating XMRV with chronic fatigue syndrome, it details a long history of past claims of viral association with human disease that have turned out to be laboratory artifacts. The XMRV-chronic fatigue association, he argued, was likely to be another case of what have become known as ‘rumor viruses’ whose reported association with disease somehow never comes to anything. As well as noting the failure of other studies to support the original findings, Weiss emphasized that opportunities for laboratory contamination with sequences from murine retroviruses such as XMLV and XMRV are rife. The new papers in Retrovirology resoundingly demonstrate the reality of each of the sources of contamination he warned about.

As a retrovirologist himself, Weiss is at pains to emphasize that retroviral disease is real, as AIDS so dramatically and tragically testifies, and as he himself has forcefully acknowledged in warning of the possible dangers of xenotransplants. 

Given the weight of this evidence for widespread contamination as the cause of the recent incrimination of XMRV in human disease, however, there is perhaps one prediction of Weiss’s article that won’t be borne out. ‘Rumor viruses’, he says, ‘are seldom eradicated; they remain latent, waiting to be reactivated in a new disease’. But maybe this time we can learn the lessons of history.

Penelope Austin

Deputy Editor – BMC Biology

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