I’m not infrequently asked why the myth that vaccines cause autism and other anti-vaccine myths are so stubbornly resistant to the science that time and time again fails to support them. Certainly useful celebrity idiots like Jenny McCarthy are one reason. So, too, are anti-vaccine propaganda websites and blogs such as Age of Autism and anti-vaccine organizations like Generation Rescue, the National Vaccine Information Center, and SafeMinds and the organizations that publish them. However, these are clearly not the only reason. Alone, these people and organizations are in general quite rightly viewed as fringe, although they are very popular among the anti-vaccine movement. It is when such groups find a willing conduit for their pseudoscience in the “mainstream media” that they see the opportunity to attain a degree of seeming respectability that they can’t achieve on their own based on science. Worse, when mainstream news organizations or reporters fall for the pseudoscience claiming that vaccines cause autism, they contribute to the persistence of this myth outside the activist core of the anti-vaccine movement in the public at large.
Unfortunately, in TV news at least, the role of mainstream media propagandist for the anti-vaccine movement has been taken on with gusto by a CBS News correspondent named Sharyl Attkisson, and, oops, she did it again just this Thursday with an article entitled Vaccines and autism: a new scientific review, in which she pimps a truly horrible “review” of the evidence base regarding whether vaccines cause or predispose to autism. Interestingly, she’s quite late. AoA was promoting this article two months ago, and I even mentioned it in the context of an post taking down a recent excretion from David Kirby. On the other hand, April is Autism Awareness Month, and I can always count on the anti-vaccine movement to lay down some vaccine pseudoscience on or around April 1 every year (I leave it to the reader to judge the appropriateness of that date); so perhaps this latest from Attkisson is the opening salvo for this year’s campaign. Her article opens:
For all those who’ve declared the autism-vaccine debate over – a new scientific review begs to differ. It considers a host of peer-reviewed, published theories that show possible connections between vaccines and autism.
The article in the Journal of Immunotoxicology is entitled “Theoretical aspects of autism: Causes–A review.” The author is Helen Ratajczak, surprisingly herself a former senior scientist at a pharmaceutical firm. Ratajczak did what nobody else apparently has bothered to do: she reviewed the body of published science since autism was first described in 1943. Not just one theory suggested by research such as the role of MMR shots, or the mercury preservative thimerosal; but all of them.
Ratajczak’s article states, in part, that “Documented causes of autism include genetic mutations and/or deletions, viral infections, and encephalitis [brain damage] following vaccination [emphasis added]. Therefore, autism is the result of genetic defects and/or inflammation of the brain.”
Note the classic crank technique of trying to convince the reader that the “debate is not over,” that the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism is, in fact, “pining for the fjords” when in fact, on a strictly scientific basis, the hypothesis is at least as dead as that famous parrot, with Attkisson playing the role of the shopkeeper trying to convince his customer that “‘E’s resting” while raving about the parrot’s “beautiful plumage.” Meanwhile, John Cleese is pounding the hypothesis against the counter yelling, “Hellooo, Polly!” and getting no response, at least from a scientific standpoint.
Attkisson then goes on to write:
Ratajczak also looks at a factor that hasn’t been widely discussed: human DNA contained in vaccines. That’s right, human DNA. Ratajczak reports that about the same time vaccine makers took most thimerosal out of most vaccines (with the exception of flu shots which still widely contain thimerosal), they began making some vaccines using human tissue. Ratajczak says human tissue is currently used in 23 vaccines. She discusses the increase in autism incidences corresponding with the introduction of human DNA to MMR vaccine, and suggests the two could be linked. Ratajczak also says an additional increased spike in autism occurred in 1995 when chicken pox vaccine was grown in human fetal tissue.
Why could human DNA potentially cause brain damage? The way Ratajczak explained it to me: “Because it’s human DNA and recipients are humans, there’s homologous recombinaltion tiniker. That DNA is incorporated into the host DNA. Now it’s changed, altered self and body kills it. Where is this most expressed? The neurons of the brain. Now you have body killing the brain cells and it’s an ongoing inflammation. It doesn’t stop, it continues through the life of that individual.”
There’s only one phrase to describe this idea: The stupid, it burns. It sears. It scalds the skin off my flesh. It opoptoses my neurons. (Well, not really, over the last six years I’ve built up formidable defenses against such scientific ignorance.)
I have experience with working with DNA, human, mouse, and otherwise, including injecting it into tissues and trying to get it to express the protein for which it encodes. This is not a trivial matter. Think of it this way. If it were, gene therapy would be an almost trivial matter. But it’s not. In general, it’s difficult to induce human cells to take up foreign DNA in tissue. Even with viral vectors, it’s hard to get more than a small percentage of cells not only to take up the DNA but to express detectable levels of protein. Muscle is one tissue that can take up naked plasmid DNA and actually express it. Indeed, this technique has been used to generate cancer vaccines, where plasmid DNA is injected into the muscle in order to cause it to make a certain protein, which then provokes an immune response. But doing this is not easy, and the DNA is not detectably incorporated into the DNA of the muscle cells. Its gene expression is extranuclear (outside the nucleus).
But that’s not all. Even human cells that can take up random bits of extracellular DNA at very low efficiency (like muscle) do not integrate that DNA into their genome. Even if the DNA did reach the nucleus, recombination into the host genome would be both random and rare. Each cell would incorporate different bits of DNA into different locations in its genome. Does Dr. Ratajczak even know basic molecular biology? No, never mind. I think I know the answer to that one, and you do too.
But that’s still not all.
Dr. Ratajczak states that the DNA from vaccines is human DNA. Even if that human DNA did undergo homologous recombination, it would still be human DNA making human proteins. Yet Dr. Ratajczak claims that homologous recombination turns that cell into “altered self.” However, the body recognizes a cell as foreign or “altered” through the expression of its cell surface proteins. Consequently, the only likely currently known mechanism by which homologous recombination of human DNA from vaccines might conceivably result in such an autoimmunity phenomenon would be if the DNA from the vaccine somehow resulted in the expression of a foreign or altered protein on the cell surface that the immune system could recognize as foreign. That would mean either integrating into the gene for a cell surface protein or producing a cell surface protein itself. While not impossible, that’s pretty darned unlikely to happen on a scale that would affect more than a single cell, a few at most.
Let’s recap the implausibility of Dr. Ratajczak’s idea. (I refuse to dignify it with the appellation of “hypothesis.”) To do what Dr. Ratajczak claims, the minute amount of human DNA in a vaccine would have to:
- Find its way to the brain in significant quantities.
- Make it into the neurons in the brain in significant quantities.
- Make it into the nucleus of the neurons in significant quantities.
- Undergo homologous recombination at a detectable level, resulting in either the alteration of a cell surface protein or the expression of a foreign cell surface protein that the immune system can recognize.
- Undergo homologous recombination in many neurons in such a way that results in the neurons having cell surface protein(s) altered sufficiently to be recognized as foreign.
That’s leaving aside the issue of whether autoimmunity in the brain or chronic brain inflammation is even a cause of autism, which is by no means settled by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s not at all clear whether the markers of inflammation sometimes reported in the brains of autistic children are a cause, a consequence, or merely an epiphenomenon of autism. In other words, Dr. Ratajczak’s hypothesis is incredibly implausible on the basis of what we know about molecular biology and human biology. It’s not quite homeopathy-level implausible, but nonetheless quite implausible. Even so, I’m willing to have my mind changed for me, but there’s only one thing that can possibly do that: Scientific data. Experiments. Clinical trials. Good ones. So I “went to the source,” so to speak, and actually looked at Dr. Ratajczak’s review article being touted by Attkisson to see what she actually said about homologous recombination of human DNA in vaccines as one cause of autism. Here is the sum total of what she said:
Data from a worldwide composite of studies show that an increase in cumulative incidence began about 1988-1990 (McDonald and Paul, 2010). The new version of the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine (i.e., MMR II) that did not contain Thimerosal was introduced in 1979. By 1983, only the new version was available. Autism in the United States spiked dramatically between 1983 and 1990 from 4-5/10,000 to 1/500. In 1988, two doses of MMR II were recommended to immunize those individuals who did not respond to the first injection. A spike of incidence of autism accompanied the addition of the second dose of MMR II. Also, in 1988, MMR II was used in the United Kingdom, which reported a dramatic increase in prevalence of autism to 1/64 (noted above). Canada, Denmark, and Japan also reported dramatic increases in prevalence of autism. It is important to note that unlike the former MMR, the rubella component of MMR II was propagated in a human cell line derived from embryonic lung tissue (Merck and Co., Inc., 2010). The MMR II vaccine is contaminated with human DNA from the cell line. This human DNA could be the cause of the spikes in incidence. An additional increased spike in incidence of autism occurred in 1995 when the chicken pox vaccine was grown in human fetal tissue (Merck and Co., Inc., 2001; Breuer, 2003). The current incidence of autism in the United States, noted above, is approximately 1/100.
The human DNA from the vaccine can be randomly inserted into the recipient’s genes by homologous recombination, a process that occurs spontaneously only within a species. Hot spots for DNA insertion are found on the X chromosome in eight autism-associated genes involved in nerve cell synapse formation, central nervous system development, and mitochondrial function (Deisher, 2010). This could provide some explanation of why autism is predominantly a disease of boys. Taken together, these data support the hypothesis that residual human DNA in some vaccines might cause autism.
Later, she writes:
Other reports have also used prevalence data that support an association of the MMR vaccine with an increased prevalence of autism. Furthermore, an examination of the continuing increase in prevalence in autism in the context of the dates of spikes in increase in prevalence which point to the MMR II vaccine (which did not contain Thimerosal) suggests that something “new” caused the increase in incidence of autism. Changes in vaccine schedule occurred over the years such as changes in the age at which vaccines were given (Ramsay et al., 1991). These changes could contribute to the increases in incidence of autism. Another change was how some vaccines were propagated. The “new” component could be the human DNA from the preparation of the rubella component of the MMR II vaccine and the chicken pox vaccine. See “Changes in Rates of Autism Incidence” above. The United States Government and Dr. Geberding, Director of Vaccines at Merck & Co., Inc. say that autistic conditions can result from encephalopathy following vaccination (Child Health Safety, 2010).
I’m the sort of guy who’s data-driven. (I have, after all, chosen as my pseudonym the name of a Plexiglass box of blinking colored lights that is the most advanced computer in the entire galactic federation in an obscure 30-year-old British science fiction show.) If there were scientific data that convincingly suggested a hypothesis, even one as implausible as the one above, I’d think about it and possibly even conclude that this is an area worthy of investigation. There were no data presented, and it’s not as though it would be very difficult to find evidence of the type that would be needed to support Ratajczak’s ideas.
In fact, there weren’t even studies cited that convincingly supported Ratajczak’s assertions. That’s it? I was thinking as I read her article. That’s all she’s got? Seriously? I thought it was a joke; so I read the entire article again. Yes, that is all that she has got: Implying that correlation equals causation, combined with an observation that there are “hot spots” for DNA insertion in the X chromosome in some autism-associated genes. From that, she concludes that the existing data support the hypothesis that human DNA in MMR II could be at least responsible for the “autism epidemic” through homologous recombination in the brain resulting in autoimmunity and chronic inflammation? And she cites the anti-vaccine blog Child Health Safety as one of her references? The date of the CHS entry cited is June 30, 2010. All I could find was this entry, which purports to argue that both Merck’s Director of Vaccines and the U.S. government have admitted that vaccines cause autism all based on the long known science showing that a maternal case of rubella while carrying a fetus can result in autism in the child, something that’s been known for several decades and is in fact one reason why vaccination against rubella is so important. How on earth did this get through peer review. Obviously, the peer reviewers of Dr. Ratajczak’s article were either completely ignorant of the background science (and therefore unqualified) or asleep at the switch.
The rest of Dr. Ratajczak’s article is, as you might expect, a greatest hits collection of anti-vaccine hypotheses, speculations, ideas, and brain farts mixed with the occasional–and I do mean occasional–grain of scientifically supportable hypotheses regarding autism. The vast majority of what is discussed, however, is pure vaccine pseudoscience. The scientifically unsupported idea that mercury in vaccines causes autism? It’s there. The work of the tag team of Geier père et fils, the same team who came up with the idea of chemical castration as a treatment of autism that “works” because according to them testosterone binds mercury, making it easier to chelate? Copiously cited. True, Ratajczak doesn’t specifically cite the Geiers’ unethical clinical trial testing Lupron as a treatment for “precocious puberty” and autism, but she does cite the “scientific” basis that the Geiers used to justify that trial, as well as a lot of the Geiers’ usual execrable studies linking mercury in vaccines with autism. Mitochondrial dysfunction, which has been co-opted by the anti-vaccine movement as an “explanation” for how vaccines supposedly cause autism? It’s there too. She even cites David Ayoub, who is known for thinking that black helicopters are watching him. In other words, her review is 95% pseudoscientific garbage, maybe 5% reasonable science. On second thought, I’m clearly being generous.
Of course, this is not the first time that Sharyl Attkisson has demonstrated herself to be biased in favor of the anti-vaccine movement. Indeed, I’ve known about her activities in this regard going back nearly four years. One particularly prominent example that sticks out in my mind is an article she published on the CBS News website back in 2007 entitled Autism: Why the debate rages, in which she made assertions and arguments of these sorts:
- Science has been wrong before. She used Vioxx and Thalidomide as examples. Never mind that Thalidomide was never approved in the U.S. at the time of all the birth defects (it’s approved now to treat multiple myeloma), and in fact was an example of the FDA doing its job. In classic crank fashion, Attkisson used these examples to argue that science must be wrong now about thimerosal in vaccines. She even pulls out the hoary “refrigerator mother” gambit, implying that because there was a time that scientists speculated that cold, uncaring mothers contributed to or triggered autism and were clearly wrong about that, they must be wrong about vaccines now.
- The classic “pharma shill gambit.” Attkisson ranted on about how scientists do research for vaccine companies, linking the pro-vaccine group Every Child By Two to pharmaceutical companies.
- Science doesn’t know everything. Sample quote: “There is no definitive research proving a link between vaccines and autism or ADD, but there is also no definitive research ruling it out.” Well, there is no definitive research ruling out a link between autism and pixies, either.
- Because scientists don’t know what is causing the “autism epidemic,” vaccines are a plausible cause.
Truly, Attkisson’s 2007 article was a crank trifecta plus one!
Then, in 2008, Sharyl Attkisson appeared to have been caught almost red-handed taking a letter of protest from a pro-vaccine group called Voices for Vaccines complaining about her reporting to the anti-vaccine group blog Age of Autism, an incident that led Liz Ditz to ask, “How much of Attkisson’s “investigating” consists of rewriting and rewording statements from principals at the advocacy–even propaganda–organization, Age of Autism?” I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that Attkisson’s reporting on vaccines is nearly indistinguishable from the message put forth by anti-vaccine groups like Generation Rescue, SafeMinds, and the NVIC. Attkisson even falls for bad science in other areas, such as breast cancer research. In fact, you could say that her science reporting when it comes to breast cancer causation is of the same quality as her reporting on vaccines and autism, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.
Nor do I mean it as a compliment when I say that, in the wake of Wakefield’s infamous “monkey business study” in 2009, Attkisson inserted her nose farther up Andrew Wakefield’s posterior than even most of the crew at AoA has yet managed:
After all of Attkisson’s pandering to the anti-vaccine movement and promoting its message, one huge question remains. Why does CBS News tolerate Attkisson’s horrible reporting on vaccines and other scientific issues? I can’t speak about her other reporting, but when it comes to science, Sharyl Attkisson is a crank par excellence. She has an agenda; and she tortures the evidence to make it seem to agree with her biases. I also wonder how long it will be before Attkisson joins Dan Olmsted as a writer for AoA. My only surprise is that, nearly four years since I first noticed her, she hasn’t made that move already. I suppose I can always hope that CBS News wises up to the anti-vaccine propagandist working as one of its correspondents and forces Attkisson finally to make that move.