Blog | Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Discredited autism researcher chills future research

Can a line of medical research become so tainted as to be off-limits to future scientists? Science writer Emily Willingham asked this question recently in connection with autism and abdominal disorders.

Andrew Wakefield was a British physician and researcher (he has lost his British medical license) who was responsible for what the British Medical Journal called “an elaborate fraud”.

This putative fraud involved studying a small number of autistic children and allegedly altering the collected data to support his idea that the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine (MMR) somehow caused autism. He pushed his ideas (ideas based on junk, falsified science) widely and rates of MMR vaccination dropped. Measles and mumps, having nearly been eradicated, are now popping up in the UK and the US in numbers we haven’t seen in decades.

But what if, Emily asks, there is an important connection between autism and bowel problems? Not one where vaccines cause autism, but a link between the anxiety suffered by autistic people and abdominal pain, something seen in neuro-typicals with anxiety?

Has this question become difficult to study because of the baggage piled one by Wakefield’s actions, actions that have injured the public health of the US and the UK?

Emily points to a piece in the journal Pediatrics that says “yes,” Wakefield’s abominable actions have put a chill on a potentially important line of research.

Research that comes with a ton of ethical baggage, such as eugenics and experiments done by Nazis on prisoners raise important questions. In this case it’s not the ethical baggage but the outrageous actions by a single person, actions that have hurt real people.

It certainly is a quandary, but with proper, ethical supervision, we should be able to go on with this research.

Peter A. Lipson, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. After graduating from Rush Medical College in Chicago, he completed his internal medicine residency at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. This post first appeared at his blog at Forbes. His blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers "musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture." His writing focuses on the difference between science-based medicine and "everything else," but also speaks to the day-to-day practice of medicine, fatherhood, and whatever else migrates from his head to his keyboard.