From Abracadabra to Zombies
Anti-vaccine propaganda from CBS
1 April 2011. Sharyl Attkisson of CBS.com has posted an article whose headline seems to promote the speculation of a vaccine/autism link by Helen Ratajczak, described as "a former senior scientist at a pharmaceutical firm" and the focus of Attkisson's article. The headline over the CBS article is disturbingly misleading and may lead to another media circus similar to that set off by the publication in the Lancet of a paper by Andrew Wakefield that has been discredited as fraudulent: Vaccines and autism: a new scientific review. (For a taste of how the vaccines-cause-autism folks view the CBS article, see the Age of Autism's [AoA] post and comments.)
Ratajcak's article, which was published in the Journal of Immunotoxicology, is entitled "Theoretical aspects of autism: Causes--A review." Her article is not a report of any original research she has done, but is a review of the work of others from a variety of fields over the past several decades on issues related to autism, including speculations by various authors of a connection between vaccines and autism. For her part, Ratacjzak speculates that human DNA, which some authors claim has contaminated some vaccines, may cause autism:
The MMR II vaccine is contaminated with human DNA from the cell line. This human DNA could be the cause of the spikes in incidence. An additional increased spike in incidence of autism occurred in 1995 when the chicken pox vaccine was grown in human fetal tissue (Merck and Co., Inc., 2001; Breuer, 2003).
Just because one event happens after another does not mean there is a causal connection between the two, of course, though Ratacjzak does not bring this fact up. Attkisson interviewed Dr. Brian Strom of the University of Pennsylvania who has served on Institute of Medicine panels advising the government on vaccine safety. Dr. Strom notes that the prevailing medical opinion is that vaccines are not scientifically linked to autism. There has been no study linking human DNA contamination in vaccines to autism. Apparently Attkisson and Ratajczak don't think it matters that there is no evidence of such a connection. Atkisson writes:
Ratajczak agrees that nobody has proven DNA causes autism; but argues nobody has shown the opposite, and scientifically, the case is still open.
This is interesting logic, bordering on the argument to ignorance: since nobody has proved DNA in vaccines doesn't cause autism, DNA in vaccines causes autism. In any case, speculating about something and then noting that it hasn't been disproved, is not telling us much of interest. We could speculate that food dyes cause autism and note that nobody's proved they don't, but what would we have proved by such a claim? Nothing, except that we can speculate. Why would we do this? Well, as Ratajczak says: "I'm retired now. I can write what I want." Actually, she can say what she wants in an interview with a writer for CBS, but that doesn't mean what she says would get past peer review. She speculates in the interview, but not in the published paper, as to how DNA might cause autism (the following quote is verbatim from Attkisson's article; there is nothing like this claim in the article published in Immunotoxicology):
Why could human DNA potentially cause brain damage? The way Ratajczak explained it to me [Attkisson]: "Because it's human DNA and recipients are humans, there's homologous recombination tiniker. That DNA is incorporated into the host DNA. Now it's changed, altered self and body kills it. Where is this most expressed? The neurons of the brain. Now you have body killing the brain cells and it's an ongoing inflammation. It doesn't stop, it continues through the life of that individual."
Never mind that this speculation is just that, a speculation by someone without any empirical evidence that such a thing has ever occurred from a vaccine. Whether such a mechanism is even plausible, I must leave to [new] the experts [/new] to determine.* ( An aside: when I Googled 'tiniker' I was asked if I meant tinkerbell?)
Another reason for being suspicious of the intentions or the qualifications of Ratajczak is her citing several papers by Mark and David Geier. [update: Mark Geier had his medical license suspended by the Maryland Board of Physicians, which charged him with misrepresenting his credentials, misdiagnosing children, and urging parents to approve risky treatments without fully informing them of the potential dangers.*] Seth Mnookin devotes an entire chapter of The Panic Virus to "Mark Geier: Witness for Hire." Geier is a favorite with believers in the vaccine/autism connection and has testified in about one hundred lawsuits. He has no status, however, in the scientific community. According to Mnookin, Geier is also distrusted in legal circles where judges consider his testimony "so unreliable as to be worthless." Ratajczak's review is not a review of the best research that has been done, and it gives undue weight to questionable studies like those done by the Geiers.
A more accurate title for the CBS article would have been: Reviewer believes there is a vaccine/autism link. The article was about Ratajczak's beliefs. Orac describes it as "a greatest hits of crappy, long-debunked arguments, some of them so bad that even AoA doesn't use them much anymore...." The fact that CBS.com has given it some credibility, however, is reason enough, I think, to look out for another Wakefield-like fallout in the media.
On the other hand, the Journal of Immunotoxicology article was about theoretical aspects of autism. It concluded:
Autism has been documented to be caused by genetic defects and/or inflammation of the brain. The inflammation could be caused by a wide variety of environmental toxicants, infections, and co-morbidities in individuals genetically prone to the developmental disorder. (emphasis added)
In her summary, Ratajczak writes:
Integrating the data presented here, a hypothesis is that autism is the result of genetic defects, with the contributory effect of advancing age of the parents, and/or inflammation of the brain. The inflammation could be caused by a defective placenta, an immature blood- brain barrier, the immune response of the mother to a viral or bacterial infection, a premature birth, encephalitis in the child after birth, or a toxic environment. Also, intracellular pathogens could induce an immune response, resulting in neuro-inflammation, autoimmune reactions, brain injury, and autism. (emphasis added)
You can bet that the vaccines-cause-autism crowd will ignore the speculative language of the journal article and emphasize the one speculation about DNA recombination, not backed by any research, in the CBS article in order to support their cause.
* new There's only one phrase to describe this idea: The stupid, it burns. It sears. It scalds the skin off my flesh. It opoptoses my neurons. (Well, not really, over the last six years I've built up formidable defenses against such scientific ignorance.)--Orac, surgeon and scientist [/new]
Autism Genes Discovered; Help Shape Connections Among Brain Cells A research team has connected more of the intricate pieces of the autism puzzle, with two studies that identify genes with important contributions to the disorder. One study pinpoints a gene region that may account for as many as 15 percent of autism cases, while another study identifies missing or duplicated stretches of DNA along two crucial gene pathways. Significantly, both studies detected genes implicated in the development of brain circuitry in early childhood.
Heritability of autism The heritability of autism is the proportion of autism that can be explained by genetic variation; if the heritability of a condition is high, then the condition is considered to be primarily genetic. Autism has a strong genetic basis, although the genetics of autism is complex and it is unclear whether autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is explained more by multigene interactions or by rare mutations with major effects.
Autism and Genes (The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Autism Genes That Control Early Learning New study confirms importance of early behavioral intervention in treating the disorder. A group of scientists, led by a team at Children's Hospital Boston, has pinpointed six new genes that may contribute to autism, a disorder characterized by asocial behavior, difficulty communicating and repetitive actions that affects an estimated one in 150 children born in the U.S. each year. They report in Science that all of the linked genes are involved in forming new and stronger connections, called synapses, between nerve cells in the brain, which is the biological basis of learning and memory formation.
* AmeriCares *