'Whittemore Peterson Institute researcher makes major breakthrough in
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome'
By Nicole Frost. Photo by Theresa Good Medicine Danna-Douglas
Nevada Silver & Blue
Crippling disease may be linked to XMRV virus
Dr. Judy Mikovits, research director for the Whittemore Peterson
Institute at the University of Nevada, Reno, vowed in childhood to
find a cure for cancer following her grandfather's early death from
lung cancer. Although she has yet to accomplish that lofty goal, in
her quest to solve the riddle of one of the most pernicious and deadly
diseases known to humankind, she has fortuitously made a major
breakthrough in understanding the origins of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,
a debilitating disease that affects more than one million people in
the United States.
In October, the Whittemore Peterson Institute announced that a
recently identified retrovirus called the "XMRV virus" had been linked
to the neuro-immune disease, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue
Syndrome (ME/CFS). An infection with XMRV virus was detected in 67 out
of 101 patients tested in the study.
Mikovits—whose patients affectionately call her "Dr. Judy"—along with
Whittemore Peterson Institute colleagues and collaborators from the
National Cancer Institute and the Cleveland Clinic, recently published
their groundbreaking findings in the journal, Science, one of the
world's leading journals of original scientific research, global news
Researchers speculate that XMRV infection of certain immune system
cells causes the chronic inflammation and immune deficiency that these
patients exhibit, thereby resulting in their inability to mount an
effective immune response to opportunistic infections.
"This is an incredibly significant discovery for those with Chronic
Fatigue Syndrome, and it has important implications for the world of
science and medicine," said University President Milton Glick.
"Scientific breakthroughs are often iterative, and a finding of this
magnitude can lead to additional discoveries and new research
In less than three years since she was hired as the research director
at the Whittemore Peterson Institute, Mikovits and her team have
identified a genetic susceptibility marker to Chronic Fatigue
Syndrome, developed a cytokine signature describing Chronic Fatigue
Syndrome as an inflammatory disease, produced a sensitive and accurate
test for coinfections, and described an abnormal number of pathogens
in this population. Taken together these biomarkers reveal the
significant number of biological challenges that ME/CFS patients face.
These unique findings led Mikovits to encourage her team to keep
looking for an underlying pathogen capable of producing the disease.
She enlisted the help of eminent retrovirologist, Dr. Frank Ruscetti
of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Bob Silverman
of the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Vincent Lombardi '06 Ph.D. (biochmeistry)
of the Whittemore Peterson Institute, and many other collaborators.
Since that time, Mikovits' team has found that more than two-thirds of
the samples are antibody positive.
This finding could be life-changing for the 17 million sufferers of
ME/CFS worldwide. It not only creates the strongest link to a
biological cause of disease in patients with ME/CFS but has
implications for an untold number of other diseases as well. The
discovery of XMRV as a human infectious pathogen may give rise to a
new field of medicine. Finding XMRV to be infectious and replicating
in blood samples supports the need for new diagnostic tools for its
detection, and the development of effective treatments to end the
destructive cycle of disease, including the cancers that patients
In contrast to HIV, which is a complex retrovirus, XMRV is a simple
retrovirus, making it an easier target for the development of a
preventative vaccine. "It's not going to be easy, but it's going to be
easier," to find a vaccine or drugs to target XMRV compared to HIV,
Mikovits spent more than 20 years at the National Cancer Institute in
Frederick, Md., earning her doctorate in biochemistry and molecular
biology and investigating mechanisms by which retroviruses dysregulate
the delicate balance of cytokines—secreted
substances that carry signals from cell to cell— in the immune
response. Later in her career there, her work helped in the
development of novel therapeutic agents for AIDS and AIDS associated
malignancies (Kaposi's sarcoma).
She agreed to work in Reno after attending a presentation by Dr.
Daniel Peterson, medical director of the Whittemore Peterson
Institute, in which he discussed an unusually large number of rare
cancers that occur in patients with long-standing Chronic Fatigue
"I met and talked to several patients and I became convinced that I
could help," Mikovits says. "I truly thought this work would not only
lead to the answers to these patients' illnesses, but it might also
lead us to the discovery of another new viral cause of cancer."
In addition, Mikovits was moved by talking to Annette Whittemore '74
(elementary education/special education), founder and president of the
Whittemore Peterson Institute, whose daughter, Andrea, has suffered
for many years from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
In the fall of 2006, the Whittemore Peterson Institute hired Mikovits
to lead a unique program of translational research. She began forming
a comprehensive research plan using her extensive background in
immunology and virology. Armed with this intriguing data, she began
contacting her many friends at the National Institutes of Health to
join in these efforts.
Mikovits realized that the field of neuroimmune disease lacked a
comprehensive biological research program that could answer the many
questions of patients and their doctors, but she faced longstanding
prejudice in the medical community against even recognizing Chronic
Fatigue Syndrome as a bona fide disease. "There's a significant lack
of federal funding and an institutional bias against biological
research of ME/CFS and other neuroimmune diseases, which has created
incredible hurdles to basic research for years," she says. "We believe
that situation will change with the knowledge of this important viral
Nonetheless, she engaged the world's best virologists, immunologists,
microbiologists, geneticists and epidemiologists. Using the latest
scientific technologies, which were acquired by the Whittemore
Peterson Institute through private and federal funding, she opened her
lab on the University campus and set the research program in motion.
"I have a strong team of the world's best scientists and the financial
support of the Whittemore Peterson Institute, coupled with the
University's supportive environment," she notes. "All of these factors
allowed us to begin our research without waiting years for a federal
grant to fund. I also work with a great team of young scientists from
this University, including Dr. Vincent Lombardi, Katy Hagen, Max
Miller and Dr. Isabel Silvestre."
Formally trained as a cell biologist, molecular biologist and
virologist, Mikovits has studied the immune response to retroviruses
and herpes viruses. In addition, she has coauthored more than 40
peer-reviewed publications that address fundamental issues of viral
pathogenesis, the production of blood cells and cytokine biology.
Ironically, Mikovits may soon realize her childhood dream of curing
cancer—since finding a cure for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome will also
cure the cancers associated with it—while also helping millions of
people who suffer from chronic neuro-immune diseases. When asked
what's next on her agenda, she says:
"In the world of science a new discovery brings more questions than
answers. We will continue our studies to determine what other diseases
are impacted by this virus and define the human immune defects related
to XMRV infection. I am also interested in codeveloping diagnostic
tools and new effective treatments. Many of these studies are already
underway in our lab. I tease Annette that I am going back to the beach
[Mikovits lived in Ventura, Calif. prior to moving to Reno]. But she
knows that I am committed to helping her find the answers for Andrea
and all the other patients before I leave."