History of the Autism-MMR Hypothesis – Part I

Opinion2.jpgTen years ago, in 1998, Andrew Wakefield and 12 others published a paper that suggested that a vaccine called the MMR (measles mumps and rubella) had a link with a new condition they described as giving kids bowel problems and autism.

The UK media went crazy, falling over themselves to report on the MMR vaccine causing autism. There was a televised news conference with Wakefield and a video news release set up by the hospital Wakefield worked at.

What wasn’t widely reported was that this wasn’t the first vaccine related paper Wakefield had written. In 1995 he co-authored a paper saying that there was a possible link between bowel diseases such as Crohn’s and vaccines.

In the UK, confidence in the vaccines collapsed. Between the years 97/98 to 2004/05 MMR uptake dropped by 10%.

Wakefield’s hypothesis was that the MMR was injected into a child. It then went to their gut and gave them gastric problems – a Crohn’s like condition he called “autistic enterocolitis” – after that it kept traveling to their brain where it caused or triggered autism.

He based this hypothesis on his 1998 study. This study looked at 12 autistic kids and in 8 of them claimed there was a connection.

What he did was send his samples off to a lab in Ireland called Unigentics run by a John O’Leary. This lab used a technique called PCR to examine Wakefield’s samples and said that it knew the children’s symptoms were caused by the MMR because the PCR technique showed there was vaccine strain measles virus in the guts of these kids.

Lets now fast forward 9 years to 2007. The Autism Omnibus hearings were (and still are) taking place in the US. These are legal hearings wherein parents who thought their children were made autistic by vaccines grouped together to sue the US government and vaccine manufacturers. The Special Masters overseeing the hearings said that there were three main strands – one where parents thought mercury in vaccines caused their kids autism (a subject for a later discussion). One where parents thought MMR had and one where parents thought both working together had.

The first test case that was tried was the Cedillo case where the parents thought that their daughters autism was caused just by the MMR.

Two people made very strong impressions on how weak the MMR and in particular Wakefields hypothesis was. The first was a guy called Stephen Bustin. The second was Nick Chadwick who actually worked under Wakefield when he wrote his ’98 paper.

Professor Stephen Bustin is the worlds foremost PCR expert. Bustin uses PCR every day in his work, he has 14 papers in the peer reviewed literature on PCR, over 8 book chapters and is personally the author of the ‘A to Z of Quantitative PCR’ which is considered ‘the bible’ of PCR. One of his papers has been cited over 1,000 times. Another has been cited over 500 times. He both organises and speaks at international PCR conferences. His testimony regarding the Unigentics lab used to find the measles virus in the guts of these autistic kids was invaluable.

Bustin examined the Unigentics lab findings and procedures in great detail (spending over 1,500 hours in the lab itself) and found that the lab (which has now gone bust as a business) made a fairly basic error of science when looking at Wakefield’s samples:

“…Now, these are from samples that should have been discarded according to the SOP from Unigenetics because there was no GAPDH present, i.e., the RNA is degraded. If you look at the Cts for the F-gene which they reported as positive you can see they’re the same. Now, if this is degraded RNA yet I’m getting the same Cts for my F-gene target this can’t be RNA because it would have been degraded.

That’s what the GAPDH showed me. Now, if it isn’t RNA it has to be DNA. If it is DNA it can’t be measles virus it has to be a contaminant.”

In other words, the samples Wakefield provided to Unigentics were useless because Unigenetics own documented lab procedure says they were. But they used them anyway. The results were a bombshell. If the RNA is useless (which the lab process defines it as being) it can’t actually be RNA. If its not RNA then it must be DNA and if its DNA then it can’t be measles virus because measles virus doesn’t exist as DNA.

What the Unigentics lab detected in Wakefield’s samples were contaminants. There’s no way that Unigentics could possibly have been detecting measles virus.

This was backed up by Chadwick who checked Wakefield’s work (at his request). He also did a PCR test.

Q. What results did you receive from the gut biopsy materials for measles RNA?

A. They were all negative.

Q. They were always negative?

A. Yes. There were a few cases of false positive results, which I used a method to see whether they were real positive results or false positive, and in every case they turned out to be false positive results. Essentially all the samples tested were negative.

Q. Did you inform Dr. Wakefield of the negative results?

A. Yes. Yes.

So not only are the samples Wakefield provided useless, the testing he asked Chadwick to perform showed they were useless. And yet he went ahead anyway.

Its also worth noting that every subsequent piece of MMR science (save one unpublished poster presentation) went through Unigenetics lab and went through the same process as Wakefield’s.

In order to find possible reasons for Wakefield sending material he knew was useless to a lab that screwed up we need to go back to 1997. One year before the Lancet paper implicating MMR was published.

In ’97, a journalist called Brian Deer found out that Andrew Wakefield had filed a patent application.This application was for a rival vaccine that would replace MMR. If MMR could be framed as a bad guy then the NHS (and maybe the world’s health services) would drop MMR and this new vaccine could step in. As the patent holder for this new vaccine, Wakefield would get very, very rich.

In Part II we’ll look at how Wakefield further manipulated the science to encourage positive results for himself.

Kevin Leitch

Kevin Leitch is parent to three children, including a young daughter diagnosed with classic autism. He became interested in autism related quackery and bad science following his daughters diagnosis and has been interviewed for and quoted in Nature Medicine, Nature Neuroscience, New Scientist and The Guardian.
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