3rd June 2006
[Mmmm uh-oh I've just found out the Guardian newsdesk have cut this by 200 words while I was having an afternoon snooze. I can't bear to look. Anyway, here's what I wrote...]
MMR is back. “US scientists back autism link to MMR” squealed the Telegraph. “Scientists fear MMR link to autism” roared the Mail. “US study supports claims of MMR link to autism” croaked The Times, a day later.
Strap me to the rocket and print my home address in the paper, I’m going after them again. So what was this frightening new data? Well it’s hard to tell, since it hasn’t been properly published anywhere yet, so you can’t actually read it and form an opinion. This is now standard operating procedure for all scare stories, because journalists have learnt that informed and informative public debate on unpublished research is basically impossible. So it turns out that these three newspaper stories are all about a poster presentation, at a conference yet to occur, on research not yet completed, by a man with a track record of announcing research that never subsequently appears in an academic journal: Dr Arthur Krigsman.
The story is that he may have found genetic material (RNA) from vaccine-strain measles virus in some gut samples from children with autism and bowel problems. Some believe that this could implicate the vaccine in causing health problems.
But let’s not forget, the Daily Mail was promoting Krigsman’s research back in 2002 as well: at that time, he was putting endoscopes into the bowels of young children with autism, and said he had found evidence of inflammation. 4 years later, looking on PubMed, the standard database for all medical papers, it seems this research still has not been published in a peer reviewed academic journal. Forgive my bluntness, but it seems a shame to go poking around up there if you’re not going to write up your findings properly.
Meanwhile the Telegraph says that Krigsman’s most recent unpublished claim is replicating similar work from 1998 by Dr Andrew Wakefield, and 2002 by Professor John O’Leary. But there is no such work from 1998 by Wakefield, at least not in PubMed (in that year he publishes his infamous, very different, and partially retracted Lancet paper on MMR, of course). Meanwhile it is well documented that other labs have tried to reproduce the 2002 O’Leary study and come out with different results, and that the protocol was likely to have problems with false positives because of the tests used: two perfect examples of the importance of research being fully written up and published, so it can be replicated and assessed. Oh, and the newspapers didn’t mention that Andrew Wakefield was also an author on the 2002 study along with O’Leary, nor that Wakefield is also very closely associated with Krigsman (they are doctors together at Thoughtful House, a private autism clinic in the USA).
I could go on, but instead, here is the news you didn’t read: this month, in the May issue of the Journal of Medical Virology, there was a very similar study, only this one has actually been published. It looked for measles RNA in children with regressive autism after MMR vaccination, much like the Krigsman story. It used tools so powerful they could detect measles RNA down to single figure copy numbers. But they found no evidence of the magic vaccine-strain measles RNA to implicate MMR, and perhaps because of that unfrightening result, the study was loudly ignored by the press.
Because it has been published in full, I can read it, and pick holes in it, and I am more than happy to do so: because science is about critiquing openly published data and methodologies, and in the real world, all studies have some flaws, to a greater or lesser extent. Often they are practical ones: here for example, the researchers couldn’t get ethics committee approval to use the tissue they ideally wanted to use (lumbar punctures and gut biopsies on children are a hard sell). And when they asked the anti-MMR lobby if they could have some of their tissue to work on, amusingly, they were ignored.
Those who campaign against MMR make huge and detailed critiques of the published studies which suggest that MMR is safe. Sometimes they are spectacularly ill-informed: excepting that, it is quite right that they should critically appraise the literature. But in the spirit of science, the least they could do is share data, and maybe tissue samples, but most importantly publish their scientific work, in full, openly, before their peers, rather than the press.