But there is a constant, bright spot in this ridiculous storm, and I dont want it to be overlooked– The scientific leadership of Robert Silverman, and everyone associated/partnered with his laboratory*.
As a young, hopeful, yet increasingly derisive scientist like myself, Silvermans behavior throughout all of this has been shockingly appropriate. Shockingly responsible. He is doing nothing that a good scientist shouldnt do, but its still shocking when people do the right thing, even at personal, professional, and financial cost to themselves.
For those of you who dont know what Im talking about, let me bring you up to speed–In 2006, Silvermans lab discovered a new retrovirus associated with prostate cancer. Specifically, a retrovirus in concert with a genetic variant was connected to prostate cancer. It was a fantastic finding, supported the ‘multi-hit’ mode of cancer, potentially new avenues of prostate cancer treatment and prevention, really cool!
Unfortunately, it turns out that their findings were the result of contamination. All of it.
After many labs found out that common laboratory reagents and commonly used cell lines were infected with the ‘new’ virus, XMRV, as well as mouse DNA that contains ERV versions of ‘XMRV’, Silvermans lab went back to their source material. The ‘discovered’ XMRV in a cell line they made from a prostate tumor isolated from a patient. The cell line was XMRV positive… while the original tumor was not. ‘XMRV’ was generated during the process that created the cell line, so XMRV did not cause the initial prostate tumor used to make the cell line.
Well, Silvermans lab has just taken everything a step further:
They basically emptied their freezer of patient prostate cancer samples and checked each and every one to see if they were genuinely infected with XMRV, or whether there was nothing salvageable from their initial paper. Knowing what we know today about XMRV/ERV-MLV contamination, they took precautions we didnt know to take pre-2006.
40 tissue samples. No XMRV by microarray. No XMRV from fluorescence in situ hybridization. No antibody response to XMRV in the patient sera.
They also sent their tissue samples to three independent institutions: Blood Systems Research Institute, Abbott Laboratories, and Cleveland Clinic for testing too.
And when they went back to the ‘positive’ RNA samples in their freezer, there WAS XMRV!… All the same XMRV. All the sequences were the same. From a retrovirus. After genetic analysis, their ‘positive’ results were unquestionably contamination.
And, not only did these groups do the responsible thing by performing the necessary research, appropriately, to resolve this issue, they also had their initial 2006 paper retracted.
This was a lot of hard work, organized by the very people who would be ‘embarrassed’ if XMRV was not connected to prostate cancer. The same people who would have to retract papers. The same people who own XMRV-related patents. The same people who work for pharmaceutical companies that have invested time/effort/money into developing putatively patient-grade diagnostic assays.
This research was carried out, voluntarily, by individuals who had ‘something to lose’.
In Science, people mess up. We dont 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.
Like I said… its shocking.
* I apologize for not naming everyone specifically in this post. There are more people doing The Right Thing in this situation than just Silverman, but I am not familiar enough with these labs to give the appropriate individuals credit. At the very least, the authors on this and this paper, as well as everyone from Silvermans lab who voluntarily pulled their XMRV=CFS data, I trust them. They might have messed up, but they helped resolve the situation in an honest and forthright manner. I trust these peeps. *fist bump*