Before the General Medical Council reached a verdict on Dr. Wakefield, Brian Deer was promising that he was going to report on the data Dr. Wakefield used for his now retracted Lancet paper. We were told that he would give a first time ever view of a journalist allowed to check the facts on a scientific research paper.
After the GMC verdict was handed down, I watched the Sunday Times for such an article. I waited. Well, the wait is over. And it isn’t in the Times. Mr. Deer reports his findings in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
Although much of the attention on Dr. Wakefield’s work has centered on the possible MMR connection, the topic of a “new syndrome” called “autistic enterocolitis” was proposed in that paper. In Wakefield’s “autistic enterocolitis” under the microscope, Mr. Deer takes a closer look at that claim. He does what is very rarely done: he obtained original data used for the study and obtains expert opinions on that data.
In his introduction, he notes the “new syndrome” and the MMR angles of the Lancet paper. Citing the press release from the Lancet paper:
“Researchers at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine may have discovered a new syndrome in children involving a new inflammatory bowel disease and autism,” the institution announced in a press release in February 1998. “Their paper . . . also suggests that in a number of cases the onset of behavioural symptoms was associated with MMR vaccination.”
Mr. Deer notes that before any patients were investigated, Dr. Wakefield was already proposing in a submission to the Legal Aid Board that such a new syndrome exists and it is linked to regression in children.
“In contrast to the IBD cases, which have a prima face [sic] gastrointestinal pathology, children with enteritis/disintegrative disorder form part of a new syndrome,” said Wakefield and the lawyer in a confidential submission for legal aid funding for the project in June 1996, before any of the 12 children in the paper had been investigated. “Nonetheless, the evidence is undeniably in favour of a specific vaccine induced pathology.”
The evidence was “undeniably in favour of a specific vaccine induced pathology”.
Before children were investigated.
That on its own is huge. And, from what I can tell, not consistent with the image Dr. Wakefield is portraying in the alternative media.
That said, was there evidence of this “new syndrome”?
But when the children were brought in to the Royal Free for ileocolonoscopy, between July 1996 and February 1997, a snag in Wakefield’s project emerged. The hospital’s pathology service repeatedly judged colonic biopsy samples to be unexceptional, and thought bowel disease was a possibility in only one child.
The Royal Free’s own pathology service thought that the biopsy samples were unexceptional.
How can Mr. Deer make such a claim? He obtained data from the children’s records from their investigations at the Royal Free. Unfortunately, the actual samples are no longer available, but the reports are, and Mr. Deer submitted these to experts to review:
The biopsy slides are no longer available, according to one of the paper’s authors, Professor Amar Dhillon, but the GMC obtained all but one of the hospital pathology reports, and for the missing case I obtained the discharge summary. I passed the summary and reports to specialists for their reaction. They concluded that most of the 11 children reported as having non-specific colitis in the Lancet paper had been reported by the Royal Free as having normal pathology.
One expert reviewer stated:
“In the present reports and patients, overall, it is my impression that 8 of the 11 [for whom pathology reports were available] were normal,” Karel Geboes, a professor in the gastrointestinal pathology unit of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, told me.
How does this compare to what was reported in the Lancet?
Eleven of the 12 children were said to have “non-specific colitis”: a clinically significant inflammation of the large bowel. In all 11, it was said to be “chronic,” while in four it was reported as both “acute and chronic.”
In other words, the report in the Lancet is not consistent with how experts interpret the pathology reports.
Mr. Deer further notes:
In fact the [Royal Free's pathology] service identified findings suggestive of possible inflammatory bowel disease in only one of the 12 children. “The mild patchy generalised increase in inflammatory cells with lymphoid aggregates and follicles is not very specific but could be in keeping with low grade quiescent inflammatory bowel disease,” it reported for child 2. But this inflammation resolved after two months’ enteral feeding with a product now marketed as Modulen. A repeat ileocolonoscopy found no abnormality, and a food intolerance was diagnosed.
Yes, it appears that the pathology service, at Dr. Wakefield’s own hospital, at the time of the investigation, didn’t find evidence of abnormalities reported by Dr. Wakefied’s team.
In the GMC hearing, one of the co-authors on the Lancet paper, Dr. Susan Davies, discussed her concerns about the changes in the findings from normal to abnormal at the time of the investigation.
These changes—from normal to abnormal, or from healthy to diseased—had also raised concern in the mind of at least one of the paper’s authors. In September 2007, Davies, the lead histopathologist for the Wakefield project, was examined at length before the panel. “When you were given a draft of the Lancet paper, did you read it?” she was asked by Sally Smith QC, for the doctors’ regulator.
“Yes,” Davies replied.
“What was your overall view of the terminology used in relation to the histology findings in the Lancet paper, just when you read the paper?”
“I was somewhat concerned with the use of the word colitis.”
“First of all, what did you understand that word to mean?”
“I personally use that terminology, ‘colitis,’ when I see active inflammation, or a pattern of changes which suggest a specific diagnosis, and it was not my impression that the children coming through in the spasmodic way that they had, I [sic] had formulated some distinct pattern warranting that terminology.”
If even a co-author was concerned, and the hospital’s pathology reports don’t support the diagnosis of colitis, the obvious question would be: how did the paper reach it’s conclusions?
The answer appears to be that the results underwent a second review. This second review is discussed in the Lancet paper, but there is no mention of the review changing the interpretation of the data,
Mr. Deer poses an important question:
[H]ow many peer reviewers would have felt comfortable approving the paper if they had known that the hospital pathology service reported biopsy specimens as largely normal, but they were then subjected to an unplanned second look and reinterpreted?
Which we are fortunate enough to have answered. Mr. Deer was able to obtain an answer from one of the peer reviewers:
“I’m surprised the GMC didn’t make more of this,” said David Candy, paediatric gastroenterologist at St Richard’s Hospital, Chichester, who reviewed the paper in 1997. “That’s an example of really naughty doing—to exclude the original pathology findings.”
“Really naughty doing”. Not very clinical but I think it tells the story well.
Is it possible that the hospital’s pathology service missed the condition? Apparently at least one author (Dr. Walker-Smith, a co-defendant with Dr. Wakefield in the GMC hearings) noted this in his GMC testimony:
And how bad was this “colitis,” such that the hospital’s pathology service didn’t spot it as the children came through? Walker-Smith told the GMC panel that he had “concerns” about the service and its ability to detect inflammation.
In his report, Mr. Deer counters with:
Yet inflammatory indices that were not reported in the Lancet paper, including serum C reactive protein concentrations and other blood tests, were almost all within normal ranges for the 12 children.6 And as an alternative explanation for any inflammation that was present, nearly all of the children had constipation with megarectum16 (unreported in the paper), which specialists say can cause cellular changes.
Mr. Deer attempted to speak with Dr. Dillhon, a co-author on the Lancet paper. Dr. Dillhon viewed the slides made from the samples taken from the children, and he graded them with Roman numerals to rank the degree of inflammation. At some point, those Roman numerals were translated into “non-specific colitis”.
So who translated these scores on the grading sheet into findings of “non-specific colitis” in the paper? Dhillon says it wasn’t him. He says he would like to see the slides again, but they are missing from the Royal Free laboratory. “He [Dhillon], Andrew Anthony, and Wakefield all looked at them,” I was told, on Dhillon’s behalf, by a senior member of staff at the Royal Free. “Andy [Wakefield] then synthesised their results into what appeared in the paper.”
But still, according to Mr. Deer, “…how the Roman numerical scores, histopathological gradings for a variety of sites in the colon, became the “colitis” findings might, under such circumstances, be anybody’s guess.”
Mr. Deer posits a possible scenario, based on Dr. Wakefield’s complaint to the press complaints commission:
Wakefield wrote: “When the biopsies were reviewed and scored by experts in bowel pathology—namely, Drs Dhillon and Anthony—these doctors determined that there was mild inflammation in the caecum, ascending colon, and rectum,” he said. “This was correctly reported as non-specific colitis in the Lancet.” In other words, it looks like it was Wakefield who translated the scores.
A companion editorial was published in the BMJ by Prof. Sir Nicholas Wright, warden, of Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London. He lists in his conflict of interest statement: “He has provided expert opinion in the case of Wakefield v GMC and acted as a character witness for Professor John Walker-Smith.”
Does autistic enterocolitis exist?
Despite the retracted Wakefield study, questions remain
Is autistic enterocolitis a histopathological entity or even an entity at all? In view of the lack of data and the entrenched position of many of the protagonists and antagonists, any firm conclusion would be inadvisable. The expert review, referenced by Deer, concludes that key areas such as the prevalence and best treatment of gastrointestinal disorders in people with autistic spectrum disorders are incompletely understood, and that evidence based recommendations are not yet available. We should remember, as recent experience in several fields has shown, that although science has its defects, it is a self correcting process. Time is, perhaps, the wisest counsellor of all. In the meantime, this case offers a salutary reminder for researchers and journal editors alike that coauthorship means bearing responsibility for what is written.
First, I would submit that Dr. Wright is not being clear on the subject. It is not whether autistics have a greater prevalence of GI issues, or whether there is a difference in the treatment for autistics. The question is whether there is a specific entity which is unique to autistics: autistic enterocolitis. Further, it is also a primary question whether “autistic enterocolitis” is causal in autism. While one can hide behind the “you can’t prove a negative” shield, the answers at present appear to be no to both questions.
Second, the idea that science is a self correcting process is often times true. In this case, it clearly is not. The science, the Lancet paper, was not corrected through science but through investigative journalism. Without the stories in The Sunday Times, Dr. Wakefield’s “science” would likely still be in the official record of The Lancet. Much more, the Lancet study and the presumed expertise of Dr. Wakefield would have likely been key in litigation in the UK and the US. Without Mr. Deer’s continued scrutiny, the facts behind the research into the Lancet paper, specifically that the pathology reports on those children were not consistent with the findings of the paper, would almost certainly not have come to light.
Returning to Mr. Deer’s article, he concludes:
So what should we make of all this? Now the Lancet paper is retracted, its findings don’t officially exist. And, if Dhillon is right in saying the slides can’t be found, the ultimate proof is missing. All we have are the pathology reports, which independent specialists seem to agree are largely unremarkable. “They wanted this bad,” commented Tom MacDonald, dean of research at Barts and the London School of Medicine and coauthor of Immunology and Diseases of the Gut. “If I was the referee and the routine pathologists reported that 8/11 were within normal limits, or had trivial changes, but this was then revised by other people to 11/12 having non-specific colitis, then I would just tell the editor to reject the paper.”
Clearly the Lancet paper should have been rejected. But this isn’t just a scientific paper that made a bad conclusion. This paper impacted multiple families inside the autism communities to believe that their child’s autism was caused by MMR. This paper led many families in the autism communities to apply poorly researched “therapies” to their disabled children. This paper led many families to stop vaccinating their children, leading to outbreaks of measles in the UK and elsewhere.
It is easy to go through Mr. Deer’s paper in the BMJ point by point in a clinical fashion, noting how the research went awry, showing that “autistic enterocolitis” has what appears to be no founding in science. But how does one express the reaction to so much damage caused by Dr. Wakefield’s investigation?
Of course, a further question I have and I bet I share with Dr. Wakefield’s supporters is this: is Brian Deer finished or is there even more yet to be unearthed in this sad tale of research gone awry?