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The Next Vaccine-Autism Newsmaker…5 years later

6 Feb

Years back, much focus in online autism parent community discussions focused on the Omnibus Autism Proceeding (OAP). This was the large “vaccine court” proceeding to explore if people could be compensated for autism as a vaccine injury. Those hearings were held in 2008, and the decisions went against the families.

A year ago I wrote (The Omnibus Autism Proceeding: effectively over), and while, yes, as an “Omnibus” it is effectively over, there is still activity for those who filed claims and were included in the Omnibus Autism Proceeding. Statistics as of today show there were 5,635 claims included in the Omnibus, and 4,564 have been dismissed. 2 claimants have been compensated, with the caveat given that “**HHS has never concluded in any case that autism was caused by vaccination.” This leaves 1,069 cases still pending. A relatively small fraction of the original Omnibus, but a large number nonetheless.

Another way to look at this is the Omnibus proceedings are over, the docket hasn’t been updated for quite some time but there are still individual cases to be decided. Including one case that was rather prominent in the Omnibus: that of A. Krakow. He was intended to be one of the test cases for the thimerosal but was pulled out to pursue another argument: that metabolic dysfunction is involved. David Kirby referred to him as “The Next Vaccine-Autism Newsmaker”, following the supposed game-changer of Hannah Poling.

That was in 2008. As it’s been nearly 5 years, I checked the status of the case. It turns out the first hearing was held in December (a hearing on fact) and a second hearing is set for expert witnesses to testify in April of this year. One way to explore the arguments the family may be taking is to review the experts that are testifying. For example, the family has chosen Richard Deth as an expert. His work has not focused on mitochondria. On the other hand, Yuval Shafir is also listed as an expert and has listed many articles on mitochondria with his report. Richard Frye’s CV was submitted (he also has some work on mitochondria and autism), but I don’t see that an expert report from him has been submitted.

Other experts date from 2008 (from when he was going to be an Omnibus test case) include: Elizabeth A. Mumper, Robert S. Rust, Richard Deth and Sander Greenland.

(edit to add, I see a report in the docket from Marcel Kinsbourne in 2010).

So, is this going ahead as a “mitochondrial autism” case? The “Next Hannah Poling” as David Kirby claimed in Spectrum Magazine? Well, even Hannah Poling wasn’t the game-changer some people predicted. Probably the most we can say is that is 10 years old, with a docket 16 pages long, will finally be heard.

edit to add: For the curious, here is the docket.

By Matt Carey


The Omnibus Autism Proceeding: effectively over

21 Jan

The Omnibus Autism Proceeding (OAP) was held in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to group the large number of claims filed involving autism and vaccines. The Docket was opened on July 3, 2002, nearly 10 years ago. The last entry was placed 1 year ago. Since then many cases have been dismissed. About half the cases are left to hear, but the fact that the two causation theories presented (that the MMR vaccine causes autism and that Thimerosal causes autism) were both found to have no merit (“not even close” one special master put it) and no new theory is proposed by the Petitioners’ Steering Committee (the attorneys who presented the case for the petitioners) makes it clear that the group claim, the omnibus, is effectively over.

That is not to say that other claims are not proceeding through the court, or that new cases will not be presented. There is at least one case pursuing the idea of mitochondrial dysfunction and autism, as with the Hannah Poling case. ([edit to add–the case ongoing, which was briefly closed, is not the Hannah Poling case. See the comments below). The case was actually dismissed for lack of action by the petitioners but the special master allowed it to continue again).

Looking back, the Omnibus peaked in 2003 when 2,437 cases were filed (close to 1/2 of the total that would eventually be filed).

Reassessing the role of mitochondrial DNA mutations in autism spectrum disorder.

12 Apr

Autism and mitochondrial medicine have become a very hot topic in recent years. What the connections are between autism and mitochondrial disorders has yet to be clarified. Mitochondria are little structures within cells that produce much of the energy required. Mitochondria have their own DNA (mtDNA) in addition to the nuclear DNA (nDNA) of the cell. nDNA is what most people think of when we hear “genes” or DNA. Given the focus on mitochondrial dysfunction and autism, it is natural to consider the question: are there mutations in the mtDNA which increase the risk of autism?

A new paper takes a look at the question. They studied 148 patients with ASD and found, well, no support for a link to mtDNA mutations. Here is the abstract:

BMC Med Genet. 2011 Apr 6;12(1):50. [Epub ahead of print]
Reassessing the role of mitochondrial DNA mutations in autism spectrum disorder.
Alvarez-Iglesias V, Mosquera-Miguel A, Cusco I, Carracedo A, Perez-Jurado LA, Salas A.
BACKGROUND: There is increasing evidence that impairment of mitochondrial energy metabolism plays an important role in the pathophysiology of autism spectrum disorders (ASD; OMIM number: 209850). A significant proportion of ASD cases display biochemical alterations suggestive of mitochondrial dysfunction and several studies have reported that mutations in the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) molecule could be involved in the disease phenotype.

METHODS: We analysed a cohort of 148 patients with idiopathic ASD for a number of mutations proposed in the literature as pathogenic in ASD. We also carried out a case control association study for the most common European haplogroups (hgs) and their diagnostic single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) by comparing cases with 753 healthy and ethnically matched controls.

RESULTS: We did not find statistical support for an association between mtDNA mutations or polymorphisms and ASD.

CONCLUSIONS: Our results are compatible with the idea that mtDNA mutations are not a relevant cause of ASD and the frequent observation of concomitant mitochondrial dysfunction and ASD could be due to nuclear factors influencing mitochondrion functions or to a more complex interplay between the nucleus and the mitochondrion/mtDNA.

PMID: 21470425 [PubMed – as supplied by publisher]Free Article

This is consistent with previous studies, as noted in a recent review article which was itself summarized at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism by Emily Willingham as Mitochondrial Disease and Autism: Linked?

Ms. Willingham noted there:

Thus, tracking down mitochondrial dysfunction in the context of ASD to a specific mutation has remained an elusive goal. Two scenarios are likely for this lack of mutational findings: (1) there are mutations, but we just haven’t found them yet; or (2) the environment is largely responsible for any mitochondrial dysfunction that abnormal marker levels might indicate.

This paper is available as a free manuscript online. Here is the

Although it is widely accepted that some forms of ASD appear concomitantly with the impairment of mitochondrial energy metabolism, there are reasons to believe that the cause of these mitochondrial disorders does not systematically rest on mutations or variants in the mtDNA molecule. Pathogenic mtDNA mutations have been reported in ASD patients, but this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. It is more likely that the real causes of mitochondrial deficiencies in some ASD cases are due to the intervention of several nuclear factors acting alone (additively or epistatically) or through a complex interplay with mtDNA variants. For the time being, while the cause for mitochondrion dysfunction in ASD remains unclear, there is no reason to indicate systematic screening for mtDNA mutations in ASD patients unless a mitochondrion disorder is suggested by a clear phenotype.

What is also interesting to me is the table of characteristics of the study subjects. In particular, there is a big difference in the percentage with epilepsy and dimorphism between adults and children:

Mitochondrial dysfunction is listed as mild and somewhat infrequent (about 10%). Not the very high prevalences of mitochondrial dysfunction that some have suggested are present in autitics. This does beg the question: should this genetic study be performed on those with some measure of mitochondrial dysfunction?

This doesn’t mean that mitochondrial dysfunction isn’t an important area for autism research, or that a genetic study such as this shouldn’t be done on a larger group with some measure of mitochondrial dysfunction.

Of course it would be great to hear that there is something definitive in this study. As in, “this is it!” rather than “this probably isn’t it”. Mitochondrial DNA mutations “probably isn’t it” when it comes to the etiology of ASD in most people.

Proton Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy and MRI Reveal No Evidence for Brain Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

16 Mar

A study published today looks for mitochondrial dysfunction in autistic children. In specific, the researchers are looking directly at the brains of autistic children. The team, from the University of Washington, used both MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and proton magnetic resonance spectroscropic imaging (HRMS). MRI gives structural information on soft tissues. HMRS is a “spectroscopic” techinque: it gives chemical information on
Here’s a good reference with a discussion of HMRS on brain tissue (as a spectroscopy, not an imaging technique): Quantitative neuropathology by high resolution magic angle spinning proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy

With that background in hand, here is the abstract from the recent study on autism:

Proton Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy and MRI Reveal No Evidence for Brain Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Corrigan NM, Shaw DW, Richards TL, Estes AM, Friedman SD, Petropoulos H, Artru AA, Dager SR.

Department of Radiology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.

Brain mitochondrial dysfunction has been proposed as an etiologic factor in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging ((1)HMRS) and MRI were used to assess for evidence of brain mitochondrial dysfunction in longitudinal samples of children with ASD or developmental delay (DD), and cross-sectionally in typically developing (TD) children at 3-4, 6-7 and 9-10 years-of-age. A total of 239 studies from 130 unique participants (54ASD, 22DD, 54TD) were acquired. (1)HMRS and MRI revealed no evidence for brain mitochondrial dysfunction in the children with ASD. Findings do not support a substantive role for brain mitochondrial abnormalities in the etiology or symptom expression of ASD, nor the widespread use of hyperbaric oxygen treatment that has been advocated on the basis of this proposed relationship.

Does this mean that mitochondrial dysfunction never occurs in autistics? No. But it makes it very unlikely that more than a fraction of autistics have mitochondrial dysfunction in their brains.

Beyond that, the use of spectroscopic imaging is very impressive to me. MRI structural data is quite valuable on its own, but adding chemical information is very powerful.

Mitochondrial Disease and Autism: Linked?

11 Mar

Mitochondrial disease and autism. I don’t read about it as much as during the peak of the Hannah Poling story, but it is a big topic. Emily Willingham at
Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism has put together an excellent post on the subject. Here’s the first paragraph:

Hannah Poling’s family entered the national spotlight when they revealed that Hannah’s autism-like symptoms may have been linked to a reaction to several childhood vaccines at once in combination with her mitochondrial dysfunction. Her case was not the first revelation of a possible mitochondrial disorder (MD)-autism spectrum disorder (ASD) link, but because of her ultimately successful vaccine injury suit, she became the avatar of the vaccines-cause-harm movement — which almost eclipsed the real scientific and therapeutic feature of her case: the mitochondria.

I’d love to do a wholesale copy of the post, but that’s hardly fair now, is it? So, I’ll send you all to the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and Mitochondrial Disease and Autism: Linked?

Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism

22 Dec

A recent paper from the MIND Institute, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) entitled Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism caused a bit of a stir. One which is far beyond what is supported by the paper’s conclusions or data, I will add.

The study is very small: 10 autistic children and 10 controls. The authors used a very nonstandard methodology. Perhaps the best summary of this study so far can be found on the Simons Foundation blog SFARI (Defects in mitochondria linked to autism). Deborah Rudacille discusses the methodology and brings in quotes from the study’s lead author (Cecilia Giulivi) as well as established experts in the field of mitochondrial disease and autism such as Jay Gargas.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, here is the abstract:

Context Impaired mitochondrial function may influence processes highly dependent on energy, such as neurodevelopment, and contribute to autism. No studies have evaluated mitochondrial dysfunction and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) abnormalities in a well-defined population of children with autism.

Objective To evaluate mitochondrial defects in children with autism.

Design, Setting, and Patients Observational study using data collected from patients aged 2 to 5 years who were a subset of children participating in the Childhood Autism Risk From Genes and Environment study in California, which is a population-based, case-control investigation with confirmed autism cases and age-matched, genetically unrelated, typically developing controls, that was launched in 2003 and is still ongoing. Mitochondrial dysfunction and mtDNA abnormalities were evaluated in lymphocytes from 10 children with autism and 10 controls.

Main Outcome Measures Oxidative phosphorylation capacity, mtDNA copy number and deletions, mitochondrial rate of hydrogen peroxide production, and plasma lactate and pyruvate.

Results The reduced nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH) oxidase activity (normalized to citrate synthase activity) in lymphocytic mitochondria from children with autism was significantly lower compared with controls (mean, 4.4 [95% confidence interval {CI}, 2.8-6.0] vs 12 [95% CI, 8-16], respectively; P = .001). The majority of children with autism (6 of 10) had complex I activity below control range values. Higher plasma pyruvate levels were found in children with autism compared with controls (0.23 mM [95% CI, 0.15-0.31 mM] vs 0.08 mM [95% CI, 0.04-0.12 mM], respectively; P = .02). Eight of 10 cases had higher pyruvate levels but only 2 cases had higher lactate levels compared with controls. These results were consistent with the lower pyruvate dehydrogenase activity observed in children with autism compared with controls (1.0 [95% CI, 0.6-1.4] nmol × [min × mg protein]?1 vs 2.3 [95% CI, 1.7-2.9] nmol × [min × mg protein]?1, respectively; P = .01). Children with autism had higher mitochondrial rates of hydrogen peroxide production compared with controls (0.34 [95% CI, 0.26-0.42] nmol × [min × mg of protein]?1 vs 0.16 [95% CI, 0.12-0.20] nmol × [min × mg protein]?1 by complex III; P = .02). Mitochondrial DNA overreplication was found in 5 cases (mean ratio of mtDNA to nuclear DNA: 239 [95% CI, 217-239] vs 179 [95% CI, 165-193] in controls; P = 10?4). Deletions at the segment of cytochrome b were observed in 2 cases (ratio of cytochrome b to ND1: 0.80 [95% CI, 0.68-0.92] vs 0.99 [95% CI, 0.93-1.05] for controls; P = .01).

Conclusion In this exploratory study, children with autism were more likely to have mitochondrial dysfunction, mtDNA overreplication, and mtDNA deletions than typically developing children.

As the abstract states, the MIND Institute study methodology involved: “Mitochondrial dysfunction and mtDNA abnormalities were evaluated in lymphocytes from 10 children with autism and 10 controls”. Lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). Children were concecutively recruited and genetically unrelated. Mitochondrial function was tested first, and given the results seen, children were brought back for a second blood draw where mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) and nuclear DNA (nDNA) were examined.

As shown in the figure below, they found that the autistic children had different mitochondrial activity levels than their controls. Note that “low” activity is not referenced to any standardized norms, but to the 10 control children.

They also performed genetic testing. Table 3 from the paper is reproduced below:

They show that, by their methodology, 7 of their 10 autistic kids have some form of genetic signature for mitochondrial dysfunction. 2 of 10 of their controls meet their criteria as well.

The Simons blog quotes the study author, Prof. Giulivi on this choice:

“Lymphocytes do not rely as heavily on mitochondria as the brain does,” she says, “so if this is happening in cells that don’t use mitochondria as much, it’s likely to be happening in cells that rely more heavily on mitochondria, like neurons.”

They also quote Dr. Fernando Scaglia, of the Baylor Clinic:

However, the unconventional decision to use lymphocytes should have been validated, says Fernando Scaglia, associate professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “I’m not saying that studies done in lymphocytes are useless,” says Scaglia, an expert in inherited metabolic disease. “But they should be validated in other tissue.”

and Prof. Gargas of the University of California at Irvine:

“Lymphocytes are fine to study chromosomal DNA, but they are a horrible source for studying mitochondrial DNA,” he says.

Cells have hundreds of mitochondria, each with multiple copies of the DNA. In people with mitochondrial disease, some cells have healthy DNA and others have the mutated copies, he notes. In a blood sample, defective lymphoctyes tend to get lost among rapidly proliferating healthy cells.

“The best source for studying mitochondria are post-mitotic cells such as muscle,” he says. “That way you are sampling the set of cells the child was born with.”

In the end, if we stick to the idea that this is a very preliminary report and relies on a new unproven methodology at that, we can consider the study as posing interesting questions. Is mitochondrial dysfunction more prevalent in autistics than the general population? Are there ways to test this in a faster, less intrusive manner than is often used? If we take this study in context, there may be some value. Unfortunately as Seth Mnookin has already pointed out, this study has already been used to promote ideas that are clearly outside of the study and conclusions. This is the unfortunate world of autism research: it is hard for people to push the boundaries and risk being wrong. Not because it may cause the researchers some embarrassment, but because there are a multitude of people waiting to misuse information and mislead.

Commentary on Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism

22 Dec

I recently wrote about the paper Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism by the MIND Institute. It is difficult to write about the topic of mitochondrial dysfunction and mitochondrial disorders and autism without discussing vaccines. Even the Simons Foundation blog mentioned vaccines in their treatment of the paper, even though the paper makes no comments about vaccines.

Why? Because the case of Hannah Poling and, especially, the way David Kirby presented it to the public has linked autism–mitochondrial dysfunction–vaccines into one neat package. With posts like “NEW STUDY – “Mitochondrial Autism” is Real; Vaccine Triggers Cannot Be Ruled Out” and “The Vaccine-Autism Story: Trust Your Government, or Be a Patriot and Get on Google”. In the latter post he wrote:

“Google “autism and mitochondria,” (96,900 hits) and then Google “mercury and mitochondria,” (169,000 hits) and draw your own, informed conclusions. “

It was very much in David Kirby’s style. Don’t come out and say something directly (like, “mercury is the cause of mitochondrial disease”) but lead the reader along with a series of, well, leading statements.

A more responsible approach would be that one needn’t trust the government nor seek advice on google. A more responsible approach for Mr. Kirby would be to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, parents of autistic kids should seek out the advice of experts in mitochondrial medicine. Mr. Kirby clearly had an agenda, and it wasn’t the well being of autistics. He was promoting the idea that vaccines caused an autism epidemic.

Mr. Kirby thankfully appears to have moved on from focusing his attention on promoting the vaccine-autism hypotheses. And yet, there is obviously a hunger amongst his old readers for this discussion. This can be seen in Mark Hyman’s blog post at the Huffington Post, “Autism Research: Breakthrough Discovery on the Causes of Autism” which has nearly 1,900 comments. Where David Kirby was promoting himself and the interests of groups like SafeMinds and Generation Rescue, Dr. Hyman uses the MIND Institute paper to promote himself and his own business.

What is worse is the way he goes about doing this. Dr. Hyman is even less capable of covering his obvious mistakes than was David Kirby.

Dr. Hyman writes:

While we don’t have all the answers, and more research is needed to identify and validate the causes and treatment of autism, there are new signs of hope. A study just published in The Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers from the University of California, Davis called “Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Autism” (i) discovered a profound and serious biological underpinning of autism — an acquired loss of the ability to produce energy in the cells, damage to mitochondria (the energy factories in your cells), and an increase in oxidative stress (the same chemical reaction that causes cars to rust, apples to turn brown, fat to become rancid, and skin to wrinkle). These disturbances in energy metabolism were not due to genetic mutations, which is often seen in mitochondrial problems, but a condition the children studied acquired in utero or after birth.

The statement is amazing. Not in a good way. It is amazing that someone could write such an irresponsible paragraph and attribute it to a paper which clearly doesn’t make or support these claims.

The very title of Dr. Hyman’s post (Autism Research: Breakthrough Discovery on the Causes of Autism) is in error. The study makes no claims about the causes of autism. Dr. Hyman didn’t have to look any farther than the paper itself which clearly states as one of the limitations:

Sixth, inferences about a cause and effect association between mitochondrial dysfunction and typical autism cannot be made in a cross-sectional study.

Given this, we can also throw out Dr. Hyman’s wild claim that the study’s authors “discovered a profound and serious biological underpinning of autism”.

Since it is already clear that Dr. Hyman is using the paper to promote his own ideas, regardless of the facts in the paper, I won’t posit as to why he claims that the mitochondrial dysfunction is “acquired”, or that this is due to “damage” to mitochondria. The paper does not support either of these conclusions as fact.

He makes the claim that “These disturbances in energy metabolism were not due to genetic mutations, which is often seen in mitochondrial problems, but a condition the children studied acquired in utero or after birth.”

I am unsure how Dr. Hyman reached this conclusion. The paper notes differences in the mtDNA of many of the children studied. It does not provide evidence as to when or how these genetic differences arose.

Table 3 clearly shows the genetic measures the MIND Institute researchers used. Question the method as you may (or some experts have), there are differences in the mtDNA. The methodology doesn’t allow one to state if these difference were present at birth or not.

The MIND Institute hosts an interview with Prof. Giulivi
At about 3:30 into Prof. Giulivi’s interview, she states clearly that they can not conclude if the mitochondrial dysfunction they claim causes autism or is a result of it.

It is hard for me to decide if Dr. Hyman is more irresponsible than David Kirby or if it is the other way around. David Kirby was certainly doing some self promotion, but his impact was largely as a publicist for the autism-as-vaccine-injury groups like SafeMinds and Generation Rescue. Dr. Hyman is clearly focused on promoting his own services as a practitioner of alternative medicine.

The problem is that in the end, rather than being a leader in treatment, as Dr. Hyman presents himself, such irresponsible actions hinder advancement.