I transcribed this audio from the point after Abbie's introduction, where they started discussing the subject. I have not edited or polished this transcript because, frankly, it was tedious to hear all these "you know's" and "um's" and "likes." I may do that later.
Interviewer: And the reason I had you on, if people have been following your blog, you've been covering something called X-M-R-V, right?
Interviewer: And if I can parse that...RV--retrovirus--RV, and XM--kind of a non-terrestrial radio virus, or something like that?
Smith: (laughing) It's a xenotropic murine retrovirus, so...
Smith: So, it is...there are a few different kinds of...flavor of this retrovirus, so to speak. And one flavor of this murine--mouse--retrovirus, we thought potentially was infecting humans.
Interviewer: And that was sort of a cause...someone proposed it was a cause of, uh, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Smith: Uh, yes. Or were at least played some sort of significant role. In the disease pathology. Uh...so, it was an uunfortunate scenario where, ya know, individuals with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome ... they don't have very many treatment options. Uh. It's one of those things, it's such a catch-all disease then, really, that...uh.,
Smith: That...uh...really when you say that this individual with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has these set of symptoms and responds this way to this set of therapy, it just didn't work that way. Um. So there were a group of laboratories who said that they found this retrovirus, XMRV, in the blood of--I guess it was...I've forgotten at this point--was it 67 percent of individuals with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. So that would be fantastic. Th... you know, no longer would this disease be sort of this kind of catch-all wastebin of the diagnosis. But if a retrovirus is involved, then we have an actual test for it. We would have functional treatment options that really have already been worked out with HIV. It basically gave these individuals a lot of hope that they would be regaining some of the function that they had previously in their life.
Interviewer: Eh, uh, uh, I'm sure there are no doctors today, but there's maybe a bit of a stigma, like, you know, it's kind of all in your head sort of thing.
Smith: Yeah. I mean, uh, I'm not a physician, so I ca... I mean I don't really see Chronic Fatigue Syndrome patients, I just ... I know as much as anybody who's read about it on Wikipedia, really. I was only interested in this particular disease because of its theoretical association with retroviruses. And, I mean, I absolutely love viruses of all kinds, especially retroviruses. So that's what piqued my interest in it. Um. But at the same time I don't think physicians themselves know very much about this disease. And so when you get someone coming in with kind of these vague symptoms that you can't just run a simple diagnostic test to tell you yes or no. Or blood work that says, oh, this liver enzyme is high, so--you know--of course this is going on. Physicians...I mean when you've run all your tests and it doesn't look like anything is wrong to you, what else, really, is for them to conclude.
Smith:...Other than it is in your head.
Interviewer: What is it, Dr. Cavallo calls it, like nonspecific symptoms?
Interviewer: You're tired and...
Smith: Yes. Lethargy, pain, just--you know--all over achey, difficulty concentrating. Um...you know, how...that's not, like, you know, my arm is broken. (laughs)
Interviewer: Yes, yes, yes.
Smith: So, it's a little more complicated to figure out what's going on.
Interviewer: I think Dr. Cavallo, too, he pointed out one time ... he's like, you know, people will come in with -- I mean, he's a neurologist, and so they ran a bunch of tests and say, okay, it's not this horrible disease ...
Interviewer: ...It's not this deadly disease. It's not that deadly disease. And instead of people being relieved, people are, like, ah...you know
Interviewer: They're sort of pissed off.
Interviewer: Or if they're not pissed off...
Smith: At least that would be an answer. I think.
Interviewer: Yes, exactly. Yeah. Whereas, sort of, you know, doctors going to look at it like, you know, you don't have this awful disease that's terminal, you know. People don't look at it that way.
Interviewer: So, so, so...Some labs kind of found...they thought they found...right, so maybe something specific. So there could be a test, and yes, you have this.
Smith: Yeah, yeah. Um. Yeah, it was published in SCIENCE. Um, you know, with individuals on the paper, authors, uh, who held the sway in retrovirology. You know, these weren't, um, you know, nutritionalists that decided to write a paper on retroviruses. I mean, you know, these individuals had the training and the experience to know what they were doing. So when this paper came out, I think everybody in the retroviral field was excited. First of all, um, when you're in this kind of field, you love what you do. And to find out that there's another human retrovirus, we were all pretty excited. Uh, not to mention the patients who were also excited, uh, at the prospect of having a treatment for their disease. Um. But things quickly turned South.
Smith: Is one way to put this. And I think, um, you know, the story of XMRV is an excellent example of the scientific process.
Smith: So I just...for listeners to keep that in mind. Ha-ha. As we're telling the tale in retrospect. Um, because when the XMRV connection to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome first came out...you can look on my blog...either the first or second post under XMRV. You know, even I read this paper and I was totally pumped about it. I mean, there are certain things that I would have done differently, but at the time, at surface value, this was a paper that most retrovirologists were pumped about, not just, you know, us graduate students, but also the top individuals in our field. Um. But of course, you know, we don't take this finding, take it for granted and go to the next step. We don't immediately start giving patients retrovirals ... uh, or immediately start testing everybody, blood banks, that sort of thing, for this new human pathogen.
The next step in the scientific process is not just the discovery, but other people need to be able to replicate your findings, and not just replicate but in the process of replication, contribute something different. So, let's see, I guess that this paper was released in October, and by December, uh, and early January of the following year, there were individuals all around the world, scientists all around the world who were trying to replicate the initial findings in their own group of patients. And they were not succeeding. So this group said, "Hey we found this new retrovirus," and then everyone else who looked can't find it. Um. So this...this...could have meant a wide variety of things.
For instance, there are viruses that are more prevalent in certain parts of the world, in certain populations, um, geographic locations, than other viruses. Uh, for instance, one of the viruses that I started out researching as an undergrad, Kaposi Sarcoma Virus that's associated with lesions in HIV/AIDS--lots of people in Africa are infected with this virus naturally, and it doesn't cause any trouble until you're also infected with HIV and suffering from AIDS. Whereas, in the United States, hardly anyone is infected with this virus. So it could be that the initial findings, with the initial group of patients, that they were, in fact, infected with XMRV. But other patients in other parts of the world, you wouldn't have this viral association because XMRV virus might not be endemic is what we we call it, in different populations.
Uh, and then another possibility is, you know, everybody, um, on the laboratory side of things, we all have our own recipes, our own tricks for looking at viruses. Once you get to the point where you're running clinical diagnostic tests, like what you get tested for in a hospital, that is all standardized and, uh, you know, seal of approval from the FDA, that sort of thing.
Smith: But what we do in the lab is like, you know, I have my own chili recipe and you know...
Smith: and another lab in another part of the country has their own preference, uh, for chili. And then you go to another part of the world and they're making, you know, spaghetti instead. But you get dinner out of the deal. Ha-ha.
Smith: So other labs in other parts of the world were applying what they had used on other viruses to XMRV and they couldn't see it. So it might be that their recipe just wasn't right for finding the virus. Uh. So at that point we had, uh, a couple of options. Um. But, I'm just going to have to keep saying this, and then things quickly went downhill. Ha-ha.
Smith: Things are going to be downhill from here.
Laughter all around.
Interviewer: Yeah. And the conspiracy world. That's where it got interesting.
Smith: Oh. So we kind of had a problem--ha--we knew, Houston, we had a problem.
Smith: When the first negative papers came out.
Smith: Um. Because here's the deal, in science we fight and I'm doing air quotes right now that you can't see me.
Smith: Um, ha-ha. But we fight all the time about how...oh, um, let's say for instance whether HIV is actually infecting dendritic cells, a kind of immune cell. Or whether dendritic cells are just catching and carrying the virus to susceptible, uh, cellular hosts. So you will have scientists who will just say hateful, hateful but very scientific and professional ...
Smith: in a scientific and professional way about one side of that argument. And then you'll read another paper from people on the other side of the argument, and they're doing the same thing. But we have a very specific way of disagreeing with one another. That is not what happened...
Interviewer: (Laughing) Okay.
Smith: So instead of, you know, saying reasonably, "Well, maybe this is a, uh, you know, assay issue, maybe this is a population issue, um, the lead author on the initial XMRV story immediately accused all of the principal investigators on the negative studies, um, of fraud, of knowingly manipulating data, of accepting bribes from, uh, who knows...
Interviewer: Big pharma...
Smith: Big pharma. I, you know, you'd think Big Pharma would want to treat another chronic lifelong illness with drugs, uh...
Interviewer: Expense..yeah...expensive retrovirals...
Smith: Very expensive drugs
Interviewer: Versus aspirin? Or something...
Smith: Um-huh. And, you know, this group of individuals, um, some of them, and that's what we need to keep in mind too, an I always have to continually remind myself, is that in any group of people there are fringe individuals, uh, that are loud, that have a lot of time on their hands, that make everyone else look bad. And especially in the case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, you've got individuals who genuinely, you know, cannot function and then you have individuals who spend their lives online. Um, you know, some of the individuals I ended up interacting with would just write hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of comments on message boards, like a wide variety of message boards, and any journalist who wrote an article on a topic would get, you know, dozens of comments from the same individual. Uh. Who obviously have something mentally wrong as well, but they are so primed against any kind of psychological or psychiatric help because they think, oh, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is all in the head, that they go to the opposite extreme where they refuse any kind of help when they might need it completely unrelated to their Chronic Fatigue Syndrome...uh...symptoms.. Um. And I got off on a tangent there. What was I talking about?
Interviewer: Ha-ha. The lead author.
Smith: Yeah. So those individuals that had a lot of time on their hands, uh, immediately, um, gathered behind the lead researcher, uh, to go around slandering and harassing any of the scientists who published these negative papers.
You know, we're scientists. Like, we aren't used to that kind...we're used to most people not only not understanding what we do but ignoring what we do.
Smith: And then all of a sudden, you know, your inbox is full of hate mail. And ha-ha-ha, like, what...
Interviewer: You're suddenly not used to, like, somebody suggested...well, maybe when you go between your car and your lab you should wear this bulletproof vest...you know...
Smith: Exactly. Um. And the problem was, this wasn't just patients doing it on their own. They got this idea from a very specific location, and that was the lead investigator on that initial paper. And all of a sudden, um, everybody on the scientific side was, like, what...what exactly are we dealing with here? Because this is not a normal group of patients. This is not a normal investigator. This is not a normal scientific controversy. Something has gone wrong.
Smith: And how wild is this train going to go off the tracks? (Laughs)
Interviewer: (laughing) I mean, in HIV research, like mostly the fringes reach for the conspiracy, but it's very rare that the lead author immediately...like...oh...like...so, what...
Smith: In the first place, in the first place to the media, um, it's one thing to jokingly say that. It's one thing to genuinely believe that, uh, behind closed doors but you do...like...I have a whole post on this...you do not accuse a scientist of fraud or accepting bribes or any of that crap...
Interviewer: Cause that's...
Smith: You have proof...
Interviewer: Cause your career is over, right?
Smith: Yes. Um. If you commit fraud in a scientific paper, that is it. Um. If you commit fraud with NIH money, cause it's...it's...well, at least in the US, well, that's government money. You are never going to get grant again. I mean, it's it. And the scientific process as a whole is founded on this trust, that everybody, you know, the research isn't perfect. It's never going to be perfect. But you do experiments the best you can. You present your data as honestly and clearly as possible. You publish your methods so anybody else can come up behind you and say, "Oh, that's how they did..." and can replicate what they did with their own, um, spin on it. Um. And that's how the scientific process moves forward. That's why I don't have to reinvent and redo experiments on HIV from 1985. It's because I trust the science that was done in 1985, and scientists since then have, uh, reproduced and added more to the experiments done in 1985. If we couldn't trust each other, we would be just sitting there doing the same experiment day after day after day.
Smith: So, to accuse another scientist, uh, of fraud is...I mean, that is just a kick to the nuts. And especially since at this point...what are we? Three years? Almost three years later? And no evidence has ever surfaced that any of, ha-ha, any of the individuals who could not find the virus were the ones committing fraud.
Interviewer: Um. Now why the...the lead researcher, like why would she reach,, you know, like play the, you know, the Big Pharma conspiracy card? Has anybody got any idea?
Smith: Um-No. Um. I mean, you know, in retrospect (laughing) guilty conscience...Um. You know, uh, the lady doth protest too much...(laughing)
Interviewer: No, I mean, uh, you know, scientists are human beings, right, and uh...
Interviewer: And, you know, sometimes the...you know...sometimes the media portrays them as like the mad scientist but other times they're ... they're imbued with, like, you know, almost a priest-like status. Like you know, you know, I ... I... you know, Abbie, I don't think you ever do anything wrong. You know, you are...you are...
Interviewer: Abbie, you're a scientist. You know...and...and...and so in some ways it's kind of surprising when, like a scientist pulls out a gun and shoots all of her colleagues or something like that...
Smith: Yeah, like what happened in Huntsville...
Interviewer: Yeah, or an astronaut, right, puts on astronaut diapers and drives across the country...
Smith: Drives across the country...but yeah...
Interviewer: It just doesn't compute with the average person.
Smith: Yeah. Um. And just from a psychological standpoint, um, you can't always understand, uh, irrational behavior, especially if you aren't in that particular irrational state of mind yourself. And so I accept behavior as it is and don't try to rationalize it from my perspective because sometimes it's just not...um...but in retrospect, yes, I see why that's where the lead author went. Laughter.
Interviewer: We'd likeyou to digress a bit, I mean,
Interviewer: I mean, Isaac Newton, I mean, scientists would hold up...scientists would hold Isaac Newton as just this, uh, you know, ideal scientist who is just this paragon of logic and rationality and, but you know, we're kind of finding a lot of his material where he is...he is kind of nutty and where he is kind of a religious nut.
Smith: Well sure. And, you know, scientists...that's one of the fantastic parts about science. You hear about, oh, this guy was a jerk. This guy was an asshole. This lady, oh, she's so mean. It doesn't matter. (Laughs.)
Smith: In science. You can be an awful, awful terrible person. You can be the nicest person on the plant. Uh. Your personality simply does not matter. When you are reading a journal article, you ... the science is there, the science should speak for itself. Um. And anyone can make their own conclusions from the data even if you don't necessarily agree with the conclusions that the author of the papers wrote. Uh. So that's one of the things I love about science is that, you know, you can have these very strong personalities and they can thrive in science, whereas, you know, if they tried to be in business or if they tried to be in something a little more social...uh...they would be very off-putting.
Interviewer: Wow. You know, I think Christmastime I'm reading my local newspaper and there was something, you know, about XMRV and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and I'm reading, reading, reading, reading, and there's...there's you in the...in the article, and I'm like, at first I'm like, yeah, there's Abbie...duh ta duh...oh wait, Abbie!
Interviewer: What's...what's...what's...how did you? Are you like really one of the chief critics out there or are you the one who busted this all open, or what was your role in it?
Smith: There were many, many, many scientists who, since the publication of the initial paper, started raising some red flags, and started raising questions. Um. And these are individuals. Once again, speaking to, you know, the universal language of science. These were people from all over the world who looked at the data in the paper, looked at their data, their own data, they looked at data being presented at conferences and they looked at what other people were presenting, and started to understand that this whole story wasn't making sense. Um. I am the only one who had a blog. Uh. Who...and I'm the only one who's a student and, honestly, who's in a position to be a little more assertive...
Interviewer: Um. Um, yes.
Smith: Because, you know, when you're, ahem, the lead author said some things that she shouldn't have, and the people on our side, we don't want them doing that either.
Smith: And so, as a student, I was a little more free to, like I said, be a little more aggressive.
Interviewer: Humm. Um-hum.
Smith: And pursue this more aggressively and bring it to the general public's attention ...
Smith: Or at least, you know, the scientific public, that likes to read science blogs. Um. And, you know, if you're a lead researcher in the Netherlands, you don't have that same kind of platform that I had.
Smith: That I had to get it out there. So it might appear that I am one of the critics. No. I'm just one of the loudest (laughter). With a bigger audience than the people who really were on the front lines of figuring out the science of what was really going on. Uh. In the initial paper and in the subsequent papers.
Interviewer: Yeah. And, uh, uh, you're sort of...your student status, that kind of worked well for you, uh...Behe, Mr. Intelligent Design, Behe ... cause you kind of, you had some choice words for him, and well, it's kind of funny too, I mean, he had the kind of...he had to hold back a little bit, right? I mean, he couldn't just...
Smith: Um. Gee, the debate tactics that creationists use, um, are targeted towards people like Richard Dawkins, like Christopher Hitchins, like P.Z. Meyers, older white men, uh, they could be very aggressive with and the audience didn't care. However, when people like Michael Behe or any number of the men, the creationists that I've debated, when they try to be very aggressive with me, they come off looking like assholes.
Smith: It doesn't work. Um, so to pull this back to XMRV, um, it was funny for me to see that the defenders of the lead researcher were trying to say that, oh the people...people were only questioning this work and people were, uh, trying to discredit this work because the lead author is a woman.
Interviewer: Um-hum, yes. Okay.
Smith: And that was particularly funny to me because, uh, many of the vocal retrovirologists, who were themselves targets of some of the fringe members of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome group are women. Um. The field of retrovirology, I've always found, is very welcoming to women. Uh. The top people in my field and in retrovirology, there's women there, uh, so to say that this is, uh, oh,, this is just sexist. You're attacking this researcher because she's a woman and she dared to question...No.
Interviewer: Yeah, right.
Smith: We're...we're attacking the science and there are also women attacking the science. Um. So to break it down into a sexism game, that also didn't work. (Laughs.) For these individuals.
Interviewer: No. Yeah, because I guess, you know, the, uh, uh, the, uh, the, you know, the people are suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. You know, the whole maverick scientist, uh...
Interviewer: ...brave maverick scientist...that, that, that...that's always a good, sort of, archetype, right?
Smith. Yeah. Ha-ha-ha (laughing)
Interviewer: So I, uh, now, this paper, it was eventually retracted? Did I? By?
Smith: Well, it was retracted in part initially, um, because one of the individuals on the paper who, uh, did a chunk of the work, found that some of the samples that he received for testing were contaminated. Um. And it happens. We work with DNA and we now have the technology to see teeny, teeny, teeny, tiny quantities of DNA. You know, a strand of DNA in a swimming pool.
Smith: And so, if there's any contamination, we're going to see it and think it's a positive. Um. And so, what ... his name's Bob Silverman, and what he did was, he had actually a very clever trick for contamination. So he was looking for a retrovirus and he found a retrovirus. Well, uh, we work with these bits of DNA in the lab called plasmids. Um, they're....a kind of DNA that bacteria treat like Pokemon. They, like, they want to collect them all and they trade them with their friends.
Interviewer: Right. Helps resistance or something.
Smith: Yeah. Yeah, with antibiotic resistance or just new, new tricks that they discover, they share them with their friends. And, uh, we use this in the lab to create lots and lots and lots and lots of copies of DNA. Well, plasmids always has a gene in it for antibiotic resistance. That's how we select for our bacteria and not just, you know, the bacteria in your gut or spit or in the air. Um. So they didn't just look for the virus. They also looked for the ampicillin resistance, and they found it (hah) in all of their positive samples. Now there's absolutely no reason why if you isolated, uh, white blood cells from you or me, that there would be an ampicillin resistance gene there, that ... It's not natural. It's not something normally found in human DNA. Uh (laugh) So they can be very sure that what they initially thought was a retrovirus ended up being plasmid DNA in a contamination.
Smith: So any of the genetic evidence for this virus being a new human pathogen had to be retracted. Um. And absolutely to his credit, Bob Silverman's lab did just that. They were, like, we messed up, we're sorry, no big deal, frankly, because this is one of those things that can happen to anybody. Um, you know, you get really excited about some positive data and you run with it...
Smith: And you don't really think, oh maybe it's ampicillin until something goes wrong later. (laughs) And so that's what he did . They, of their own volition, they went back and checked and said, "Sorry guys, we messed up." And he made a mistake. I don't think anybody, you know, thinks poorly of him. That was that.
Interviewer: Cause all scientists are going to make that mistake.
Smith: Oh, absolutely.
Interviewer: You know, you're very close to your work. It's like Stuart Robbins, you know, the astronomer guy says, you're...I mean, for us non-scientist, if you're just a writer, I mean, you write and...and...and you think...I've..I can't find any mistakes in my writing and then you hand it to somebody and they find 14 typos, right?
Smith: And in this case. You know, this passed peer review. And this... I read this paper and I didn't think of doing this particular control. So it's hard for me to say, "Oh, Bob Silverman should have looked for this in the first place..."
Interviewer: Um. Um-hum.
Smith: ...when I didn't even think of it when I was reading the paper. Um. So it's just one of those things, like, science is self correcting. You make a mistake. You go back and fix it. But move on. And that's precisely what he's done.
Interviewer: But if you're like, you know, you think you've discovered something, I mean, it ...it doesn't hurt if you passionately defend your work and other people...
Smith: Oh yeah.
Interviewer: Other people passionately attack it. Right? Like that's kind of how...
Smith: Absolutely. That's how you make things better. I mean, when people... Criticism in science is not personal until you say, "Oh you manipulated your data. You're accepting bribes...bluh, bluh, bluh." It's not personal at all. I mean, scientists can go to a meeting, um, and get up to the microphone after someone's presentation and just rip into them and then a few hours later in the bar be sitting there drinking, talking about what experiments to do to answer that question and to resolve the hole. That's how we work. It's fun. At least for me. (laughs)
Smith: I think it's fun when people are critical.
Interviewer: So Bob Silverman, he, he...like, he took his name off that paper or what was...?
Smith: He took his whole lab off the paper.
Smith: And all of their contributions. But just because one chunk of the paper was wrong, he couldn't unilaterally retract the entire paper.
Smith: And the other lead authors insisted that the rest of their results were sound and didn't want to retract.
Interiewer: Na...So when generally, like ... all the authors have to agree to retract, is that? Is that how?
Smith: I have no idea. I mean this whole procedure was very much a learning experience for me and other younger scientists that really haven't witnessed or been through anuthing like this (laughs). Uh. So I have no idea. To be honest. Whether each and every author needs to have, uh, say they're retracting or whether it's just the main authors. I guess, uh, we can all look back at Andrew Wakefield's, you know, um, papers where every took their names off of it except for him. Um. And eventually I guess that was forcibly retracted. I don't think he ever did that willingly, did he?
Interviewer: Okay. Probably not, no.
Interviewer: Right. Yeah. (Pause) So what's the ultimate status...the, uh, I mean who, other than the, uh, the people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome...I mean....It's probably not everybody with CFS, right? I mean, that just ... some people who think it's still a conspiracy.
Smith: Oh yeah. Um. Well, and just to finish the story, well
Interviewer: Oh, it's...
Smith: Well, yeah, the entire paper was ultimately retracted because it was noticed that there were similarities, um, similarities in differences between an identical gel, an identical figure that was supposed to say that, um,, that these viral proteins were present and, um, in the SCIENCE paper there was a protocol, like a recipe, that said how they made this image, and there was a label that said the certain...this is what this lane is, this is what that lane is...okay? Well, in presentations, there was an entirely different protocol, entirely different patient samples, entirely different conclusions were supposed to be drawn from this identical image. Um. And then, it was subsequently found that there was this third protocol (laughs) with this third label (laughs) with a third set of conclusions...um...that SCIENCE ultimately found. So this paper was published in SCIENCE and the lead editor of that journal, Bruce Alberts, um, once these questions started coming up, uh, you know, he asked the journal to investigate. He asked the scientists for more information about what they did and apparently they couldn't produce it. Um. And so the problem then...there...is that the scientists had been asked several times to publish very detailed protocols as to what they did. And I think at one point, you know, there were half a dozen versions of what they did...
Smith: I'm not joking.
Interviewer: Right. Yeah.
Smith. And...and...And then there were cries of "Well, no one's really replicated their experiment." How can you say that, um, you can't find this virus if you don't follow the recipe exactly? And the fact of the matter is, no one knows what they did because they won't tell us what they did.
Smith: And if we ...if we...if we can't go through those steps and replicate their results, that's their problem at this point. Because either they don't know what they did or they won't tell us what they did to get those initial findings.
Um. And...(sneer) like, the editor of SCIENCE was just sick of it.
Smith: And I'd never seen anything like this before, personally, but he forcibly retracted the paper because the lead investigators would not do it. And they would not provide the journal with the information they required.
Interviewer: It's...it's like, you know, when your relationship is breaking up and you, you know, you want to know, like, why ...why...why...why don't you love me any more? And the person always, every time you ask they have a completely different story. (Sniggers) They're...the real story they're not trying to tell me. You know.
Smith: Well, I was to the point where it was, like, you know, your boyfriend cheats on you and you just, you know it, and you just want to hear them say, "I cheated on you." And I just wanted to hear them say, "Yes, we did this. We messed up. You know, we... we...changed the labels on this image." You know, I just wanted to hear them admit it.
Smith: You know, admit what they did. So the field could move on. Because it really wasn't just that image. Every single image in that paper, there were questions. But once again, I didn't raise....there were other individuals...other retrovirologists who raised these questions, which I agreed with. They were simply never answered. And we never got a (sneer) plausible answers to... so the paper was retracted. Um. And subsequently, we found that this quote retrovirus... well, there are, I don't know, longterm time readers of my blog but maybe not so many of your readers ... a lot of our genome is made of retroviruses. I mean, that's the...
Smith: I mean that's the tagline of my blog "ERV." If we're made in God's image, God is made of GAG,, POL and ENV. Retroviral proteins. Well, that's the same for every creature including mice. And ...And..uh, so lots of this stuff, a lot of these ingredients that we use in our recipes in the lab are produced in factories or they're produced in mouse cell lines. They're produced in areas where, you know, mice live, or...duh...I mean, mouse DNA is everywhere. And if you don't adequately control for contamination, you're going to think that you find or that you found a new retrovirus when really you only found a million-year-old endogenous retrovirus in mice.
Smith: Um, and other scientists have gone back and looked at reagents that they used in the lab and they've found mouse DNA contaminating these reagents. And what's interesting is that the ones that were contaminated were ones that people in the U.S. might use. Whereas the initial negative studies were done in Europe where they use different ingredients made by different companies that were not contaminated with mouse DNA. Um. And so that really does explain (sneer), uh, the apparent endemic nature of this retrovirus was not that this virus was infecting people in the U.S. an not Europe, but it was infecting the reagents that U.S. scientists use, (laughs) and not the reagents of the Europeans.
Interviewer: So is this kind of a situation like, well, now we know. Now we can look for..out for it, you know, other things ...
Smith: Other contamination. Like we...absolutely no one in retrovirology now
Interviewer: Damned pets...
Smith: I had to close his front window.
Smith: ...some stimulation here.
Smith: So now he's going to stomp around for a minute.
Interviewer: So, now, you know, I...I g...I mean, cause you write a blog posts about HIV, so I imagine you kind of have the, um, you know, the HIV deniers coming on to your blog from time to time, so you're used to, sort of, dealing with some of the wing nuts. Um. How...
Smith: And that was another, actually, very good thing about my position is that personal, I'm used to the crazies, I'm used to Creationists, um, you know, mailing hate mail to the dean of my college, I'm used to the HIV deniers leaving hateful comments, um, that really doesn't bother me whereas it was kind of a new experience for other scientists in the field. Um. Things definitely though (laughs) crossed the line when it came to the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome patients in that they contacted my boss personally. They were sending copious amounts of, uh, hate mail to the wrong dean, uh, uh...
Smith: And so that was funny when...when my dean met this other dean. He was like, "Do you all have an Abbie Smith?" And he was like, "Yeah." And he was like, "We have been getting so much hate mail about her." And he was like, "Oh God, what's she done now?"
Smith: But luckily, again, you know, I am a student and the University of Oklahoma does not want to be a university that declares they're going to start maiming the free speech of their students. That's not a very good precedent for any university to set. Um, and, yeah, so they just sort of shrugged and, you know, the people who sent the hate mail just sort of scared the secretaries more than it ever affected me.
Interviewer: Oh okay.
Smith: But...but that is definitely something new. Uh. To go after my employer like that. Instead of just me.
Interviewer: The hate mail, has it tapered off? Or?
Interviewer: Okay, yeah.
Smith: I think everybody's ...Dude, we would need another, like five hours to explain the drama that has gone along with this research. Um.
Smith: So, yes, the Institute that initially found this connection is called the Whittemore Peterson Institute. And, uh, they hired this lady, Judy Mikovits. I can't pronounce her last name. To be their lead researcher and, um, not only has Mikovits been going around and saying some very anti-science and very vaccines, she's been speaking at anti-vax conferences...
Interviewer: Oh great.
Smith: Right alongside, with people who, you know, think magic potions are going to cure their kids of autism. Like there have been partnering with these individuals. Uh, and then...
Before I ever published anything about, uh, the duplication of figures, Mikovits was fired from the Whittemore Peterson Institute. Apparently, uh, uh, due to personal conflicts. Which I'm sure we'll never know the extent of. Because, you know, one side says one thing, one side says the other. So she got fired. Okay. Whatever. Well, apparently, she took all of her lab notebooks ... well, she didn't just take the lab notebooks. She had a graduate student who, um, you know the relationship between a Principal Investigator and a graduate student...I spend more time with my boss than either one of us spends with our significant others. Uh, and just the dedication and uh, the relationship you have is very intense.
Smith: And it's for years. I mean, I have been doing research with my boss longer than I've had any other relationship. And so this student of Judy's...I guess was brainwashed or something....he snuck in the middle of the night to steal all the lab notebooks associated with this research, computers, jump drives,
Smith: And then Judy skipped town.
Smith: With the stuff, was hiding on a houseboat. Um. And of course, you know, the Institute noticed that all of this stuff was gone. And, you know, they got a judge to say, "Hey, you know, you've got this stuff, and you took it, you know, without permission. You know, like, you're not supposed to have this stuff. You've got to bring it back."
Judy said "Nuh-unh."
Smith: She apparently wiped the hard drives of the computers and I don't believe to this date that all of the laboratory notebooks have been returned. I'm assuming the ones that aren't returned are at the bottom of the ocean somewhere. Uh. And so Judy was arrested...for, you know, contempt of court, and uh, was taken from California back to Nevada where this institute was. And so a judge there ruled, you know, universally, towards the institute because judges don't take kindly to, uh, people blat...flagrantly ignoring, you know, their verdicts like that.
Smith: Well then it turn out (laughing) that, uh, that judge had taken, uh, over ten thousand dollars' worth of donations from the head of the institute. And so he had to recuse himself...
Smith: He had to recuse himself because of financial interests. Well apparently the next, like, three judges had to recuse themselves because of connections to the owners of this institute. And so finally they've got this other one, and you know, that's going to move forward.
In the meantime (giggling) the heads of this institute are being sued for millions of dollars because they...they've been accused of stealing this money from business partners. They're being investigated by the FBI for illegal campaign donations.
All the scientists were looking at this like...
Smith: ...What the hell is going on?
Interviewer giggles loudly.
Smith: This is like a soap opera...this is like ...
Interviewer laughs loudly.
Smith: At this point, all of us are just, like, go away. Like we want to go back to what we were doing in September of 2009 and pretend this didn't happen, except for the fact, you know, it did happen. And so we've got patients out there who, to this day, are taking antiretrovirals. Because, uh, they took a test offered by this company, again, no..no certification by the FDA, no evidence at all that this retrovirus was a genuine infectious agent. This company was selling tests to patients, um, to say "Oh, you know, you're XMRV positive." So now these people genuinely believe that they are infected with the retrovirus and are taking antiretrovirals, that do not have nice side effects (laughs). One way to put it.
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah.
Smith: These are hard drugs because, uh, viruses need to hijack the host's proteins to work, because that's what they are. They're parasites. And so when you're attacking a retrovirus, you're attacking self. You're interfering with normal cellular activities. And some of these people are just so convinced that they won't stop taking them. I...there's one in M.D. who is just cuckoo bananas, um, who is experimenting with antiretrovirals. Like, casually, just taking them now and then, switching them to whatever. If you read the protocols for how physicians prescribe antiretrovirals for HIV patients, I mean, it is a..it is a process. It is not something you go, "Oh hey, you know I'll take an Advil today, I'll take an Alleve tomorrow. You c...it...like...if you're actually infected with a retrovirus, taking drugs casually like that is a guaranteed way to, uh, to get antiretroviral failure. Meaning you can't take anything. Because the virus is resistant to it. Um...
Interviewer: What is it with..like, um..you know, if a doctor says, you know, you gotta take these medications, it's going to have horrible side effects, then the alt med crowd goes, "Oh he only wants to pump you full of toxins." You know, I'm thinking like chelation therapy. But then if, you know, some alt doc says, "I want to pump you full of these toxic chemicals..."
Smith: Or antibiotics...
Smith: You know the Chronic Lyme crew...
Interviewer: Yeah, and ...but the medical establishment doesn't want...I mean, says no. You know, the people are, like, yeah, pump me full of the toxic chemicals. It does...Theres no logic.
Smith: No. Um. But I mean I don't think logic is this ...these individuals forte. Which is why (laughs) they're in the position they're in, they're in in the first place. But just to be clear, she's not only, ah, taking antiretrovirals, she's got a whole host of, uh, alternative like the--what is that--the hyperbaric oxygen thing. She just did a huge ad for them. Um. It's ridiculous. And it is painful for me to watch as a retrovirologist, to see people taking these medications.
Interviewer: Do you think there's big money in this? (Giggles)
Smith: In what? In...
Interviewer: In...in what she's doing. You know, it's like...
Smith: Well, on the bright side, um, there is hopefully going to be an end to this journey in that a..uh...the NIH has basically given Judy a lab bench and is saying "replicate your research or else."
Interviewer: Um, okay.
Smith: And it's her doing it. No one else is involved. She can't say, "Oh you didn't do this, didn't do that..." It's her. And they're hoping that this will put an end to it with the public. Um, but you know, at this point it's so overwhelmingly convincing that, you know, XMRV is not a human pathogen from a scientific perspective, I'm not sure what else we can say to the public to get them to believe that as well.
Interviewer: Right. All right. So maybe we should wrap up. Um, you could ...but when we were talking today about when we were going to do the show and stuff like that and you're like, you said, "Well I got a ...we'll do it when I come back from the gym. You go to the gym?
Smith: Oh yeah.
Interviewer: What do you ... what's your workout routine?
Smith: Well, right now, very recently, uh, I guess it was last Fall
Interviewer: This is just a family question.
Smith: Oh yes, I have actually taken up kung fu.
Smith: I am a martial arts collector, if you'd name it...you name it, I've tried it. Good. And recently had the opportunity to, um, take classes from a really cool guy that is, oh, he's not a bullshitter, he's not a chi, you know what, he's very practical. You know, if you're in a bar and someone comes at you with a bottle, this is what you do.
Smith: ...sort of instructor. Uh, that..you know, I really enjoy it. And also, you know, my favorite martial art is whatever I'm doing right now. So right now kung fu is, like, totally my favorite. Oh it's so much better than all that stuff I've done before. But if I go back to something else, I'm done before, I go, "Oh, I forgot how awesome this is..."
Smith: Yeah, I really love ...uh...collecting martial arts. (giggle)
Interviewer: You know, I took fencing for a while. And I...and somebody described it as a martial art.
Smith: It totally is.
Interviewer: But I'm, like,
Smith: A lot of the stances...look at Bruce Lee movies and watch, you know, how he advances and stuff, you know, he took that from fencing.
Interviewer: Uh, okay. But I'm thinking, okay, someone comes at me with a... you know...with a car antenna or something, then I know what to do and I happen to have a car antenna....
Interviewer: I know what to do.
Smith: Or a Harry Potter magic wand that is not magic so that they can only use it as an instrument...
Interviewer: But beyond...and I thought may...maybe I could take sabre and you know, if someone comes through with a baseball bat then maybe I know...I can, you know, block a baseball bat...
Interviewer: But I didn't think it was much of a martial art, but, man...I'll ask you the fi...I think the last time you were on, the final question was, what's your favorite Fall kitchen appliance? I ... I have changed it since.
Interviewer: It''s now my final question is, uh: If you had to join a science fiction or fantasy armed forces, just based solely on the uniform--how cool the uniform is--which...which...which...science fiction or fantasy armed forces would you enlist in just because, man, you just love the cut of the uniform?
Smith: Well, the books don't show...you're kind of reading it in your head though ...
Interviewer: Wha...something like TV or movies or something?
Smith: You may ...
Interviewer: So what Sci Fi...
Smith: That's a hard one. That's not kitchen appliances you got...shoot...okay, that'll take another five hours.
Smith: I genuinely don't know.
Interviewer: Really? Okay.
Smith: Yeah. I will have to get back to you on that and when you post this, you're going to have to, like, put it in the descriptive...
Interviewer: Ah, all right.
Smith: It will be fun to figure the answer to the last question.
Interviewer: Well, next time I have you on the podcast...
Smith: Yeah, sure.
Interviewer: Okay, you just...that'll be the first question. All right...
Smith: There's nothing...uh...used in the viral world that we could totally talk about. If you're a conspiracy skeptic...
Interviewer: Oh, I wanted to get a bit about the whole "Oh my God they're making a killer flu in the lab or..."
Interviewer: And you were kind of like, ah, chill out...but we're kind of going long here. Uh, we can tackle that, kind of another...
Smith: That'll just be a teaser for next time.
Smith: Killer flu.
Interviewer: Killer flu.
Smith: If you only knew what scientists are doing every day in the lab. (laughs)
Interviewer: Yeah, really. So, so true. Right. Yeah. All right. Okay, Abbie. And you have anything to plug now. You did a little debate with a Creationist guy...
Smith: Yeah. His name's Steve Kern. He is the husband of Sally Kern. You just need to google her to figure out why she's infamous. Um, he is a pastor, preacher, reverend or whatever they call themselves, um, of a large evangelical church here in Oklahoma City. And we debated the topic of "Should Intelligent Design be taught in public school classrooms? Uh, to what I thought were rather hilarious ends. If you'd really like to see that on Youtube you can probably google just "Abbie Smith Steve Kern"
Interviewer: I'll post a link. Yes. Yes. And do you have anything else to plug or are you going out of town, going to the ___ meeting or...
Smith: Well actually, I like to stay local at least, you know, where I'm speaking. Uh, the net conference is going to be "Free OK" and it's "Free OK 2" this year, and I am going to be speaking about how a (laughs) ...movie title...How I wanted to stop fearing viruses...
Smith: ...And it..it's..it's viruses of the past, viruses that the public knows about or ones that kill us, ones that make us sick. And people believe, you know, they're invisible spectres that you really can't protect yourself from and we don't have very good therapeutics for, they're scary.
Smith: When the fact of the matter is, the vast maority of organisms on this planet are viruses, they don't do us any harm, and what we're finding now is that we can domesticate these wild viruses to our own means. And so I'm going to be speaking about some of the ways we're doing that to cure diseases, treat diseases. Uh. You know, curently I'm using HIV in the lab to treat HIV. So, it's looking at it that, yes, you can be killed by a pack of wolves...
Smith: ...but also use domesticated dogs to sniff for bombs, to sniff for cancer, to guide the blind...uh...and that's really what we're doing with viruses these days.
Interviewer: Okay, cool. All right. And ah, ooh. I always have to...I'm the podcast that wants nothing. I don't want paypal donations, I don't want ...Don't go to itunes and... But
Interviewer: ..if people happen to listen to this podcast and then meet you, Abbie, and they're like, "Abbie, could I you a...do you drink? Can they buy you a beer? What kind of beverage can they buy you if they're like, I loved you on the Conspiracy Skeptic podcast. Let me buy you a drink.
Smith: I very rarely drink alcohol, like, I'll have a beer every now and then but I'm not, you know, a beer drinker. But I'm a huge fan of Mountain Dew and all the cornucopia of flaors of Mountain Dew. Um, I have not met a Mountain Dew that I haven't enjoyed, so...gift of Mountain Dew, gift of chocolate (giggles) those are always welcome.
Interviewer: Dark or milk chocolate?
Smith: I like chocolate. Duh...
Interviewer: Both, huh...
Smith: Mixed with things, melted, just like a huge brick of it, uh. If it's chocolate, I'm a fan. (giggles)
Interviewer: All right, cool, all right. So if you want to contribute to Conspiracy Skeptic, then buy Abbie Mountain Dew or chocolate or, I guess to Monster Talk, they take donations as a great podcast, donate to Monster Talk. Yeah, okay, all right, then, Abbie, I'll let you go.
Smith: Well, thanks for having me. It's fun as always. You'll have to do this again. You know.
Interviewer: Yeah, I would love to. Okay. Have a good night then.
Smith: Oh, you too.
Interviewer: Okay, buh-bye.