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Plague: One Scientist's Intrepid Search for the Truth About Human Retroviruses and Chronic Disease

Judy Mikovits, Ph.D., a virologist, researcher and founding research director of the Whittemore Peterson Institute — which researches and treats chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) in Reno, Nevada — got embroiled in controversy when, in 2009, she was the senior author on a paper which reported that a retrovirus known as xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus (XMRV) may play a causal role in CFS and other diseases, including autism.

Her book, "Plague: One Scientist's Intrepid Search for the Truth About Human Retroviruses and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), Autism and Other Diseases," details her research and personal trials that arose as a consequence of her work.

"Kent Heckenlively essentially wrote it," Mikovits says, "because I write like a scientist. We wrote it using the genre of flashback. He taped hours and hours of me telling the story as he asked me questions — because he's trained as an attorney — and then he turned that into this suspense-thriller. Interestingly enough, it almost has to read like fiction because of the lawyers it took to … make sure we weren't sued."

What Are Retroviruses?

Before we go further, let's review what a retrovirus is. A retrovirus is a ribonucleic acid (RNA) virus — in other words, a virus that contains RNA encoded genes rather than deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Using reverse transcriptase, the retrovirus is able to transform the single-stranded RNA into a double-stranded DNA.

When the retrovirus infects a host, it integrates its DNA into the DNA of the host cell, which allows the retrovirus to replicate itself and spread through the host. As more and more cells are infected, you become increasingly sicker. Mikovits explains:

"Humans have a DNA genome. Our blueprint is DNA. Retroviruses have an RNA genome, but they also are unique in the RNA family of viruses, where their RNA genome is reverse-transcribed. That is, written backwards by an enzyme unique to retroviruses called reverse transcriptase. That enzyme writes the RNA into DNA.

Then they have another enzyme called integrase. Integrase is like a pair of scissors that cuts open your DNA and then inserts the retrovirus, which is only about 8,000 base pairs, a very, very, very small virus, 50 to 100 nanometers on an electron micrograph. That piece of DNA — called a provirus — is now in the DNA of your cells forever. Every time your cells replicate, you make more viruses."

Now, this DNA insertion has been ongoing throughout human history. According to Mikovits, about 10 percent of the human genome is retroviral in origin. These are called human endogenous retroviruses. These, however, differ in that they've been crippled in part by our DNA methylation machinery (which modulates genes expression and the human immune system — so that they can no longer make complete viruses and therefore cannot infect others.

However, when you're infected with a retrovirus such as human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV-1), HIV HBRV or Borellia as in chronic Lyme disease and develop DNA methylation and immune dysfunction, these endogenous retroviruses begin to be expressed, and this is yet another really important finding.

HIV — One Example of a Transmissible Retrovirus

One example of a transmissible retrovirus is the HIV virus, which can cascade into the clinical symptoms of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV was discovered in 1982, and as mentioned above, was part of Mikovits' early research work. Her book includes the history of that important discovery.

When Mikovits first began studying retroviruses, HIV/AIDS was completely unknown, but they suspected a retrovirus was at play because of how retroviruses affect the human immune system and lead to acquired immune deficiencies and cancers.

"You don't just one day get this virus and you're sick. In fact, we now know millions of people have HIV and will never develop AIDS. We talk about that in the book, because the book ultimately is one of hope that we fix HIV.

I can honestly tell you in 1999, when I was running the lab of antiviral drug mechanisms, I did not ever expect we would solve that problem. Now, AIDS patients on antiretroviral therapy are probably healthier and develop fewer cancers … than most of the rest of society."

Some retroviruses, including XMRV (but not HIV), also infect your germ cells, which means they not only cause continuous infection in your body but also transfer to your offspring.

"XMRV, the xenotropic murine (mouse) leukemia retrovirus, is the mouse-related retroviruses that cause cancer and lots of neurological diseases. Those affect the stem cells, the egg, the sperm — every cell in your body. That was one of the big 'Oh, my Gods,' about our discovery," Mikovits says.

When it comes to treatment, the key is to keep the virus silent, because when they're not, each time your cells divide you're making more retroviruses. For this, antiretroviral treatments are used, some of which will be discussed later in this article.

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