Thimerosal on Trial
The theory that vaccines cause autism goes to court.
In June, the U.S. Federal Claims Court, across Lafayette Square from the White House, will begin hearings on 4,800 claims filed by parents of children on the autism spectrum who think that the government's vaccine program caused their children's disorders. The scientific consensus rejects the idea that thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative used in vaccines, causes autism. Still, it's conceivable that some of the claimants could win, because the vaccine court requires a lower standard of scientific evidence than regular courts. And so the parents are trying to enhance the legitimacy of their arguments.
In April, the government-funded Institute of Medicine held a two-day workshop to discuss ways to research possible toxic causes of autism. Leading voices among the parents who believe in the thimerosal-autism link shared their views with Science publisher Alan Leshner, who ran the meeting, as well as senior government scientists. Two of the groups, Safe Minds and the National Autism Association, later issued a news release that appeared to distort the remarks of a CDC scientist to make it appear that he shared their views. The meeting probably wouldn't have taken place without the support of several members of Congress, including Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. Other activists have taken to harassing scientists whose results they don't like.
Then there is the activists' reliance on Dr. Mark Geier, a fixture as an expert witness in vaccine court, where he has testified about 100 times. Geier and his son, David, who holds an undergraduate biology degree, operate under various business names from a house in suburban Maryland. The special masters who run the vaccine court have tossed out their testimony on 10 occasions, and federal district courts have been similarly skeptical. One judge recently described Geier as "intellectually dishonest," and a special master called him "a professional witness in areas for which he has no training, expertise, and experience."
Geier and his son have published several journal articles claiming to show a link between autism and vaccines containing the mercury-based preservative thimerosal. But the papers have been contradicted by study after study, and the mainstream medical community has proclaimed their work on the subject to be bunk. (The Geiers did not respond to e-mail and telephone requests to be interviewed for this article.)
Despite all the bad publicity, Geier has recently moved into a new arena—by becoming a doctor for autistic children. Geier claims to have treated 120 children in the past 2½ years with a powerful set of drugs he calls the "Lupron protocol." Lupron, the trade name for lupreolide acetate, is a synthetic hormone most often used to treat prostate cancer or to carry out the chemical castration of sex offenders. It's prescribed for children only to treat precocious puberty, a rare condition in boys.
The theory that thimerosal—which was largely removed from vaccines by 2002—is the cause of rising rates of autism has spurred scores of alternative practitioners in recent years to "detoxify" kids with sulfur-containing compounds (called chelation agents) that bind to heavy metals. Although various advocacy groups swear by this treatment, it does not seem to have cured autism in most, if any, kids who've tried it. This is where Geier's Lupron protocol comes in. His theory, stated in patent applications and a 2005 issue of the journal Medical Hypotheses, is that chelation fails to remove mercury from some children's brains because the mercury binds to testosterone. Get rid of the testosterone with Lupron, the Geiers argue, and the mercury will come out with chelation.