Autism-study doctor facing grant probe

13 Mar

A story in the Philadelphia Inquirer today sheds some light on the situation involving Dr. Poul Thorsen.

Background for anyone who needs it: Dr. Thorsen is a Danish researcher who is co-author on a number of important studies. These include epidemiological studies on vaccines and autism. Dr. Thorsen did this work at the University of Aarhus, and has since left. There is an investigation ongoing apparently implicating Dr. Thorsen in a possible shortfall of about US$2M from the University.

Dr. Thorsen’s work was funded largely by the CDC. He started working for Emory University before leaving Aarhus (and this is a point of contention with Aarhus, as they state that Dr. Thorsen was not allowed a joint full-time appointment). He was also listed as adjunct faculty at Drexel University. Dr. Thorsen has also left Emory and his adjunct appointment at Drexel.

There has been a lot of speculation and discussion on this for the past week or so. The story has broken into the mainstream media, who have been good enough to get us some facts to work with. I have sent many emails over the past week, and almost all have been unanswered. I finally heard from one group in Denmark yesterday, and they to are unaware of the details of this case.

Today’s Philadelphia Inquirer has a story about Dr. Thorsen, Autism-study doctor facing grant probe by Jeff Goldstein:

A Danish scientist involved in two major studies that debunked any linkage of vaccines to autism is suspected of misappropriating $2 million in U.S. grants at his university in Denmark.

He also notes that Dr. Thorsen’s appointment at Drexler was unpaid, and he resigned it this week. (Drexel University is local to Philadelphia, where Mr. Goldstein works). Also of note, Dr. Thorsen was working with Emory University for about 6 years, much of that part time. The complaint by Aarhus involves him working “full time” in both Aarhus and Emory. This may go to the fact that it was pretty clear that Dr. Thorsen was at both Emory and Aarhus from his publication record. The complaint may not be about working in both places but, rather, having changed to full time status at Emory.

Mr. Goldstien notes that some groups have “seized” on these allegations to discredit the studies Dr. Thorsen worked on:

Anti-vaccine groups have seized on the allegations to contend that scientific studies disproving the vaccine link to autism are wrong. Those groups have long argued that thimerosal, a preservative in some vaccines, can cause autism, as can the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella.

“I think it is quite significant,” said Dan Olmsted of the Age of Autism. “I think someone allegedly capable of ripping off his own university by forging documents from the CDC is capable of pulling off anything.”

And this is where the this situation becomes very important. If these allegations are true, does this negate the studies Dr. Thorsen worked on?

Mr. Goldstein addresses this with quotes from Mr. Olmsted (above) and people at the CDC and Denmark.

“Poul Thorsen had absolutely no influence on the conclusions regarding this paper,” wrote Mads Melbye, head of the division of epidemiology at the Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen and senior author of the study, in response to e-mailed questions.

“Thorsen was not actively involved in the analysis and interpretation of the results of this paper,” Melbye said.

The second study, published in Pediatrics in 2003, examined 956 Danish children diagnosed with autism from 1971 to 2000. It concluded the incidence of autism increased in Denmark after thimerosal was removed from vaccines.

Kreesten Meldgaard Madsen, the lead author, said Thorsen played a minor role.

“Dr. Thorsen was not in a position to change or compromise the data,” Madsen wrote. “Dr. Thorsen was part of the review cycle, but never very active in giving input. Dr. Thorsen never had access to the raw data nor the analysis of the data.”

I doubt these statements will mollify Mr. Olmsted’s readers.

In a piece on WHYY (a public radio station in Philadelphia) has a story, Investigation of autism researcher’s conduct sparks controversy.

Dr. David Mandell of the Center for Autism Research agrees the studies Thorsen worked on should be reviewed. But he doesn’t believe the research has been compromised. He noted that Thorsen was not a lead researcher, the studies used government data, and they were peer-reviewed. This view is echoed in a statement from the Centers for Disease Control, which partly funded the vaccine research.

So, where does this leave us? With a lot more questions than answers still. One question in my mind at least is whether Dr. Thorsen is accused of transferring money to his own use or if he is accused of transferring money to fund his research at Emory when he left Aarhus. That aside, no matter what happens from here, this will be used to imply that vaccine-autism research (and not just that by Dr. Thorsen) is performed by corrupt individuals and should not be trusted.

Assume that the allegations are real. I can state that I am very angry at that possibility. I do not like dishonest people. I do not like dishonest researchers.

Mostly, I don’t like the fact that this will be (and already is being) used to put doubt in a lot of people’s minds about the role of thimerosal and MMR and autism. $2M is a small sum compared to the amount of suffering that will go on as this breaths a little life back into that movement.

My guess is that some readers are now ready to blame me of bias, of believing that Dr. Thorsen’s studies are accurate when I should be questioning everything he did. Let’s ignore the statements by his collaborators that Dr. Thorsen didn’t have access to the data to manipulate. Let’s just stick with the fact that the studies Dr. Thorsen worked on agree with the results of multiple other studies. The surprising outcome would be if on review the conclusions changed.

I am sure this story isn’t going away. And it should not. We need to know and we deserve to know what the details are here. Beyond that, I am sure that this will be forever in the lore of the vaccines-cause-autism community and will be used to convince ever more people to join.

For that, whoever is responsible for this mess, I am angry.

9 Responses to “Autism-study doctor facing grant probe”

  1. kwombles March 13, 2010 at 03:03 #

    Thank you, Sullivan, for a well-balanced piece that reviews what we now know from mainstream media reports.

    It should be noted that the folks at Age of Autism have long disparaged these studies; this just gives them a fresh angle.

    I also sent out numerous emails since this broke at the end of last week, all unreturned until today. Today, I emailed the American Psychiatric Association with a link to the Philadelphia Inquirer story and to my post calling for the APA to remove Thorsen from the DSM5 workgroup while this matter was ongoing. My reply back was that I should offer my comments on the DSM5 site instead. I emailed back asking if it would make a difference if I reworded my email into the form of a question, would they be removing him? No answer.

    Whatever the truth is, we should and will be willing to acknowledge. In that, we stand apart from those who have already made up their minds that they know what they know.

  2. Emily March 13, 2010 at 03:17 #

    These misconduct probes are extremely detailed. They comb over ever millimeter of data, lab books, digital data. If there’s been any kind of compromise of the data, they’ll find it, especially given that completeness and multiplicity of the Danish databases. It would be remarkably difficult to pull off data compromise under those conditions with any expectation of getting away with it while stealing $2 million.

    From the sound of the senior authors’ responses to the queries, he was on these papers almost as a “courtesy” author, probably because of his position in the institute/connections, rather than as someone who did any actual analysis or data gathering. Of course, now everyone’s supposed to swear that any listed author on a paper contributed substantially to the work at hand, so if he didn’t, that’s nefarious, as well…but as we know, everyone does that sort of logrolling. That’s another issue entirely.

    Add to that Sullivan’s point that these two studies are two of more than 20 have yielded results in agreement: no link.

    • Sullivan March 13, 2010 at 07:19 #


      Remember how Dr. Wakefield was on a recent monkey paper because he “designed” the study? Both he and Laura Hewitson made a big point out of having not had anything to do with the data. One can be an author, can be a contributor, without having access to the raw data.

  3. Laurentius Rex March 13, 2010 at 10:59 #

    Well I think I shall drop some more oil in a bubbling vat (does one do that really, drop oil in a bubbling vat? You just try it next time you are cooking eeek)

    Most scientists can’t write for toffees

    Did you get that straight?

    Most scientists are not writers, they need editing, I would even go to the point of saying for some they need ghost writing.

    Then there is the whole convention which has arisen, originally I think to deflect glory hunting epistolaureates of multiple authorship on papers, the whole notion of creating an ambience of team membership and effort. (how neurotypical of them) Anyway if you have had the least effort in dotting a few i’s you might get the social reward of being allowed in the citation, it’s a bit like being mentioned in despatches, an ‘almost’ medal.

  4. FreeSpeaker March 13, 2010 at 18:03 #

    This article demonstrates a level of honesty, research and documentation that AoA, and the other members of their collective, should try to reach. Olmsted and Kirby (where is he these days? Hiding out with Wakefield?) would do well to use this as a lesson.

  5. Emily March 14, 2010 at 22:13 #

    Laurentius Rex…as someone who makes her living turning scientists into semi-decent writers…yes, I am familiar with that.

    Sullivan, yes, I recall that. That’s what I was saying.

    My experience as a graduate student, postdoc, and PI has been that there are many papers with names of authors who never had anything at all to do with the work–they’re on there because they’re senior researchers with the grant money or they’re buds with the PI, or in the same department or lab, etc. They *might* read the paper, but that’s it. Some of the better journals are trying to limit this sort of thing by having submissions detail the contributions of each listed author (e.g., “So-and-so wrote the paper, performed some data analysis, and reviewed the results; Such-and-such performed the experiments, coordinated the animal care and surgeries, and analyzed the data; and Whosits designed the study and reviewed the paper.” Journals are doing this not to have authors come across as a “team” but to keep people from padding their publication lists while having done exactly nothing. Not sure how well it’s working.

  6. Prometheus March 15, 2010 at 18:52 #

    In both of the “Danish papers” in question (why am I reminded of Hamlet?), Dr. Thorsen was a “sandwich” author. Why is this important?

    The pattern followed in biology and medicine is that the first (“lead”) author is the person who did the bulk of the work, the last (“anchor”) author is the person who “owns” the lab or is the senior author and the rest (the “sandwich” authors) either did some work (e.g. lab techs, assistants, undergraduates, graduate students working on a secondary project, etc.) provided some special service or expertise (e.g. statistical analysis, specialised analytical testing, special techniques, etc.) or needed to be acknowledged by more than mentioning their name under “acknowledgements”.

    Some labs have are very “stingy” about who they add as authors, others will list as authors anyone who touched the project in any way. Generally, if any or all of the “sandwich” authors contributed as much as the lead author (or anchor author), there will be mention of that somewhere in the paper, usually right below the author list.

    It also needs to be emphasised that Dr. Thorsen’s “offense” may (and probably is) no more than not giving Aarhus University their “cut” of his grant money. Universities traditionally get a portion of all grant money that comes to researchers from outside the university, either as a separate payment from the granting agency or as a “tithe” (usually more like 50%) from the grant. This is called “overhead”.

    I suspect that the $2 million is money that Aarhus University thinks they should have gotten as “overhead” while Dr. Thorsen was working elsewhere. The other likely possibility is that Aarhus University feels grants Dr. Thorsen received while on their faculty should have been spent in their facilities, rather than paying for salaries and supplies somewhere else.

    At any rate, the least likely possibility is that Dr. Thorsen actually embezzled any money, since he had no direct access to the money. Grants don’t arrive as boxes of cash – they are paid to the university or research center which then has their financial department disburse the funds as purchase orders (which are scrutinised by the financial department to ensure that they conform to the terms of the grant) or as salaries (which are scrutinised by both the financial and personnel departments).

    This is a tempest in a teapot raised by those people who had “hitched their wagons” to Andy Wakefield’s star and are distressed by how far and fast that star has fallen. They hope to regain some “sparkle” by tarnishing the research that has refuted their claims.

    Unfortunately, even if all the research touched by Dr. Thorsen were to magically disappear, there would still be more than enough to refute the claim that vaccines – with or without thimerosal – cause autism.


  7. Fielding J. Hurst March 22, 2010 at 13:57 #

    So is dude missing or what? I saw you had a post on his whereabouts this morn that disappeared.


  1. RSS agregator » Blog Archive » Tumultuous Week in the Vax World. - March 14, 2010

    […] Week in the Vax World. First, there was this story about Dr. Poul Thorsen, a Danish scientist that is being sought in connection with a 2 million U.S. dollar funding […]

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