Embattled Institute Retains Major Grant to Study Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Jon is a staff writer for Science.

The Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease (WPI), well known for a retracted study published by Science in 2009 that linked a mouse retrovirus to chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), will continue to receive funding from the U.S. government for a $1.5 million, 5-year grant to study the disease.

WPI, based in Reno, Nevada, could have lost the grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) because in September, it fired Judy Mikovits, the principal investigator on the award. WPI subsequently filed a lawsuit against Mikovits for allegedly misappropriating property, and she also became subject to a related criminal case that led to her arrest and brief jailing. Mikovits has maintained her innocence and both cases still are in the courts. Harvey Whittemore and his wife, Annette, who founded WPI, are defendants in a lawsuit filed against them by his former business partners who allege that the couple inappropriately used funds from a holding company he co-owned to support their institute. They have denied those charges.

NIAID staff members visited WPI on 15 December and assessed the qualifications of researcher Vincent Lombardi, a co-author of the retracted paper who still works at the institute. NIAID officially approved Lombardi as the new principal investigator yesterday, noting that he had the “technical expertise and experience directly applicable to the studies in Aim 2 of the grant,” which focuses on genetic susceptibility to the disease and dysregulation of the immune system. Aim 1 was to identify and confirm novel viruses linked to CFS.

The National Institutes of Health, NIAID’s parent organization, in 2010 spent about $6 million on research for CFS, an amount patient advocates contend is inadequate for a disease that afflicts an estimated 1 million to 4 million Americans alone. WPI’s relatively rare investigator-initiated grant to study CFS began in September 2009, the month before the controversial Science report was published, and ends in August 2014.

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