Stephen Bustin: Why There Is no Link Between Measles Virus and Autism

9 Apr

Andrew Wakefield promoted the idea that the MMR vaccine caused autism. While his now-retracted 1997 Lancet paper is most often discussed, the strongest evidence he had actually came in later work where his team reported that they found evidence of the vaccine strain of the measles virus in the intestinal tissues of autistic children. The team used a methodology called Polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR amplifies a specific fragment of DNA, allowing one to identify if small amounts of that gene are present in larger samples. PCR tests were performed by John O’Leary in Dublin. As revealed later, Andrew Wakefield had a business stake in this laboratory.

As part of the MMR litigation in the UK, the vaccine manufacturers hired Stephen Bustin to review the methods and results of the O’Leary laboratory. Those results were not made public, but Prof. Bustin later was called in to testify in the U.S. Autism Omnibus Proceeding (the vaccine court). That testimony was discussed here at LeftBrain/RightBrain and elsewhere. Prof. Bustin is one of the world’s experts on PCR.

Prof. Bustin has now written his own account of the history of the measles-virus/autism work by Mr. Wakefield’s team in Why There Is no Link Between Measles Virus and Autism. The full report is free, open access. The report discusses what he already disclosed in his testimony: the multiple failures which resulted in the reporting of a false association of measles virus and autism.

Some of those failures include:

Absence of transparency: the key publication shows no data; hence an expert reader cannot evaluate the reliability of its conclusions

Unreliable techniques and protocols: analysis of the qPCR data was incorrect

Disregard for controls: obvious evidence of extensive contamination was disregarded

Lack of reproducibility: the data could not be duplicated by several independent investigators

One key failure involved skipping key steps in using PCR on measles virus. The measles virus is an RNA virus. PCR is very inefficient at detecting RNA, so a step called reverse transcriptase is used to convert the RNA to DNA before PCR (RT-PCR). The O’Leary lab did not perform this step. This result, and others, show that the samples used by Mr. Wakefield’s team were contaminated. Prof. Bustin goes into detail and covers more important topics, and as the paper is relatively short, it is worth a read for those interested in the science.

Prof. Bustin concludes:

As a result, the conclusions put forward by this [the Wakefield/O’Leary] paper are entirely incorrect and there is no evidence whatever for the presence either of MeV genomic RNA or mRNA in the GI tracts of any of the patients investigated during the course of the studies reported by O’Leary et al. Instead, it is clear that the data support the opposite conclusion: there is no evidence for any MeV being present in the majority of patients’ analysed. Unfortunately, the authors do not report whether any the patients had received the MMR vaccination. However, assuming that a significant proportion had done so, it is also clear that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and the presence of MeV in the intestine of autistic children.

The Wakefield MMR hypothesis is already failed, so this does not really change the conversation. What this report by Prof. Bustin does is document his own observations, measurements and analyses for the historical record so we can see just how bad the science was that promoted the Wakefield hypothesis.

By Matt Carey

22 Responses to “Stephen Bustin: Why There Is no Link Between Measles Virus and Autism”

  1. Dave April 9, 2013 at 11:29 #

    There is good reason to question the original work. The conclusions are based on sloppy statistical analysis (at best) of very small sample sizes. The review clearly demonstrates contamination of samples, but ignores the original question: What caused the IBS of the autistic patients? Is this all due to bad diet?

    The other original question was: Why do so many parents of autistic children first report GI distress a few weeks after the MMR Vaccine? Coincidence?

    It seems to me that enormous time and energy has been spent disproving Wakefield. This is appropriate, I suppose, given the almost unlimited amounts of money involved.

    As a parent, I have learned nothing from this except to question my own observations, and to question the findings of people who seem outside the mainstream. Neither of these lessons has much practical application except to keep me from grasping at straws. Even that is not particularly positive: Many people choose to grasp at straws, knowing the odds, simply because traditional medicine has been just as fruitless.

    Vaccine companies are entirely within their rights to slap down anyone who questions their territory. If they make an example out of Wakefield, then it will serve as a lesson to the next guy: Don’t ever publish anything unless you are willing to have private detectives search through your garbage.

    This is good, because it encourages medical researchers to be a lot more detailed and thorough. On the other hand, it lets people know that their lives and careers will be gleefully destroyed if your samples are contaminated.

    It doesn’t seem like a risk I would take.

    • Lara Lohne April 10, 2013 at 04:56 #


      How do you explain, in the original paper, Wakefield claimed that inflammation in the GI tract from the MMR vaccine caused mystery proteins to pass through the intestinal walls and to the brain causing autism, yet most parents of the Lancet 12 state autistic symptoms preceded the GI distress their children had? It would seem to me, if Wakefield’s original hypothesis had any merit the GI distress would have come first and then the autism symptoms.

      When evaluating the evidence, one must evaluate all the evidence. If you leave out important parts, then you neglect to understand why the science was deemed bad in this situation. Not to mention that Wakefield falsified data, stating results were found when in fact the hospital records show no results were found. That is fraud at its most obvious.

      There are any number of children that presented prior to getting the MMR with autism characteristics, but if someone is a new parent, and unaware of atypical activities or behaviors of an infant, it would be easy to ignore or overlook until it became obvious with regression between the ages of 1 to 2 years of age. You can’t base your evidence on your own personal observations because they are biased and cannot be relied upon without additional experience to compare it to. That’s like saying you dislike oranges when the only fruit you’ve ever eaten is an apple. How can you know you dislike oranges if you’ve never tried one? If you’ve never experienced raising an NT child, how can you know how it compares to raising an autistic child? Particularly in the first years of life? Just a few things to think about to maybe help you gain some insight or perspective and look at things a little more objectively.

      • futuredave5 April 10, 2013 at 08:45 #


        It was not my intent to defend Wakefield. I never believed that the MMR vaccine caused my son’s autism. I do suspect, though, that my son had a much more severe reaction to the vaccine than most typical children do. Because of the work of Wakefield, and the backlash against him, it is hard to bring up the subject without being accused of taking sides, making up symptoms, or worse. It was never meant that way. Some people just have vaccine reactions.

        I have no idea how my son would have developed without vaccines. He was given his first vaccine within hours of birth. I suspect his reaction to the Hep B vaccine was just as bad as to the MMR, but as you say, I have no observations besides my own to judge by.

        I can tell you that all the other children in the hospital slept peacefully in their first few days of life, while my son cried inconsolably. The Hep B vaccine obviously did not cause the autism or the crying. If it had, then 95% of the kids would have been crying, as opposed to just the one. Still, the question in my mind persists, was the hysterical crying a symptom of autism, or a reaction to the Hep B vaccine, or some combination of both? Is it possible that autistic children have a worse reaction to certain vaccines than typical children do?

        Based on a sample size of one, I can’t even speculate. But where is the science? My son (and many others) test positive for autoimmune disorders. Are such children more likely to have severe vaccine reactions? (Because of the studies of molecular mimicry and T lymphocytes, we suspect the answer for Hep B is “yes”, but studies, I think, are limited to rabbits.) We also suspect that this is a temporary reaction, but the only studies I have found relate to arthritis and lupus, not autism.

        Similarly, we know that there is such a thing as infection-induced autoimmunity, and that many characteristics of autism are similar to an autoimmune disorder. These two dots are not connectable, because the vast, vast majority of micro-organisms do not lead to autoimmunity. The question in my mind, then, is why is so little money being spent on predisposition to autoimmune phenomena, and so much money being spent repeating tests that we already know the answers to.

        Medical science has proven that the MMR vaccine does not cause autism, yet they keep repeating the studies. I blame Wakefield for this, but I also blame the companies and universities that sponsor the studies. This is settled science, let’s move on.

        Instead, most every time I look into research on the subject, I see some new study that re-hashes the old question of whether MMR causes autism (or lupus, or arthritis, or whatever). These studies are then trotted out with a headline such as “All vaccines are safe.”

        I have never heard Matt use the logic: “If a vaccine is safe for the general population, then it is also safe for children known to have autism.” So I should say that I am not accusing anyone here. But let’s sit down some time and have the discussion: Are vaccines safe for children who are already known to have autism?

      • Lawrence April 10, 2013 at 10:45 #

        @FutureDave – most babies “slept peacefully?” Really? Having spent two terms in the birthing center with my wife, peaceful is the last word I would use to describe most babies during the first couple of days (at minimum).

        But not to get sidetracked – yes, vaccine reactions do happen – they are recognized, have been studied, and we know that they happen (ranging from very minor to in some very rare cases, severe) – what they aren’t are the kind of “autism” trigger that the anti-vaccine groups have claimed.

        Wakefield created a monster because of his shoddy, fraud-laced work, which does make it difficult to have the legitimate conversations about vaccines and reactions you are talking about – you can lay the blame directly on his doorstep, and on the doorstep of Generation Rescue & AoA that continue to beat the dead horse and muddy the waters when discussing other legitimate issues.

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) April 10, 2013 at 18:18 #

      “The other original question was: Why do so many parents of autistic children first report GI distress a few weeks after the MMR Vaccine? Coincidence? ”

      Based on the Hornig paper (Lack of Association between Measles Virus Vaccine and Autism with Enteropathy: A Case-Control Study), the science points away from there being an association with onset of GI disease and MMR administration in children with autism, regression and GI disease.

      Also, you have (a) not precise numbers (“so many parents”) and only some of the numbers (as in, for that fraction of children who have GI diseases and autism, how many parents report onset of GI disease at a time other than near the administration of the MMR vaccine).

      Then we have to consider the difference between parent report and the actual onset.

      In a recent presentation to the IACC, a team looking at co-occuring medical conditions in autistic children reported higher rates of GI disease in autistic children. Interestingly, they found that for a significant number of those children, GI disease was diagnosed after the autism diagnosis. Does autism diagnosis cause GI disease?

      • Lara Lohne April 10, 2013 at 19:47 #

        Matt, I am not a scientist, and granted it’s just a guess, but seeing as how severe stress and anxiety tend to go along with autism, and studies have shown that high levels of stress, worry or anxiety in neurotypical populations can increase gastrointestinal disruption (ulcer, heartburn, etc.) what are the odds that the GI distress/disease in autistic children is a result of increased stress/anxiety that happens due to reacting to their parents mind set after receiving the diagnosis?

        My son never had GI distress, he did have regression, but I noticed many differences in him from birth that my older five children didn’t exhibit and none of them were as challenging as my youngest was. I suspected autism about a year and a half before the actual diagnosis was given (took us that long to figure out where to take him and then they didn’t begin the evaluation until after he turned 3) so I had already made my peace with the idea of disability, and having grown up with an older brother with crebral palsy, I was not new to disability either. Perhaps my son didn’t suffer from GI distress because I never went through the srtess, worry, sorrow cycle when I received his diagnosis. For me, getting the diagnosis gave me a path; now we know what it is, let’s figure out how to proceed, that sort of thing.

        It’s a lot different, I imagine, when it’s your sixth child after 5 NT children as opposed to your first with no previous experience to compare it to. Perhaps I am being naive though, but I do believe autistic people, at least in my son’s case, are extremely susceptable to electromagnetic fields of people. Crowds make him anxious and when I am upset he gets upset and when I’m happy, he is much more at ease. When I’m stressed out (typically due to financial issues or something with my partner, who also has autism [official now]) then my son will typically avoid me, stay in his room and rock on his bed.

        Has anyone else experienced similar observations in their children or other adults with autism?

      • Sullivan (Matt Carey) April 10, 2013 at 22:11 #

        A blogger who has since gone offline (AutismDiva) was very concerned about the signs of stress in autistics (e.g. salivary cortisol levels). She would discuss stress on its own and as a possible contributor to GI concerns.

      • Lara Lohne April 11, 2013 at 00:51 #

        I would imagine a lot could be learned by studying several age groups with autism and seeing how their levels of stress, or even influence of outside stress affects their digestive systems. If it was found that most of the reason people and children have intestinal distress is due to mirroring their parents’ stress over their autism, maybe a lot of parents would ease up a bit and realize their behavior and attitude is contributing to their child’s behavioral issues (take the pain from GI distress away and autistic behaviors diminish) and it really isn’t due to diet, yeast, or parasites and bleach enemas really won’t work.

  2. brian April 9, 2013 at 16:53 #

    Bustin previously discussed these issues in a 2008 article titled “RT-qPCR and molecular diagnostics: no evidence for measles virus in the GI tract of autistic children.”

    Click to access erp_mmr.pdf

  3. Joseph Quinn April 11, 2013 at 05:18 #

    If this is meant to demonstrate that vaccines are not contributing to autism, then it is strikingly similar to the bad science it is reporting. Yawn

    • Chris April 11, 2013 at 17:47 #

      As opposed to a no science comment? If you have verifiable scientific evidence that the MMR vaccine is associated with autism, the provide the title, journal and dates of those PubMed indexed papers. And since the MMR vaccine was introduced in the USA in 1971, it would be interesting to see papers dating before 1990.

    • mikemawords April 11, 2013 at 20:48 #

      Your blanket statement is wildly misleading and simplistic. The article clearly demonstrates that the link between MMR and autism, as identified by Wakefield using O’Leary’s data, are without merit. This is how science works. Flaws are revealed and the body of work based on those flaws are questioned or discarded. In Wakefield’s case, discarded with force due to the proven fraud.

      As Chris stated, where is the evidence that MMR causes GI issues, autism or toothache?

  4. RA Jensen April 12, 2013 at 11:39 #

    This may be one of the most midleading titles that you have ever published. The title should have said ‘No link between MMR vaccination and autism’. Exposure to the rubella virus was one of the first risk factors associated with autism risk:

    Stella Chess a former editor of the Journalism and Developmental Disorders confirmed the existance of rubella autism:

    Click to access library_chess_1971.pdf

    In the most referenced twin study ever published, co-authored by Sir Michael Rutter another past editor of the JADD, the authors excluded any twin pairs with an identifiabile medicalcause. The study included a very small sample size. Three twin pairs were excluded including a pair diagnosed with congenital rubella.

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) April 12, 2013 at 17:32 #

      If you follow the link, you will see the title is taken from the author’s name and the title of his own piece.

      I.e. it was written by Stephen Bustin and he titled his article Why There Is no Link Between Measles Virus and Autism

      If you consider that misleading, go ahead. You make a number of logical erros in reaching that conclusion.

      Stella Chess reported on the association between rubella infection and autism. Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS) does not occur to those merely exposed to the virus. Which I believe also corrects your mistaken reference to Rutter’s twin study as being relevant to this discussion.

      One must then ask how an association between Rubella infection renders the title of this (and Prof. Bustin’s) article misleading as neither makes mention of rubella.

      Based on that, if this is the most (or one of the most) misleading titles I’ve ever written I must be doing quite well. I can’t help it if readers don’t accurately read the title, nor understand the clear context.

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) April 12, 2013 at 17:39 #

      I will add, if you read Prof. Bustin’s article, you will see that he notes that in Mr. Wakefield’s work they do not make it clear how many of the children were given the MMR (or the single measles) vaccine. Thus, Prof. Bustin’s title focuses on the virus itself and not the vaccine.

      • RA Jensen April 19, 2013 at 17:11 #


        The MMR vaccine protests agains Measles, Mumps and Rubella also know as German Measles. First trimester rubella is one of the very first known causes of autism. As far as the Rutter twin study is concerned it is relevant, that the study excluded one pair of twins who were unambigously diagnosed with congenital.l rubella.

      • Sullivan (Matt Carey) April 19, 2013 at 17:35 #

        I am aware of what the MMR vaccine is and aware of congenital rubella syndrome being linked as a probably risk factor for autism. I’ve discussed that many times. Perhaps the Rutter study was your main point? If so I apologize. However, you started with a statement that the title of the article was misleading. I’ve pointed out that it was not, and clearly described why.

  5. Sceptic21 April 13, 2013 at 14:45 #

    I am not a scientist and am not going to comment on the scientific aspects, except to say that I have a severely autistic adult son and am sure no vaccine was to blame. What I have worked out over 20 years of associating with other parents of autistic children is that many people have to blame someone for things that go wrong; they seem to be incapable of getting their heads round the idea that there are such things as accidents. If you’re looking for someone to blame, you can’t help including yourself in the list of possible candidates. So if A Doctor comes along and says, waving what looks to the average layperson very like a proper scientific study to ‘prove’ it, that you were definitely not to blame and look, the evil forces of government/’big Pharma’ (sorry!) were, then psychologically you’re going to grasp that belief with both hands, canonise the one who told you about it and scream blue murder if anyone tells you it’s not true. This seems to e to explain an awful lot about the whole business.

    • Lara Lohne April 13, 2013 at 17:34 #

      Agreed, Sceptic21. For lack of a better way to put it, it’s almost as if there is a type of group psychosis among those who believe the vaccine causation hypothesis. They flock together because it’s really easy to continue believing something when everyone else in your sphere of influence is echoing the same thing, whether or not it is true. They are never going to get out of that mind set until they get out of the circle of affirmation that the anti-vax groups really are.

      In that respect, it really is like religion, where if you begin to doubt your beliefs, they gently coax you back to church where everything will be reaffirmed and you will experience a ‘spiritual renewal’ when really all it is is just reconfirming in your own mind because you don’t want to believe it isn’t true, really, because then what would you do?

      No matter how many studies come out to show there is no shred of a link, let alone outright cause, they refuse to believe it, claim COI, conspiracy and it didn’t show what it was ‘supposed’ to show because it wasn’t blind, randomized and controlled. They rally together at these times for that reaffirmation of their beliefs because every study refuting the vaccine causation hypothesis is going to cause doubt and shake their faith in Andrew Wakefield. I do know what I’m talking about having grown up anti-vaccine, believing it whole heartedly, but also growing up in a certain religion and having experienced this same phenomenon with both belief systems.

      They have a hard time understanding also why such a study (vax vs. unvax) would not only be highly unethical but extremely dangerous to everyone, as it could bring back in great numbers, vaccine preventable diseases, many of which, thanks to the vaccines we use, are soon to be a thing of the past. Such a study isn’t needed since retrospective population studies have been done looking at health outcomes over many years of vaxed versus unvaxed and have found the only significant difference is the unvaxed populations contract more vaccine preventable diseases, and that is all. But that isn’t good enough for them, because nothing would ever be good enough if it doesn’t show what they all believe, including their precious and very dangerous vaxed versus unvaxed study.

  6. Brian Deer April 15, 2013 at 15:02 #

    Sorry to come to this discussion late, but I think the main reason the O’Leary/Wakefield/Uhlmann paper has not been retracted is that, for all of us who have the information, there’s not enough hours in the day to prepare the documents and submit them in coherent form. Medical journals don’t have great staffs sitting around just waiting to trawl through old papers, and certainly their publishers are not keen to fund such activities, despite the public importance.

    This is now being done.

    Indeed, there would be every reason to retract very substantial numbers of Wakefield papers. I could do the preparatory work for about four more, without any further research into them.

    In one of my less charitable moments, I did think that I would be stirred into life each time that billious old sow Jenny Allan and her associates pipe up. This would produce a kind of ratchet effect, by which every time the cranks get abusive, another of Wakefield’s papers is retracted. They might learn from this. But perhaps not.

    • brian April 16, 2013 at 00:55 #

      The scientific method is not designed to deal with dishonesty. Scientists are wrong every day–but science tends to be self-correcting, as workers learn to ignore the dreck and to move ever more closely (we hope) to the truth: as Danish mathematician Piet Hein wrote, we “err and err and err again, but less and less and less.”

      That doesn’t work if a scientist lies.

      So what do you do when a scientist is proven to a criminal standard of justice to be “dishonest”? I suppose that someone might lie only once, but it’s reasonable to look for other instances to guide our assessment of that scientist’s other work.

      Mr. Deer must have noticed that the complainant who has yet again sued him is identified as “Dr. Andrew J. Wakefield. MB., BS., FRCS.”

      Note the “FRCS,” which indicates fellowship in the Royal College of Surgeons. Wakefield has not been entitled to claim that status since July 1996. The Royal College of Surgeons indicated that “using a title to imply skill and ability to the public . . . would be fraudulent.” Wakefield’s choice to fraudulently misrepresent his credentials does not inspire confidence.


  1. Stephen Bustin: Why There Is no Link Between Measles Virus and Autism - April 9, 2013

    […] Read more at Left Brain Right Brain. […]

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