BunsenBwog: A Sunday Morning Chat with W. Ian Lipkin
Bwog's avant-garde epidemiologist, Zach Kagan, ventures out on this
fine Sunday armed with sleep inertia and a healthy sense of adventure.
He discusses recent development in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) with
our very own Professor Lipkin.
Professor W. Ian Lipkin has been featured in several editions of
BunsenBwog, and why wouldn't he be? As the director of the Center for
Infection and Immunity and John Snow Professor of Epidemiology at the
Mailman School, Prof. Lipkin has metaphorical fingers in so many
metaphorical pies that he ought to get metaphorical carpal tunnel.
BunsenBwog has covered his work on the Borna Disease Virus, Kawasaki
Disease, and the film, Contagion, where he acted as a creative
consultant (and provided inspiration for one of the characters). But
these are but tiny portions of the research Dr. Lipkin contributes to
at the CII. That is why I was so excited when Prof. Lipkin agreed to
speak with me about the CII's latest findings on Chronic Fatigue
The first thing you learn about W. Ian Lipkin is that he's extremely
and perpetually busy, making it difficult to find a time to actually
sit down and talk. After a week of negotiations with his personal
assistant, Prof. Lipkin decided to E-mail me himself. At 6 A.M. on a
Sunday. "Best for me would be 9am."
Had an obnoxious ray of sunlight not accidentally woken me up at 8:30
A.M., I probably would have slept through my only shot at an
interview. Well, it was what I wanted, wasn't it? So I set forth,
sleep deprived and slightly hungover, to meet Lipkin in his 105th
street townhouse home. When I found his house, Prof. Lipkin was
waiting in the kitchen, eating a sandwich and fiddling with an
espresso maker. Thankfully, some of that coffee found its way into the
miniature mug being handed to me. And, eventually, we started talking
about the CII.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a strange beast. While its name might
suggest that it's some acute form of senioritis, in reality it's a
debilitating illness which over a million Americans suffer from.
Symptoms extend beyond prolonged fatigue; CFS sufferers also
experience muscle pain, unsatisfying sleep, headaches, impaired
memory, and mental fog as well as a host of other flu-like symptoms.
While some symptoms may suggest that a viral infection is the culprit
behind CFS, many scientists are not sure. In fact, there is much
debate in the medical community over what exactly causes CFS. The
biggest lead comes from a 2009 paper published in Science, which
linked CFS to two viruses: XMRV and pMLV.
However, the paper's results were never successfully replicated by
other laboratories, which sparked skepticism among researchers. And
so, as Lipkin puts it, "We went ahead and set up a study to test this
thing once and for all." Using blood samples from 147 patients with
CFS and 146 controls, researchers searched for traces of XMRV and
pMLV. In the end none of the participating groups found any presence
of genes characteristic of the two viruses in question. The conclusion
is that the 2009 discovery may have been the result of some sample
contamination. For now the true cause of CFS is again a mystery.
Personally, Lipkin believes that CFS may not be one disease but
instead a category of symptoms caused by a large set of factors, which
will present new challenges to CFS researchers.
But to Lipkin the CFS study is just one of many side projects. For
example, he has a team down in Grenada investigating why a tilapia
fish farm is experiencing an 80% mortality rate. But while these
projects are important, Lipkin considers them his "day job… it's easy,
almost automated." We talked about his long term interests:
epigenetics, cancer prediction, preventative medicine, and creating an
international network of infectious disease specialists. It's that
last one that he feels is most important for improving world health.
"You don't need 65 people [referring to the number of researchers at
the New York CII], just 600 feet and a sequencing machine."
Somehow the conversation segued from morality of eugenics ("look, I
don't want to create Aryan supermen") to diseases caused by
gastrointestinal fauna to Bill Clinton's eating habits. "There's this
picture of Bill Clinton at Katz's deli eating two whole sandwiches and
fries," Lipkin remembers, that being before, of course, Clinton's
quadruple bypass surgery and later implantation of two coronary
stents. Now he's a vegan, Prof. Lipkin informs me. Absentmindedly I
reply that so is Clint Eastwood.
"I hadn't heard of that, let's look it up." He pulls out his laptop
and starts Googling "Clint Eastwood + Vegan." "Now I'm really
intrigued." After only a few clicks, he found an article claiming
Eastwood has invited prominent members of the GOP to his place for
steak dinners. "I don't think he's a vegan if he's eating steak
dinners," Prof. Lipkin tells me with a grin, "another myth bites the