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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Autism and gut bacteria: The vax. Er, the facts.

When you do an internet search for "autism" and "vaccine", you open the can of worms that was the claim that MMR vaccines caused autism. That fraudulent research and the conniving scientist behind it, Andrew Wakefield, have now been discredited. (For more on that, see the dedicated chapter in the book "Bad Science" by M.D. and writer Ben Goldacre.)

But lately in the news, we came across the words "autism" and "vaccine" in the same sentence again. As in these headlines:

Vaccine developed at U of G could help in battle against autism

Vaccine developed to fight gut bacteria and autism symptoms

First vaccine against autism-associated bacterium Clostridium bolteae

Just how did those two words end up together again? It piqued my interest.

The word vaccine is particularly suggestive. Because what we do know about the cause of autism is this:

(1) There is definitely a genetic component
(2) There may be an environmental component, but scientists don't agree on what it is

A vaccine would not address genes, of course. It would address one of the environmental components thought to cause the condition. But... hold on, if we're not sure what the environmental causes are, how can we take a vaccine and say it addresses that environmental cause?

With that question in mind, I approached this research, which came from the chemistry lab of Dr. Mario Monteiro at the University of Guelph.

I took the step (as always) of reading through the original research paper in the journal Vaccine (in press as of early May, 2013).  Ahem... that was clearly one more step than most of the reporters who produced articles on the topic (bless their time-strapped hearts). See, anyone who said there was a vaccine obviously didn't read or understand the paper. Because in the article, there is no vaccine.

Here are the facts:

A team of chemists has examined the cell walls of a kind of bacteria (Clostridium bolteae), and have determined that the bacteria can provoke an immune reaction in rabbits.

That is all.

The researchers say their knowledge could be used to develop a vaccine for human use (i.e. they now have a vaccine target), but they did not yet create the vaccine themselves. Contrary to what  pretty well every mainstream news article has reported.

Moreover, the facts in this article are padded with the stuff about autism that, given the context, seems absurdly off topic. They took their discovery of making the immune system of rabbits react to a bacteria, and they said, "Hey, some children with autism also have this bacteria in their guts. Maybe we could develop a vaccine against this bacteria and give it to them. And the bacteria would go away. And maybe so would their autistic behaviours."

Do I need to say it? That is not sound scientific reasoning. It's like saying:

"Hey, some children with blonde hair also have this bacteria in their guts. Maybe we could develop a vaccine against this bacteria and give it to them. And the bacteria would go away. And maybe so would their blonde hair."

To me, the paper is about developing a knowledge about a species of bacteria. At most, the discussion section should have mentioned that this particular bacteria may be found in the digestive tracts of some children with autism.

I'm not really sure why they picked on this species of bacteria, in fact. There is no scientific consensus that C. bolteae is special to the guts of children with autism. Some studies have been done comparing the bacteria in the guts of children with autism to that in non-autistic children, and even though some patterns are emerging, there are no bacteria that reliably distinguish one group from the other. This species of bacteria alone is surely not the "environmental cause of autism" that has been eluding scientists for decades. The researchers do make a case for why they chose C. bolteae, but to me their choice seems questionable, given the conclusions of the papers they cite.

Now, I do think that the connection between autism and gut bacteria warrants more research. (See this episode of David Suzuki's TV show, The Nature of Things.) I'm not dismissing it wholesale. It's just that this paper goes beyond what the empirical evidence shows - both in the peer-reviewed journal and in the media.

The upshot (yep, pun intended): the word "autism" should not be appearing with the word "vaccine" here at all. That's because the word "autism" should not appear at all, and the vaccine is still a dream. The headlines should read something like:

"Scientists may develop vaccine against species of bacteria with unknown importance".

Only, then they wouldn't be headlines. Hmm, see?? Pequegnat, B., Sagermann, M., Valliani, M., Toh, M., Chow, H., Allen-Vercoe, E., & Monteiro, M. (2013). A vaccine and diagnostic target for Clostridium bolteae, an autism-associated bacterium Vaccine DOI: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2013.04.018


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  2. Hi Kristina. I'm making a blog about myself and my troubles with pooping and I am lucky to have come across your blog (and this article in particular).

    You see, I do not have bacteria in my stomach but I do have autism and it is tough for me to use the public bathrooms on my campus.

    Those with autism AND this stomach issue have it worse than I do and I hope they actually do find a cure for the bacteria, but I don't think I was born with the capacity to handle life more than what I can manage.

    I like that this article was for me.


  3. Jumping on the hit Wakefield bandwagon is not doing you or your readers any favours.

    1. Wakefield never claimed MMR caused Autism, the misleading conclusions from his work were cooked up by sections of the media.

    2. Wakefield's primary observation was that autistic children in his study had an undiagnosed gastrointensinal disease. He was well qualified to make this observation since this was his area of specialisation.

    3. It was also observed that measles virus was found in the gut lining of these children, a finding that was repeated in a study at the Wake Forest Medical centre. Which reported finding vaccine strain virus in the gut lining of more than 80% of autistic children examined.

    While this does not make a causal link it certainly warrants further investigation.

    Disturbingly this study was stopped after these results were published and no further research in this area has been published. This isn't science.

    Wakefield was on to something. A piece of a complicated puzzle which appears to implicate vitamin D deficiency and gut dysbiosis, genetics and environmental toxins.

    Attacking anyone who finds a piece of the puzzle, or repeating misinformation that is provably misleading isn't going to expedite a solution to this problem.