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Cause of Autism: Was the Genetic Study Biased?

Last week I told you about a report published in the scientific journal Nature about “autism susceptibility genes,” suggesting autism is caused by genetic factors and not environmental ones.

But for parents of autistic children holding on to the theory that vaccines cause autism, there are problems with these new findings.  John Stone, UK Editor for Age of Autism, a blog with an anti-vaccine slant, posted Sunday about a possible conflict of interest held by one of the authors of the Nature study.

Stone says, “Prof Stephen Scherer who is the senior author of the autism gene study launched in Nature last week holds the ‘GlaxoSmithKline-CIHR Pathfinder Chair in Genetics and Genomics at the Hospital for Sick Children and University of Toronto.  The title used to be ‘GlaxoSmithKline-CIHR Endowed Chair”, GSK being one of the defendant companies in the UK MMR litigation.” 

The UK MMR litigation refers to the class-action lawsuit, begun in 1994, against Aventis Pasteur, SmithKlineBeecham, and Merck.  It was funded by the Legal Services Commission, which later withdrew its funding since the case had started without sufficient medical research.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who provided much of the research against the vaccine makers, lost his UK medical license last month, and held several conflicts of interest of his own.

Orac at ScienceBlogs refutes the idea that Scherer has any conflict of interest, saying :

Basically, to create an endowed chair, a company or wealthy donor gives a university a lot of money, and the university sets up the endowed chair using that money. The interest and dividends from the fund used to set up the chair are put at the disposal of the holder of the chair to do research and scholarship as he or she sees fit…. Once an endowed chair is set up, the donor usually has no say over who gets the chair or how the money for the chair is spent.

But things may not be that black and white, as one commenter points out.  Gordon Pasha says, “As a holder of an endowed chair, I can say that Universities want donors to continue donating and therefore there is subtle pressure not to upset donors, particularly by holders of chairs. To what extent can that subtle pressure can influence someone’s research is a highly individual-dependent matter…”

Despite Wakefield’s loss of credibility and the potential promise of these new genetic findings, it’s easy to see why some parents still cling to vaccines as a cause for their child’s autism.  Vaccines are tangible.  We can see them and presume to understand them much more easily than DNA.  I only hope that more solid research continues to provide the parents of autistic children with the answers they so desperately need.

Photo: brokinhrt2 via Flickr

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