By Alison Singer
This afternoon, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims (i.e. Vaccine Court) issued its decision on whether thimerosal-containing vaccines can cause autism. The decision, handed down by three Special Masters, was a resounding “NO!”.
From King: “This case is not a close case. The overall weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly contrary to the petitioners’ causation theories…based upon all the evidence that I have reviewed, I find that it is extremely unlikely that Jordan’s autism was in any way causally connected to his thimerosal-containing vaccines. In short, this is a case in which the evidence is so one-sided that any nuances in the interpretation of the causation case law would make no difference to the outcome of the case.
From Dwyer: “In an effort to render irrelevant the numerous epidemiological studies of ASD and TCVs (thimerosal containing vaccines) that show no connection between the two, they contend that their children have a form of ASD involving regression that differs from all other forms biologically and behaviorally. World-class experts in the field testified that the distinctions they drew between forms of ASD were artificial, and that they had never heard of the “clearly regressive” form of autism about which petitioners’ epidemiologist testified. Finally, the causal mechanism petitioners proposed would produce, not ASD, but neuronal death,and eventually patient death as well. The witnesses setting forth this improbable sequence of cause and effect were outclassed in every respect by the impressive assembly of true experts in their respective fields who testified on behalf of respondent.
From Dwyer: “Petitioners propose effects from mercury in [vaccines] that do not resemble mercury’s known effects in the brain, either behaviorally or at the cellular level. To prevail, they must show that the exquisitely small amounts of mercury in [vaccines] that reach the brain can produce devastating effects that far larger amounts experienced prenatally or postnatally from other sources do not.”
The special master also dismissed claims that some groups of children are unusually susceptible to the effects of mercury. “The only evidence that these children are unusually sensitive is the fact of their [autism] itself.”
This whole process began back in 2002 when the Special Masters from the Vaccine Court createdan omnibus proceeding for handling the claims that alleged that vaccines were associated with autism. Today’s ruling focuses on whether thimoerosal-containing vaccines can cause autism. Last August, the court ruled that thimerosal in combination with MMR vaccine could not cause autism.
There are two key points to keep in mind today. First, the special masters are not scientists and they did not answer a scientific question today. The science has been in for some time now in and it’s quite clear. Vaccines do not cause autism. We have multiple studies (www.autismsciencefoundation.org/autismandvaccines.html) that have been done looking at whether or not thimerosal, at the level contained in vaccines, causes autism and again, looking at hundreds of thousands of children on several different continents by several different investigators and different populations of children. Children who received thimerosal in vaccines as compared to those who received lesser quantities of thimerosal in vaccines or no thimerosal in vaccines all had the same risk of autism. And frankly, the amount of mercury one is exposed to in the environment or even breast milk as compared to what’s in vaccines would argue against vaccines being causative.
Secondly, when you look at the history of vaccine court, this court hasn’t always come down on the side of the science. The standard of evidence bar is purposely set very low in vaccine court. The court was designed to compensate victims of vaccine injury, which of course is very real. The standard of evidence is biologic plausibility, rather than scientific evidence. In other words, you don’t have to prove that thimerosal actually causes autism, only that it might. One of the goals of the legislation creating the vaccine court in 1986 was to be generous with compensation because there are people who have very real, very serious adverse reactions to vaccines and they should be compensated. And if you look at other rulings, this court tends to err on the side of overcompensating to avoid a big spillover into civil courts. Another goal of the vaccine court is too avoid massive civil litigation that could put us back where we were in the early 1980s where companies were exiting the vaccine manufacturing business over fear of litigation.
I can understand wanting to find a reason for why your child was diagnosed with autism. As a mother, it’s hard to accept the idea that your child is going to struggle and have all these challenges. It’s natural to want to blame someone or something. Believe me, I’ve been there. We love our children so much and we just want to do everything possible to help them. I can understand parents who are upset and angry and just want to know how this could have possibly happened, and I feel for the families who filed in vaccine court because they are clearly in a lot of pain. But they need to look at the data. You can’t be so focused on anger that you lose sight of what the science is saying because that’s not in the best interest of the kids. At the Autism Science Foundation we always encourage parents to look at the science and make decisions based on the science. And this is what the special masters did. They looked at the data.
And I want to stress one more point; this is really not an issue over which parents and scientists disagree. Parents have access to the studies on the internet and we know how to read. The studies are very clear. The vast majority of families have come to the same conclusions as the special masters. It’s not a scientists vs. layperson or scientist vs parents issue. Everyone is coming to the same conclusion, except a small, vocal minority of parents who just don’t want to believe what the data clearly show. And frankly it scares me to see children with autism being put at risk by therapies that have grown out of the incorrect vaccine hypothesis, like heavy metal chelation, that have no evidence of efficacy and can do real harm, especially when they divert time and energy away from therapies like Applied Behavior Analysis which have been proven to help our kids.
Hopefully after today’s ruling, we can put this issue behind us and move forward and direct our scarce autism research dollars to studies that will provide new information about what causes autism and how best to treat it.
While most experts agree that there is a genetic component to autism, many other questions remain. To get two different medical viewpoints on the major issues, we conducted separate interviews with Paul Offit, M.D., chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of “Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure” and Geri Dawson, M.D., chief medical officer of Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization.
AOL Health: How do you define autism?
Paul Offit: Autism is a problem with speech and language and communication. It’s a neurological condition probably existent from birth.
Geri Dawson: Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by different areas of social interaction and communication. Individuals often have preoccupations, a restricted range of behaviors, stereotypical or ritualistic behaviors like hand flapping or are overly focused on a range of behavior.
By Ken Reibel
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen made his fortune helping to create the operating system used on most of the world’s personal computers. But these days his interest lies in a far more complex operating system: the 20,000 or so genes that create the self-aware tangle of neurons we call the human brain.
The team at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle has set a hugely ambitious goal: to map the human brain, and place the data sets online for scientists and the public to explore free of charge. The finished product, the Allen Human Brain Atlas, could do for neuroscience what star charts did for Columbus.
“The brain is really all about functional divisions, and it’s very important to understand how those functional divisions relate to their underlying biochemistry,” says Allan Jones, Ph.D., the institute’s chief scientific officer. “The underlying biochemistry is driven by genes.”
Comparisons to the Human Genome Project, completed just 10 years ago, are obvious but don’t speak to the scale of Allen’s vision. Whereas the HGP, which concluded in 2003, generated some 3 gigabytes of data in its 13 years, brain mapping generates over one terabyte every day.
The institute draws on the talents of computer specialists, administrators, and 30 PhD scientists whose training includes math and physics, neuroanatomy, genetics and developmental biology. And then there are the robots.
The five-year project would take decades longer without the help of dozens of robots that mount slide and scan slides. The institute has also automated the 40-step in situ hybridization process that synthetically tags RNA molecules in a process that ultimately fingers where that gene is turned on in a particular cell.
“The act of actually cover-slipping a slide, thinking back to high school biology class, is a very tedious task,” says Jones. “And you often get bubbles and other things, so we have a machine that lays down a cover slip that’s perfect every time.”
So what does all this mean for the study of autism?
Neuroscientists currently use a variety of tools to probe the brain. They can measure electrical activity of individual neurons with a microelectrode, inserted into the tissue of a live subject. Functional MRIs create images that correlate certain stimuli or mental activities to different regions of the brain. Microbiologists study enzymes, proteins, and RNA splices. But these techniques can’t explain how cells, electrical signals, and genes combine to create human consciousness.
So far, scientists have looked at autism from different angles, and even identified abnormalities in the brain’s structure. But their explanations never reach beyond the abstract – it’s like exploring Africa with a 15th century map of the coast. By identifying and labeling genes, no matter how obscure, and identifying their exact location, Allen Institute scientists can add rich detail to terra incognita that handicaps traditional brain science.
Diseases and disorders only generally associated with regions of the brain can possibly be pinpointed, even reduced to a few misfiring neurons, and linked to a known gene expression.
Though the project is two years from completion, it has already yielded significant insights into our species.
“By and large, there’s really not a whole lot of variation across human populations in the specific patterns that activate genes. It’s probably less than 5%. And so, we’ve looked at these across multiple individuals,” says Jones.
“So even though there is likely to be variation in gene expression that’s driven by population differences, it’s minor compared to the larger commonality between us. Humans are a lot more similar amongst each other than not.”