Thursday, January 29, 2009

Anti-vaccine holdouts at Autism Speaks?

Alison Singer, a top executive at Autism Speaks, has resigned. Her reason? The organization is still funding studies of vaccines as possible triggers for autism. She quit in protest, saying that it's a diversion from other research avenues that have a higher chance of succeeding.

As I've written before, I am in agreement. It would be unfortunate for resources to be diverted to test a hypothesis that has been thoroughly tested - and rejected. Recent research has uncovered more productive avenues, including the discovery of gene linkages, as well as ideas about prenatal environmental hazards during the time when critical brain regions are developing.

However, there's a counter-argument. Advocacy organizations rely on the goodwill of their members. Looking at it this way, the question is how to direct their supporters' energy so that they can do the most good.

One interesting avenue is the question of whether prenatal immune reactions can hurt the developing brain. Next week I'm hosting a talk on this subject Paul Patterson from Caltech. That should be interesting!


Unknown said...

Why do you say the vaccine-autism hypothesis has been thoroughly tested?

Former NIH and American Red Cross head Dr. Bernadine Healey said twice in the last 9 months that the epidemiological studies are not thorough, that they do not address vulnerable population subsets and that lab studies are necessary.

Public health authorities have in fact discouraged any such research and directed funding towards research of genetic bases of autism for over 10 years, according to Teresa Binstock 1999 and the ION vaccine and autism report 2004, p.152

Sam Wang said...

NB, research on hypotheses that have been ruled out is "discouraged" in the sense that it is unlikely to pass peer review. For example, if I seek funding to test an interesting new idea, it needs to have some plausible support and can't be flatly contradicted by a large body of past work.

The belief that vaccines have something to do with autism is a subject I've written about on this site and in USA Today. In addition, I recommend a recent book by Paul Offit, Autism's False Prophets. I find it notable that antivaccine activists have been around for a long time, but the reasons for their opposition shift often. Now they have co-opted concerned parents of autistic children.

You really ought to read more about Patterson's work. It seems promising and addresses the role of neural-immune interactions in autism, a subject that should interest you. And it is funded by the NIH.

Sam Wang said...

Here is a good summary of some of Patterson's recent research.