Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Squeaks and Peeps - and a few sharp bites
A number of weeks ago I read, in quick succession, several articles about Dr. John Coffin. The first told of his and his colleague Brigette Huber's research interest in HERV K18. This is serious research and an "artful collaboration". This article makes abundantly clear where Dr. Coffin's immediate research interests lie. (To some it has long been known that Dr. Coffin has been attached to this HERV K18 retroviral connection, an idea that contends with XMRV.) This is all well and good, serious and legitimate in its own right. The question is, with this background and association, how did Dr. Coffin gain prominence as a"neutral" party in the emergence of the association of XMRV with ME/CFS?
There is another, more predictable, article here, where Dr. Coffin goes knocking about with "the XMRV thing". This has been a habit of his now for over a year.
Because of this conflict, and because of his inept grandstanding, Dr. Coffin has limited credibility. However, he has achieved what he set out to do.
It is worth looking at what we know.
Dr. Coffin was included in early talks about the emergence of XMRV and ME/CFS in the summer of 2009. How he was included in this is anyone's guess. Presumably this "surprise" paper, soon to be published in Science magazine, needed "special handling". Little did the presenters of the paper realize what this "handling" would mean, and what the consequence would be of giving others the heads-up on XMRV.
By the time of the CFSAC meeting of late October 2009, Dr. Coffin, in one way or another, had insinuated himself onto the public stage as a "retroviral expert" - regarding XMRV. Many of us got to see him preening on the videos of this meeting. At that time he presented himself as a dispassionate observer with "a detached interest" in this new retrovirus and its association with ME/CFS.
Seven months later, Brigette Huber gave a presentation of her HERV K18 research at the 2010 InvestinME conference in London. Simultaneously she had also been busy doing a little work on XMRV, looking in the blood of 110 patients of Dr. Susan Levine.
Dr. Huber held in her little valise the results of this study - but she informed participants at the conference that she would not reveal the XMRV study results in her presentation the following day. (The results were suspected to be negative.)
While it was late in the evening in London, it was still cocktail hour in Boston. We can imagine Dr. Coffin, sitting on his porch, listening to his beloved Red Sox, sipping his Courvoisier. We can see him on the line, long distance.
For some reason - your guess is as good as mine - Dr. Huber changed her mind overnight - and at the end of her HERV K18 presentation, clumsily announced the negative results of her XMRV study. This had an unseemly feeling to it. Dr. Peterson leaned towards me and said that he had "never seen anything like this". As she scurried out of town, one imagines that Dr Huber was a little chagrined at having presented this negative information in front of so many sick and disabled patients. At the time it was difficult to determine exactly what the point was. There is no question that it was a sandbag job, and that Huber was shoved into it.
From this moment, it was clear the Dr. Coffin was "on the other side" - pushing against XMRV.
This feeling of Dr. Coffin's "softening" on the XMRV association with ME/CFS was reinforced in September 2010 at the XMRV conference, and again at the Blood Working Group in December 2010. In Gaithersburg, I was able to witness his "academic challenging" - partially supportive, partially equivocal, partially negative, but always shifting positions. The water was being stirred, and it was becoming muddy. Those of us in academia all know that the preferred position is to shoot at others (and how easy it is), and this was on full display on this afternoon.See here.
By early April 2011 at the NIH Dr. Coffin was directly and publicly engaging Dr. Mikovits in scientific needling, still posturing as a "neutral force", directly trying to "deep six" XMRV research. See here and here.
Over these months, there was a series of negative squeaks and peeps coming from others, presumed "academic colleagues" of Dr. Coffin - all aimed to marginalize the association of any viral or retroviral research with ME.
Was Dr. Coffin the best retrovirologist to take a "neutral position"? Who assigned him the position - Fauci? Was he ever "open to suggestion" on XMRV research in the association with ME/CFS - or was his position always academic posturing, a perverted form of "career enhancement"? Why would he bother? What is at stake? Doesn't he have other things to do? It is all a bit thick.
Whatever Dr. Coffin's original intent, or his original involvement, "the goal" has been reached, the one that had been announced in the late fall of 2009 that the WPI was "going to be taken out". XMRV has been "put on hold", and the WPI and their efforts have been stymied. Now we have to wait - and for how long, and for what?
While Dr. Coffin tries to tread a narrow line, knocking about XMRV and at the same time leaving open the possibility of another virus or retrovirus (which will never materialize and which he never will pursue), other folks are less subtle and are more openly aggressive. Coffin is straight out of the American university system. He is careful and covers his bases.
The fellow in the UK (who will remain nameless) plays roughhouse. I opened the paper the other day and read the headlines - and an incomprehensible idea floated into my mind. I said to myself, "Holy smokes, someone finally has pulled the plug on these suckers!" In a few seconds I realized that I had been deked, and the "other guys" had pulled off another tremendously successful stunt. You have to hand it to them, they are clever, resourceful - and dangerous. (This BBC story was a first-rate psychological inversion, where reality is stood on its head.) There is something at stake here. This UK game is not like American academic life. It is real hardball, played with steel bats and no gloves.
And where are our friends Amy Marcus and David Tuller these days? What happened to their story, the one that was going to bring them their journalist reward? Their story lies in a ditch. It was the wrong story - a story without legs. The bottom line is that the storyline has been lost, the tables have been turned. ME has again been smushed in the public arena.
For those of you who think this is a battle over XMRV, I suggest you think again. This is a concerted effort to "deep six" this neurologic illness, and put an end to any sustained serious research into it. The evidence lies there at our feet - there is no data on this illness, and there is no emerging newly fueled research. All outside effort is towards slamming the door.
So the situation is now put in the hands of Daddy government, and we are to wait dutifully for him to come to his conclusion. The problem is that Daddy has not proved himself to have been a good Daddy. On the contrary, he has been abusive, mean, unpredictable, indifferent, inconsistent and venal. Where does that leave us?