Friday, August 27, 2010

Betting on X - As in XMRV - With a Big-Ticket Research Center

Betting on X - As in XMRV - With a Big-Ticket Research Center
August 26, 2010, 12:58 PM ET
By Amy Dockser Marcus

Reno, Nevada is a gambling mecca. But the biggest bet in town might be
the one being made on a retrovirus called XMRV.

XMRV has been studied in labs around the world since a paper published
last year in Science found a link between the retrovirus and chronic
fatigue syndrome. And few places have put more money on X — as
scientists often refer to it — than the Whittemore Peterson Institute
for Neuro-Immune Disease in Reno, home to the scientists who led that

The WPI is part of the just-opened $70 million Center for Molecular
Medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno. Annette and Harvey
Whittemore, who have a daughter with chronic fatigue syndrome, founded
the institute with $5 million of their own money. All of the
institute's projects are connected to X, Annette Whittemore told the
Health Blog last week, before the start of a scientific symposium held
at the WPI. (Whittemore is president of WPI.)

But this week, researchers led by NIH disease expert Harvey Alter
published a paper in PNAS that raises the question of whether X,
specifically, is the key culprit in CFS. The scientists reported
finding in CFS patients a family of retroviruses called MLV-related
viruses — of which X is a member — but not X itself. Instead they
found different members of the MLV family that they're calling P.

In a briefing this week about the findings, Alter emphasized that the
paper confirms the earlier work because it shows a strong association
between this family of retroviruses and CFS. But the new paper's
finding raises the possibility that perhaps P will turn out to be more
important than X. It's also important to point out that no one has yet
demonstrated that X, P or any other virus causes CFS.

The Health Blog asked Annette Whittemore after the Alter paper came
out if she was concerned about how closely linked the institute is
with X. She said that one of the hot topics at the recent WPI
symposium was whether X might turn out to have different strains, the
same way scientists now talk about HIV-1 and HIV-2. "We called it XMRV
at the time because that was the name that had been used," she says.
As scientists understand more about the broader family — including the
P viruses mentioned by Alter –the terminology, too, might eventually
change. "The name isn't as important as the concept that these are
retroviruses infecting human beings," she says.

As for the new space's treatment area, infusion room, clinical lab,
and research lab — all of which Whittemore hopes will be up and
running by fall — she says they're needed even if it turns out X
contributes to CFS but doesn't cause it. She said that if patients
with X are treated for the infection using antiretrovirals or other
drugs and improve, it would offer a potential new strategy in finding
treatments for CFS. WPI is not yet treating CFS patients, but it has
set up a clinical working group to collect and study outcomes data
from the doctors who are already prescribing antiretrovirals for their
CFS patients.

"If we discover at the end of the day that X is not the most important
player, are we flexible [enough] to recognize and treat whatever comes
along? Yes, we are," says Whittemore. "But we would be remiss not to
focus on the pathogen most highly associated with CFS to date and try
to get to the bottom of it."

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