RNA therapy for autism?

Fellow ScienceBlogger Alex Palazzo has discovered autism quackery.

I'm hurt.

I'm hurt because apparently Alex doesn't read my blog. (Just kidding; I don't read every ScienceBlog, either, although I do read many of them and peruse the Last 24 Hours Feed regularly for topics of interest.) If he did, he'd know that simply giving useless RNA from yeast in supplements (it's useless because, as Alex points out in detail, RNA is highly unstable and broken down quickly in the stomach to its component ribonucleic acids) is actually one of the more benign forms of autism quackery. At least it probably won't do any harm (other than, of course, the harm that it does to the wallets of the parents of autistic children who happen to fall for this bit of quackery), assuming that yeast RNA is all that's in the supplements.

Alex does a lovely job of debunking this bit of quackery, but I thought I'd list a few more forms of autism quackery that Alex might want to be made aware of. There's chelation "therapy," of course, something that Alex briefly touches upon and a therapy that occasionally kills. Then there's chemical castration with GnRH antagonists like Lupron, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, "transdermal" chelation therapy, not to mention the antivaccination hysteria in which the mercury militia claims that thimerosal in vaccines caused autism (or, in the UK, that the MMR vaccine itself caused autism), stoking a fear of vaccines that has clearly led to the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in the UK and arguably done so in parts of the U.S.

And that's just autism quackery.

Just a few examples from cancer include coffee enemas for "detoxification," the Hoxsey therapy, high dose intravenous vitamin C, blood pH treatments, "iron" rules that claim that cancer is the "healing" crisis of a psychological trauma or conflict, liver flushes, and devices that "zap" parasites that (according to one quack) are the cause of all cancer.

Alex expresses amazement that anyone can believe such ridiculous things and that quacks can get away with things as scientifically ridiculous ingesting RNA as a therapy for anything. His outraged cry reminds me of my reaction when I first waded onto the Usenet newsgroup misc.health.alternative and started discovering this stuff for the first time. Heck, Alex's reaction almost makes me long for the days before I knew about any of this stuff, before I knew just how willing quacks are to prey upon patients' lack of scientific knowledge . His anger and outrage echo my own when I first discovered how patients are taken advantage.

You know, back when I was a lot more innocent and blissfully unaware of such harmful woo.

In any case, Alex, now that you're aware of just one bit of autism quackery, let me just join Abel in welcoming you to the fight. I'll just give you one warning: Just when you think you've found a bit of quackery that is so obviously without the slightest bit of scientific merit, so clearly utterly ridiculous, so obviously impossible, you'll find something worse.

After all, after nearly 200 years, people still believe that you can dilute a substance to the point where there is none of its molecules left and get an active treatment for anything (homeopathy) and have started misusing quantum theory to justify their belief.

Heck, there are even a few people who believe you can activate your DNA.

I shudder to think what I'll discover next.

More like this

Alex really braved the waters and jumped into the product's FAQ/HOWTO/blog for parents to find the scary stuff. I can only hope that those people who are using this degraded yeast RNA juice start to rely on real, not invented, science after the juice fails to generate the child they feel that they deserved.

We can hope, but don't hold your breath.

Is there a chance that what you are saying about RNA Drops is true?
Of course. Is there a chance you are completely wrong? Absolutely. Do
I have clinical evidence from dozens of parents and observations with
my own son that the stuff works? Absolutely!! Do I have any financial
interest in RNA Drops being sold? Absolutely not!!

In summary, if you have used RNA in the way it is recommended on your
own child and found no benefits, please tell us!

But, if you have never used the stuff, for God's sake, put a pipe in

Yours truly,

JB Handley

Well, I have no excuse since I read your blog daily and forgot that you dealt with the RNA woo before.

Maybe I should just take some time off and just do some patient consults with my PhD...just like the overworked Dr Amy. Oh yeah, I forgot: that would constitute practicing medicine without a license.

Me and my dang ethics ain't never gonna make me rich.

I hear you, Abel, I am just not ruthless enough to sell woo, but considering local real estate prices, I should maybe start making up something...

Thanks for the review of autism quackery. I spend most of my time reading basic research ... but if it wasn't for a certain blog (Bartholomew Cubbins's blog, sorry Orac :)), I would have never surfed autismanswers.com's boards. It's one thing to read about these quacks, it's another to read what these poor confused parents are thinking.

In summary, if you have used RNA in the way it is recommended on your
own child and found no benefits, please tell us!

But, if you have never used the stuff, for God's sake, put a pipe in

Yours truly,

JB Handley

Wait, wait! Is this the famous internet domain squatter?

And who, exactly, is "us?" Does this mean that Mr Handley has a financial stake in RNA drops? If so, no wonder he is not interested in any of that thar PHD SCIENCE-SPEAK...disseminating the truth might hurt sales.

I know you all love to hear me comment here, but I'm actually not here to defend a treatment that obviously has no scientific basis.

However, since the title says RNA therapy for autism, I thought I'd bring in some real science along these lines which was not mentioned, which I'm sure you're all aware of:

We are entering a new era in medicine where the potential future use of short-interfering RNA as a therapeutic modality may be not too far away. Obviously this is not talking about yeast rna nor treating autism with siRNA just yet.

Taken from CBC Radio Archives:
"Every time we think we've worked out what's going on in our cells, biology throws a new curve ball. Take, for example, how cells make proteins. The traditional idea is that DNA gets copied into RNA and then the RNA is used by the cell to make a protein. Logic would argue that, if this is true, when you want to make more protein the best way would be to add more RNA. Except that, when you add more RNA to a cell something strange happens. Instead of getting more protein, the cell shuts down production. This phenomenon is called RNA interference, and it's a radical shift in our understanding of how cells work. It's also the discovery that won this year's Physiology or Medicine Prize from the Nobel committee. Dr. Andrew Fire, from Stanford, along with his colleague Dr. Craig Mello, from the University of Massachusetts, were the first to describe the mechanism behind the phenomenon. Dr. Fire thinks the potential application of RNA interference is huge in the field of medicine."

Perhaps it can help us find the genes that are implicated in autism and figure out if shutting them off could be a therapeutic modality.

Here's another blurb on Autism and genes:

[Statistical geneticist Rita Cantor and her colleagues at UCLA identified a handful of mutations in the middle of chromosome 17, providing the first genetic link to autism that did not involve another chromosomal disorder. In a separate study, researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee found mutations on chromosome 17 in the gene for the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin and also reported that 15 of the mutations found in families with autistic members were linked to obsessive-compulsive behavior].

But perhaps some form of gene therapy is not too far away, and probably will be commonplace by the middle of this century. Sirna therapeutics is about to enter Phase II clinical trials with its short-interfering RNA technology for the treatment of age-related macular degeneration.

The US government is banking on it, because it awarded Alnylam Pharmaceuticals $23 Million to develop siRNA therapeutics targetic bioterrorism threats as well as pandemic influenza.

Abel Pharmboy asked: Wait, wait! Is this the famous internet domain squatter?

Uh yup. One in the same, though I should have made it more clear that I was quoting JB. I am not he.


I am fully aware of siRNA.

In fact, I've started to use siRNA and shRNA in my lab. However, it is a long way away from being used therapeutically, because the practical hurdles are enormous. You are correct, the bogus "treatment" discussed in this post has nothing to do with siRNA, which is legitimate science. (For one thing, the use of RNA to "chelate" heavy metals is highly implausible just on a stoichiometric and chemical basis, and, besides, mercury and heavy metals do not cause autism, nor does chelation cure autism.) Nor does the bogus "treatment" discussed in this post have anything to do with antisense RNA chemically modified to survive in cell culture or the bloodstream. Even such chemically modified RNA probably wouldn't survive the trip through the stomach, and, even if it did, it's unlikely that you could get high enough concentrations in the bloodstream to have any therapeutic effect through ingesting it orally.

In any case, siRNA definitely shows promise, but I think that, like many other technologies before it, its hype is a bit overblown.

I disagree, siRNA or some form of gene therapy will be commonplace by 2050. And I'm talking about real science now. Let's meet then. Just think about the technological jumps that happened between 1900 - 1950. I know, this is not evidence-based, but 25 years ago the internet as we know it didn't even exist. Technology is advancing at a more rapid pace than it ever did in the past.

p.s. never thought you didn't know about siRNA, but thought that since your blog is about accurate information it should have been mentioned on a post about bogus rna therapy.

[newbie] thanks for this. Parents of children who are diagnosed with autism are desperate for information - so much of it is false [translation = the information, that is to say]. Cheers


I actually hope you're right and that siRNA will become a viable therapy within my lifetime. However, I remain skeptical and believe that it, like many technologies before it, is being overhyped. Take it from someone who's worked on gene therapy approaches in the laboratory: The practical difficulties in developing an effective siRNA therapy are very similar to the difficulties that make gene therapy so problematic, including delivery, cell penetration, and stability. If you're talking about siRNA being used as oligonucleotides, then the problems are very similar to the problems associated with antisense RNA therapy. Finally, even perfectly working siRNA sequences often don't shut gene expression down by more than 50% in cell culture.

Like I said, I hope you're right, but this technology has a lot of nontrivial hurdles to overcome before it's anywhere near being ready to go mainstream.