John M. Coffin | g Force

His work has gone viral

July 18, 2011

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Coffin is a professor of Molecular Biology and Microbiology at Tufts University. Research he published a few weeks ago debunked the theory that a specific virus, XMRV, causes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Q. Why are you convinced that this virus doesn’t cause chronic fatigue, that it was seen in samples of patients because of laboratory contamination, not because the virus is in the patients?

A. There’s no plausible way in which the virus could have spread through the people [with chronic fatigue], but there is a very plausible way that the cell line [of XMRV] could have spread around, because the cell line was or had been present in the lab of one of the collaborators on the original science paper. [And] somewhere between 10 and 20 other studies looking at groups of chronic fatigue patients have failed to find the virus, including some studies that have looked at the same patients who were in the original report.

Q. Many patients with chronic fatigue viewed the finding of the virus as additional evidence that their disease was “real,’’ not a figment of their imaginations, as some doctors had charged. They were quite disappointed with your findings.

A. I really wish this had come out the other way around. I would much rather have confirmed these earlier reports and shown that the virus was there. It might have provided some path to some kind of useful treatment.

Q. You’re a virus expert, not an expert in chronic fatigue, but do you believe that chronic fatigue is a psychiatric disorder or a physical condition, perhaps caused by a different virus?

A. It sounds to me like it’s a [physical, not psychiatric] disease, but I don’t have any scientific knowledge to help with that particular question. Certainly, many of the patients are seriously disabled.

Q. Could this XMRV, which you say developed in laboratory mice, have escaped and be causing different problems in people, if not chronic fatigue?

A. We don’t think it could survive well. It conceivably initiates a small infection [but] we think it’s very unlikely to initiate a major infection.

Q. But viruses closely related to XMRV are known to be dangerous, right?

A. One of the attractive features of the XMRV [theory of chronic fatigue] is that the group can cause quite a few diseases - cancers, wasting disease - it was plausible that this virus could have done that.

Q. You’re also investigating a similar virus that’s insinuated itself into our genes?

A. We have large numbers of these [viruses] in our genome, maybe thousands in our ancestry. Over the last 3 million years or so, our ancestors have been infected many, many times with viruses.

Q. The virus you’re looking at, HERV-K, may be connected to breast cancer?

A. It’s been speculated that it may be important in breast cancer, but nobody’s ever been able to find conclusive evidence of that. We’re also trying to understand whether this virus is still going around. Are there some of these viruses still infecting people, or are they all basically dead and in our genomes as fossils?

Q. Does that mean people could be “contagious’’?

A. There’s no reason to believe that people with breast cancer could be contagious. Even a mouse with a mammary tumor would not be contagious except to its offspring [who drinks] its milk.

Q. Does your work with viruses ever give you nightmares or make you paranoid?

A. I think we should be aware that all kinds of infectious agents are around everywhere and we want to keep ourselves protected from them as much as possible. We all know how not to get AIDS - [don’t have unprotected sex] - but lots of people still do unfortunately. So, be careful. But I wouldn’t worry about XMRV.


This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at

John M. Coffin
Coffin is a professor of molecular biology and microbiology at Tufts University. Research he published a few weeks ago debunked the theory that a specific virus, XMRV, causes chronic fatigue syndrome.

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