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Unclear outlook for radical journal as HIV/Aids deniers evoke outrage

Publisher considers Medical Hypotheses' future in light of articles' 'implications'. Zoë Corbyn writes

It has published papers on everything from ejaculation as a treatment for nasal congestion to why modern scientists are so dull, but the future of Medical Hypotheses is hanging in the balance after a host of complaints from high-profile researchers.

The irreverent publication is the only Elsevier journal not to subject its submissions to peer review. Instead, its editor decides what to publish on the basis of how interesting or radical a paper is, and how well expressed the arguments are.

But its future is in doubt after editor-in-chief Bruce Charlton, professor of theoretical medicine at the University of Buckingham, published a paper from a well-known HIV/Aids denier.

The paper, "HIV-Aids hypothesis out of touch with South African Aids - A new perspective", was published online last July. It was written by Peter Duesberg, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues.

It argues that there is "as yet no proof that HIV causes Aids" and says the claim that the virus has killed millions is "unconfirmed".

Prominent Aids researchers contacted Elsevier to object to the article and wrote to the US National Library of Medicine requesting that Medical Hypotheses be removed from the Medline citation database - an act that would exclude it from the mainstream scientific-communication network.

Elsevier's response was to retract both Professor Duesberg's paper and another article - "Aids denialism at the ministry of health", by Marco Ruggiero, professor of molecular biology at the University of Florence.

This second paper, also published by Medical Hypotheses last July, argues that the Italian Ministry of Health seemed not to believe that HIV was the "sole cause" of Aids.

In a letter to critic Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, a French virologist who was jointly awarded a Nobel prize for the discovery of HIV, Elsevier says: "We share your concerns about the (Duesberg article) and particularly the implications of its wider dissemination for global healthcare."

The publisher adds that it has started an "internal review" of the processes by which the two articles were published, and is undertaking a larger review of Medical Hypotheses, including its future role in medical and scientific literature.

Professor Charlton this week accused the researchers who complained of taking "behind-the-scenes action" to exclude dissenting views and bring the journal down.

"The coercive and anti-scientific reaction shows exactly why it was right that these papers were accepted to be published," he told Times Higher Education.

He said Elsevier had to decide whether to close the journal altogether or whether to leave it alone, adding that meddling with its unique status would be "unacceptable".

Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, said that while peer review worked for "normal science", it also had the power to suppress radical ideas.

"Medical Hypotheses has never hidden what it set out to do, namely to provide a forum for bold scientific ideas that challenge the status quo," he said.

A spokesman for Elsevier said a panel of experts had been convened to review the journal's future, with a conclusion due by the end of the year. "We took this step because we received serious expressions of concern about the impact of the dissemination of these articles on global healthcare," he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Funny how no one has brought up whether the paper under question is any good or not... Michael Pyshnov above, for example, says: "It is clear to me that the article (which I have not read) should have never been retracted.". I'm curious as to how he came to this conclusion given that he has no idea what is in it. Myself, I have read the article concerned, several times and closely. It is readily available on the website of one of its co-authors. As science - or even as a preliminary sketch of a scientific hypothesis - it is utterly woeful, and would fail even as a first-year end-of semester essay in any competently run epidemiology course. It is loaded with elementary errors of fact, logical non-sequiturs, ridiculous claims like the fortyfold increase in antenatal HIV seorprevalence over 15 years in South Africa being consistent with stable prevalence, and outright and deliberate misrepresentation of at least one key study of antiretroviral treatment. For it to be accepted for publication in a Pub-Med listed journal suggests to me that the editorial process for that journal is incapable of distinguishing between a worthwhile if unproven hypothesis and outright scientifically illiterate bilge and worse. That being the case, a fair question is whether the journal concerned should be PubMed listed.

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  • In recent years we have heard a lot of people talk as if the fact that two thousand scientists agree about something constitutes evidence, if not indeed proof, that it is true. So it may be a sign of the times that Elsevier is considering closing a scientific journal whose main sin is that it published an article that bucked the consensus belief that HIV is the cause of AIDs. Elsevier recently removed Peter Duesberg et al’s ‘HIV-AIDS hypothesis out of touch with South African AIDS?a new perspective’ from MEDICAL HYPOTHESES’ online website and left a notice explaining its action. It correctly stated that the editorial policy of MEDICAL HYPOTHESES is to consider ‘radical, speculative, and non-mainstream scientific ideas’? but went on to say that Elsevier had ‘received serious expressions of concern about the quality of this article, which contains highly controversial opinions about the causes of AIDS, opinions that could potentially be damaging to global public health’.

    The fact that the article contains controversial opinions about the causes of AIDS is part of the reason why it is preeminently suitable for publication in MEDICAL HYPOTHESES. But the idea that these opinions could be damaging to global public health is a clear beg of the very scientific question at issue. The opinion that HIV is not the cause of AIDS could be damaging to global public health?if HIV is in fact the cause (or a cause) of AIDS. But if HIV is not the cause (or a cause) of AIDS, but a harmless passenger virus as Duesberg claims, then the HIV theory of AIDs, and the use of anti-HIV drugs to combat it, may itself be damaging to global public health.

    In taking this action, Elsevier unwittingly took sides in what is essentially a philosophical disagreement regarding what science is and the criteria for scientific publication. We have heard a lot more in recent years about the scientific consensus behind certain theories than we have about the scientific evidence for and against them. We have also heard people who should know better say that certain theories have now been established once and for all, and are thus beyond rational dispute. And we have sometimes even heard them proclaim that whether or not you believe that a certain theory is true should now be regarded as a moral issue. MEDICAL HYPOTHESES, however, was founded nearly thirty-five years ago in an attempt to provide an outlet for medical research that runs contrary to received opinion and is too controversial to be published in peer-reviewed medical journals. David Horrobin, our founding editor, believed that the peer-review system can impede the growth of science by systematically rejecting articles that fall outside the consensus of scientific belief. Horrobin was attracted to Sir Karl Popper’s philosophy of science and enlisted Popper himself to serve as a kind of philosophical godfather on the journal’s first editorial advisory board. Popper taught that scientific knowledge is inherently fallible, that universal theories cannot be justified or shown to be true by empirical evidence, and that the best we can do is to test our theories against observation and reasoned argument. He said that scientific theories are distinguished from non-scientific theories by the fact that they can be refuted, or falsified, by empirical evidence. And he wrote that ‘the game of science is, in principle, without end’. He who decides one day that scientific statements do not call for any further test, and that they can be regarded as finally verified, retires from the game’.

    There can be little doubt that many scientists would like to suppress Peter Duesberg’s views about these matters. I have actually heard well-meaning scientists say, nearly four hundred years after Galileo, that Duesberg should be imprisoned for them. But the scientific response for those who believe that the views articulated in an article are false is not to prevail upon a publisher to suppress them. It is to present credible evidence and reasoned argument to refute them. Some scientists, especially those who are convinced of their own opinions, may say that this is a waste of time and effort since the HIV-AIDS hypothesis has been fully verified, and since Duesberg’s views are clearly false and pseudo-scientific. But this is not the attitude that has inspired MEDICAL HYPOTHESES. And it only means that we are still fighting a battle for the freedom of thought, nearly four hundred years after Galileo, and that some scientists have forgotten which side they are supposed to be on.

    This may sound like hyperbole. It is not. I used to think that it would be too ironic, given the history of MEDICAL HYPOTHESES, if Elsevier were to subject our policy on peer review to peer review. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. The panel of experts that Elsevier enlisted to investigate how we came to accept Duesberg’s article for publication has now completed its report. It does, indeed, recommend that articles submitted to the journal be subject to peer review. It also recommends that Elsevier impose a list of forbidden topics?of a controversial or politically-incorrect nature?to be excluded from the journal.

    Mark Amadeus Notturno
    Member of the Editorial Advisory Board of MEDICAL HYPOTHESES
    Washington DC
    16 January 2010

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  • The Perth Group has published in both peer reviewed and non-peer reviewed medical journals including Medical Hypotheses. Despite the controversial nature of our material, no HIV expert has followed the accepted mode of response by writing to the editors of the relevant journals. Below is a small commentary which we are contemplating submitting to MH. It is written because we recently became aware of significant discrepancies between what Montagnier claimed in 1983, 1997 and 2002 in regard to his experimental proof for the discovery of HIV. We would be grateful if contributors to this column, especially those with editorial experience, could read the commentary and provide scientific reasons for its acceptance or rejection. If Medical Hypotheses publishes it without external review what scientific reasons would John Moore, Seth Kalichman and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi have for demanding its retraction? This commentary is also at http://leederville.net/links/PGCommentary.pdf.

    COMMENTARY
    Re-reading Luc Montagnier's work on HIV/AIDS we found a number of contradictory statements. In his historic 20th May 1983 Science paper1 Montagnier described a culture of umbilical cord lymphocytes to which was added supernatant from a coculture containing cells from a patient (BRU) and a healthy blood donor. In this culture they found reverse transcriptive activity and type-C particles. Montagnier wrote: "That this new isolate was a retrovirus was further indicated by its density in sucrose gradient, which was 1.16 [g/ml]". They claimed the 1.16 g/ml band was "purified" virus, but published no electron micrographic proof.2 "The supernatant of a 10,000g centrifugation of the cell extract" and the "purified" virus were reacted with BRU's serum. Of the many reactive proteins in the extract, three, p80, p45 and p25 were reactive in the "purified" virus. Montagnier claimed that one, p25 was viral and, because p25 did not react with "type-specific antisera to HTLV-I", concluded they had discovered a new retrovirus, HIV-1. Although Montagnier's claim has been questioned by many, including Robert Gallo3, Jaap Goudsmit4 and Anders Vahlne5, the scientific community accepted it.

    In July 1997, during a videotaped interview with the French journalist Djamel Tahi6, Montagnier stated "analysis of the proteins of the virus demands mass production and purification. It is necessary to do that". Then surprisingly he said that in 1983 he did not purify the virus: "I repeat we did not purify". And, unbelievably, in what they called "purified, labeled virus” they were unable to find any particles with "the morphology typical of retroviruses". In a similar interview in December 2005, Charles Dauget, the Pasteur Institute electron microscopist, confirmed that in the "purified" virus, they found only cellular debris. (Tahi, personal communication).

    Nineteen years later, Montagnier wrote "A History of HIV Discovery".7 In this paper he does not mention purification or umbilical cord lymphocytes but states: "On 3 January 1983, Francoise Brun-Vezinet obtained a lymph node biopsy from…a young gay man (BRU)…I minced the lymph node, disassociated the fragments into single cells, and cultured the T lymphocytes…Fifteen days later, Francoise Sinoussi…found the first traces of RT in the supernatant of the lymphocyte culture, indicating the presence of a retrovirus…So, we tested whether the viral proteins in the supernatant could be recognised by Gallo's antibodies against HTLV. Surprisingly, our labeled viral supernatant could not be immune precipitated with the HTLV antibodies, but could be precipitated with the patient's own serum (4). A protein with a molecular mass of about 25 kD precipitated by the patient's serum seemed to be the counterpart of the p24 protein of HTLV-1". These immunoprecipitation experiments were not reported in the 1983 paper (4)!

    Montagnier must clarify exactly how he proved the existence of the HIV p24 protein and thus HIV.


    1. Barré-Sinoussi F, Chermann JC, Rey F, Nugeyre MT, Chamaret S, Gruest J, et al. Isolation of a T-lymphotropic retrovirus from a patient at risk for acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Science 1983;220:868-71.
    2. Sinoussi F, Mendiola L, Chermann JC. Purification and partial differentiation of the particles of murine sarcoma virus (M. MSV) according to their sedimentation rates in sucrose density gradients. Spectra 1973;4:237-243.
    3. Popovic M, Sarin PS, Robert-Gurroff M, Kalyanaraman VS, Mann D, Minowada J, et al. Isolation and transmission of human retrovirus (human t-cell leukemia virus). Science 1983;219:856-9.
    4. Goudsmit J. Viral Sex-The Nature of AIDS. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
    5. Vahlne A. A historical reflection on the discovery of human retroviruses. Retrovirology 2009;6:40. http://www.retrovirology.com/content/6/1/40
    6. Tahi D. Did Luc Montagnier discover HIV? Text of video interview with Professor Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute July 18th 1997. Continuum 1998;5:30-34. at http://leederville.net/links/PGCommentary.pdf
    7. Montagnier L. HISTORICAL ESSAY: A History of HIV Discovery. Science 2002;298:1727-8.

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  • Thanks for the laugh TS – I’m one step further away from the cancer that plagues my family? and I second you on that Science Guardian award.
    Todd – what is this peculiarly paranoid habit you have of assuming that we all engage in the sock puppetry so obviously and terribly familiar to your own hilarious self? And while we are on that paranoia, do you see Clark Baker as the proverbial monster under the bed when you retire? Does your mum have to come and banish him? It certainly seems so from your textbook phobia responses on other threads. Oh and no… you… didn’t… provide… the… data… I… politely… requested, and I repeat, screaming that you did does not make it so. As for my ability to understand scientific papers – that was my job for a considerable time – yes, I was actually paid for it! That was when scepticism really took root in my thankfully already open mind.
    I’m as “Sad and illiterate as TS”? – for a person who repeatedly misspells words in common usage you could only dream (and fail miserably) at achieving the eloquence and wit of TS; no, really, take a poll.
    I’d say “well said” Truman, but that would just confirm Todd’s paranoia – Truman, however, would know the sentiment was genuine. On that vein, would Snout, Noble, “Fraser” or anyone else please explain this concept of “herd immunity”? Surely if a vaccine works by providing immunity (via those secondary efficacy endpoints known as antibodies) to an individual then it shouldn’t matter if 0% or 80% of the surrounding population is carrying these dread diseases – umm, if you are “immune” thanks to those “efficacy-proven antibodies” then you are “immune” right?. I’d really like a scientific citation for that 80% “herd immunity” figure as well because it makes no logical sense whatsoever.
    Yow! Nothing but charlatan alchemists would stand by the shoddy vaccine science with a straight face and claim their methods “scientific”. Soporific maybe, sophist definitely, scientific no.
    Oh and TS – I don’t think our friend John will jump the bandwagon; it doesn’t involve performing unspeakable perverse acts on innocent simians.

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