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The Wakefield Rehabilitation? Not really.

Posted Oct 17 2011 7:29pm

Reading about Andrew Wakefield gets old and tiring. I’m sure that isn’t news to readers here. Writing about Andew Wakefield gets very tiring. Who wants to keep reminding him/her self about a man who has caused so much harm to both the autism communities and public health in general? Who wants to read about dishonesty and unethical behavior?

I can only imagine that Brian Deer must want to put his award on a shelf and move on.

Which all begs the question: why do I think people reading Left Brain/Right Brain might want to read about him again? Because in this case it isn’t about Mr. Wakefield. Rather it is about his supporters. People who put aside the proved charges of dishonesty and unethical behavior. People such as Kent Heckenlively of the Age of Autism blog who are looking for . It’s about how and why authors cite previous literature, and not reading too much into citations.

Beyond the hopes of those supporting Andrew Wakefield, there is some good research here and a bit of information about how and why people cite certain papers in the scientific literature.

First, how is Mr. Wakefield being “rehabilitated”? Answer: his papers were recently cited in a recent study. Seriously, something that small. That’s how hard people have to look for validation for Mr. Wakefield. A few citations and he’s on the road to rehabilitation.

The new paper isn’t by just any team, though. The study, recently out in PLoS One is Impaired Carbohydrate Digestion and Transport and Mucosal Dysbiosis in the Intestines of Children with Autism and Gastrointestinal Disturbances . The study is a follow-on to the PLoS One paper by Hornig et al., Lack of association between measles virus vaccine and autism with enteropathy: a case-control study.

Why is that important? “Lack of association…” is the paper which definitively put an end to the Wakefield MMR hypothesis. The team tried, with meticulous attention to detail, to replicate the most important factors of various Wakefield MMR-autism papers. They studied children with autism and gastro-intestinal complaints. They restricted their study to children who had demonstrated clear need for endoscopy (one major difference from the Wakefield studies). They were very careful about correctly reporting the patient histories (another major difference). They tested intestinal biopsy samples for measles virus (similar to as study by the Wakefield team), but were very careful to avoid contamination (unlike the Wakefield studies). The recent study used multiple laboratories to test for measles virus (Wakefield used two: his own and the O’Leary laboratory). Unlike Mr. Wakefield, the recent study reported on results from all the laboratories (Mr. Wakefield neglected to mention the results from his own laboratory which were contradictory to his theory).

Hornig et al. wrote:

The work reported here eliminates the remaining support for the hypothesis that ASD with GI complaints is related to MMR exposure. We found no relationship between the timing of MMR and the onset of either GI complaints or autism. We also could not confirm previous work linking the presence of MV RNA in GI tract to ASD with GI complaints.

About as clear a conclusion as I’ve ever seen. “The work reported here eliminates the remaining support for the hypothesis that ASD with GI complaints is related to MMR exposure.”

So, what about the new paper and the citations? Well, members of the team that produced the Hornig et al. study did further research on the tissue samples taken. Brent L. Williams heads up the author list on the new study.

Here is the (highly technical) abstract from the new study by Williams et al.:

Gastrointestinal disturbances are commonly reported in children with autism, complicate clinical management, and may contribute to behavioral impairment. Reports of deficiencies in disaccharidase enzymatic activity and of beneficial responses to probiotic and dietary therapies led us to survey gene expression and the mucoepithelial microbiota in intestinal biopsies from children with autism and gastrointestinal disease and children with gastrointestinal disease alone. Ileal transcripts encoding disaccharidases and hexose transporters were deficient in children with autism, indicating impairment of the primary pathway for carbohydrate digestion and transport in enterocytes. Deficient expression of these enzymes and transporters was associated with expression of the intestinal transcription factor, CDX2. Metagenomic analysis of intestinal bacteria revealed compositional dysbiosis manifest as decreases in Bacteroidetes, increases in the ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes, and increases in Betaproteobacteria. Expression levels of disaccharidases and transporters were associated with the abundance of affected bacterial phylotypes. These results indicate a relationship between human intestinal gene expression and bacterial community structure and may provide insights into the pathophysiology of gastrointestinal disturbances in children with autism.

If this were really about the autistics and not about Andrew Wakefield, those claiming that there is something different about the GI disturbances in autistics should be extatic. Here is a top notch team pointing to a possible real difference. In the kids tested, the genes were expressing enzymes and transporters—i.e. the genes are performing differently—for autistic kids. Also, they are seeing differences in the bacteria in the autistic kids.

Not only that, but these kids benefited from dietary intervention, although it isn’t specific to the autistic kids: “Beneficial effects of dietary intervention on GI disturbances were reported for all AUT-GI and Control-GI subjects with FA.”

But, it apparently isn’t about the autistics or the research when it comes to the Age of Autism. It’s about rehabilitating Andrew Wakefield’s reputation. (With apologies in advance—the image that comes to mind is a team that has been performing CPR on his reputation for years now. It’s time to move on.)

The important piece of this study, according to Mr. Heckenlively, is that they cite some of Andrew Wakefield’s papers. In particular:

Wakefield AJ, Anthony A, Murch SH, Thomson M, Montgomery SM, et al. (2000) Enterocolitis in children with developmental disorders. Am J Gastroenterol 95: 2285–2295.

Wakefield AJ, Ashwood P, Limb K, Anthony A (2005) The significance of ileo-colonic lymphoid nodular hyperplasia in children with autistic spectrum disorder. Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol 17: 827–836

Ashwood P, Anthony A, Torrente F, Wakefield AJ (2004) Spontaneous mucosal lymphocyte cytokine profiles in children with autism and gastrointestinal symptoms: mucosal immune activation and reduced counter regulatory interleukin-10. J Clin Immunol 24: 664–673.

Mr. Heckenlively appears to have built a nice straw man argument in which every thing Mr. Wakefield has done is now discredited. Somehow citing a paper by Mr. Wakefield then becomes some sort of a statement that everything he did was actually right. Both sides of that argument are false. The authors should cite what is in the literature. By citing, say, the Ashwood (2004) paper, they aren’t saying that, say, the 1998 Wakefield Lancet paper is now “rehabilitated’.

Notice that the authors didn’t cite the 1998 Lancet paper. One big reason: it’s been retracted. Which begs the question, why are the authors citing Wakefield et al. (2000)? The paper in the American Journal of Gastroenterology has also been been retracted :

On 28 January 2010, the UK General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practice Panel raised concerns about a paper published in the Lancet by Dr Wakefi eld et al. (1). The main issues were that the patient sample collected was likely to be biased and that the statement in the paper, that the study had local ethics committee approval, was false. Th ere was also the possibility of a serious conflict of interest in the interpretation of the data. Th e Lancet has now retracted this paper (1). Th is paper in the American Journal of Gastroenterology (AJG) (2) also includes the 12 patients in the original Lancet article and therefore we retract this AJG paper from the public record.

One really shouldn’t cite things that have been retracted from the public record. So, is there some message that Williams et al. are trying to send us? Are they saying that Andrew Wakefield was correct all along? Hardly. That paper was retracted in May of 2011 , the same time that Impaired Carbohydrate Digestion and Transport and Mucosal Dysbiosis in the Intestines of Children with Autism and Gastrointestinal Disturbances was submitted to PLoS One. The authors weren’t aware of the retraction. Says a lot about how closely they follow Andrew Wakefield, don’t it?

Apparently, the authors have contacted PLoS about the citation, and it will be corrected to notify readers of the retraction. That is the right thing to do. It isn’t a statement about Mr. Wakefield’s research, other than this paper was retracted.

Authors can’t control the message bloggers may try to create from their research (heck, one of the authors, Ian Lipkin, consulted on the recent movie “Contagion”, a main character is a blogger whose message is unscientific and irresponsible). From what I’ve heard, the authors are still very clear on the message of their first PLoS paper: “The work reported here eliminates the remaining support for the hypothesis that ASD with GI complaints is related to MMR exposure. ”

I think the point was made pretty clearly. Mr. Heckenlively in his excitement read way too much into this new paper. Not surprisingly, he just goes on and on making more mistakes. Consider this paragraph:

Isn’t Dr. Wakefield supposed to be some super-villain, leading all of us gullible parents to believe that vaccines aren’t quite as safe as sugar water? Didn’t he make up fake diseases? So, after being stripped of his license to practice medicine in the U. K., it turns out there really is something called autistic entercolitis and ileo-colonic lymphoid nodular hyperplasia in children with autism. At least Dr. W. Ian Lipkin seems to think so.

Wow. All this is extrapolated from a single sentence in the introduction of the paper: “Macroscopic and histological observations in ASD include findings of ileo-colonic lymphoid nodular hyperplasia, enterocolitis, gastritis, and esophagitis [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7].”

What does that sentence mean? Simple interpretation: others have reported these findings. Not “we confirm that these findings are real”. Given that reference [3] (a retracted Wakefield paper) may be removed or noted to be retracted, the only support for “enterocolitis” will be gone from the paper.

Mr. Heckenlively wrote “Although this study used a relatively small sample of gut biopsies from children with autism (Hey, isn’t that what Wakefield got in trouble for? Or is my memory failing me?),”

Mr. Heckenlively, your memory is failing you. The findings of the General Medical Council are easily found online.

Let me remind you of some of that document:

The Panel concluded that Dr Wakefield’s shortcomings and the aggravating factors in this case including in broad terms the wide-ranging transgressions relating to every aspect of his research; his disregard for the clinical interests of vulnerable patients; his failure to heed the warnings he received in relation to the potential conflicts of interest associated with his Legal Aid Board funding; his failure to disclose the patent; his dishonesty and the compounding of that dishonesty in relation to the drafting of the Lancet paper; and his subsequent representations about it, all played out against a background of research involving such major public health implications, could not be addressed by any conditions on his registration. In addition, the Panel considered that his actions relating to the taking of blood at the party exemplifies a fundamental failure in the ethical standards expected of a medical practitioner. It concluded that conditional registration would not mark the seriousness of such fundamental failings in his duty as a doctor

and

The Panel made findings of transgressions in many aspects of Dr Wakefield’s research. It made findings of dishonesty in regard to his writing of a scientific paper that had major implications for public health, and with regard to his subsequent representations to a scientific body and to colleagues. He was dishonest in respect of the LAB funds secured for research as well as being misleading. Furthermore he was in breach of his duty to manage finances as well as to account for funds that he did not need to the donor of those funds. In causing blood samples to be taken from children at a birthday party, he callously disregarded the pain and distress young children might suffer and behaved in a way which brought the profession into disrepute.

Mr. Heckelively also poses the question: “Didn’t he [Andrew Wakefield] make up fake diseases?”

That would be “ autistic enterocolitis” , a term Andrew Wakefield coined and a condition which still, 13 years later, doesn’t have support. Autistic enterocolitis is not just any and all GI disturbances in autistics. Enterocolitis is “...an inflammation of the colon and small intestine”. Note the “and”, there. Even more important, the PLoSOne paper is not about inflammation at all.

Mr. Heckenlively finishes with the rather hopeful, wishful thinking statement: “But if a big shot scientist like Dr. W. Ian Lipkin is quoting Dr. Andrew Wakefield as a reliable source, maybe the rest of the world will soon be doing the same thing.”

Again, wow. Here we have Ian Lipkin, one of the team that just put an end to the Wakefield-MMR hypothesis. Again, let’s remind ourselves, Ian Lipkin is part of the team which wrote: “The work reported here eliminates the remaining support for the hypothesis that ASD with GI complaints is related to MMR exposure.” There is such a major disconnect between that statement (which, yes, Dr. Lipkin stands by) and what Mr. Heckenlively wrote that I am just left in amazement.

This isn’t a story about rehabilitation. This is a story about diversion. Diversion of attention away from important subjects in autism. These include the medical treatment of major health problems. How does one treat something like bowel problems in individuals with communication and/or sensory difficulties? That’s a big question that gets lost in this whole “Andrew Wakefield” discussion. Research like this new paper is important in that respect: is there something specific to kids with autism, regression and GI disease? Leave aside any discussion about GI being linked to the regression, how do you treat it? I, for one, am glad to see something come out of this research project than just the “MMR doesn’t cause autism and GI disease” conclusion. Instead of trying to read the tea leaves of this paper and try to recoup the damage Andrew Wakefield did to his reputation, why don’t we just read the paper in the context of what this might tell us about the health problems of autistics?

  1. Jack:
    Excellent article Sullivan thank you.
  2. passionlessDrone:
    Hi Sullivan - Tying this to Wakefield is pretty pathetic. Those guys are their own worst enemy and are too dumb to see it. But this is a great paper! If this were really about the autistics and not about Andrew Wakefield, those claiming that there is something different about the GI disturbances in autistics should be extatic. Here is a top notch team pointing to a possible real difference. In the kids tested, the genes were expressing enzymes and transporters—i.e. the genes are performing differently—for autistic kids. Also, they are seeing differences in the bacteria in the autistic kids. Yes! I'm totally stoked on this paper, but haven't had time to blog on it yet. As I said in another forum, finally some hard data on what those of us with GI kids have been saying for a long time; that the GI complaints are qualitatively different in our children. The tight coupling between GI and the measles hypothesis has been very unfortunate. One of the first lab tests we got back from a DAN doctor showed crazy, drastically different distributions of gut bacteria in the stool. I guess it wasn't a coincidence after all! Not only that, but these kids benefited from dietary intervention, although it isn’t specific to the autistic kids: “Beneficial effects of dietary intervention on GI disturbances were reported for all AUT-GI and Control-GI subjects with FA.” Yes! Of particular interest to me (and maybe some others), is the specific findings of problems with carbohydrate metabolism. We tried the specific carbohydrate diet for about a year, it was a total PITA, but something (?) caused my son's GI problems to ameliorate drastically during that time. The underlying hypothesis behind the SCD is that abnormal populations of bacteria are feeding on inadequately processed carbohydrates, and removing complex carbohydrates from the diet essentially starves this population of a food source. Finally, I also noted that the authors don't believe that the problems with digestion are genetically mediated. Congenital defects in these enzymes and transporters are extremely rare [40], [41], and even the common variant for adult-type hypolactasia was not responsible for reduced LCT expression in AUT-GI children in this cohort. Therefore, it is unlikely that the combined deficiency of disaccharidases (maldigestion) and transporters (malabsorption) are indicative of a primary malabsorption resulting from multiple congenital or acquired defects in each of these genes. There is, sadly, precious little speculation on what might be driving the problem. Cautious and incremental. I am curious, however, if this paper is complimentary, or a rewrite, of a paper presented at IMFAR two years ago with similar findings. I think I'll toggle the authors and ask. - pD
  3. McD:
    It is great to see some research into what may be a co-morbid condition. I hope they do a follow up. I found it interesting that 20% of the ASD sample and 71% of the non-ASD sample had asthma (just one of many other differences). I think that illustrates the issue of co-morbid rather than causal. I don't think anybody has a hypothesis that GI issues cause asthma or vice versa, they are just co-morbid - possibly there is an underlying issue that increases the possibility of having either or both. Sadly, if this study is getting a good airing at AoA, a bunch of kids with perfectly normal intestines are likely to get put on some unnecessary food restriction regime (a great way to cause problems IMHO), as part of the whole gut-brain-autism hypothesis. The study does not shed light on that at all as far as I can see. The good news is getting to know a little bit more about GI issues in autism, but I wish they had gotten a larger control group. The sample sizes are very small (15 ASD + 7 controls), with several differences in initial GI symptoms - so they reflected different GI populations from the start. e.g. 6 out of 7 control kids had mucus in stools, but only 6 out of 15 ASD kids; most of the ASD kids reported bloating, but only 2 of the 7 control kids did. All of the control kids had at least one of: asthma, atopic dermatitis, or allergic rhinitis; whereas only half the ASD group had a co-morbid atopic condition. So given the really small sample size for the control group, it is not clear that the differences between the groups reflect ASD (or an ASD related underlying factor), or whether the groups reflected different types of GI issues to start with. I don't know what to make of this: 5 control kids had diarrhea, 2 had vomiting AND diarrhea, while 1 had vomiting. If the categories are exclusive they should add up to 7 or less (not 8), if the categories are not exclusive, there should be at least 2 kids in the 'vomiting' group. Unless I am missing something (maths isn't my strong point). Then they did so many tests with no apparent statistical correction for the sheer number of tests. They have used Mann-Whitney U throughout, but then gave a table showing ASD % difference above or below controls; I wish they had discussed what they did to compensate for the huge battery of tests on such small sample sizes. They report what must be well over a hundred tests, but retain a p<.05 level of significance (see pg 18). Maybe someone with a stats background could comment on this? They seem to suggest a link between regressive autism and GI issues, and look at the relative onset of GI problems and autism. The age of onset was based on retrospective parental report. The interesting thing was the number of kids with GI onset AFTER Autism onset - they were vulnerable to onset of GI problems much later than control kids. The hypothesis does suggest a potential area of research - a prospective study looking at the outcomes for kids diagnosed with GI problems. If there is a relationship, they should end up wth ASDs at a higher rate than non-GI kids.
  4. Dee:
    "why don’t we just read the paper in the context of what this might tell us about the health problems of autistics?" Amen! My three year old needs this help and he needs it now and no one around here in San Diego will even address it BECAUSE of the damage Wakefield did.

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