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More Hot Air about HBOT

6 Apr

A few weeks ago, BMC Pediatrics published an article that purports to show that Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) can produce “…significant improvements in overall functioning, receptive language, social interaction, eye contact, and sensory/cognitive awareness..” in autistic children. This study (Rossignol et al, 2009) is billed as a “…multicenter, randomized, double-blind, controlled trial.”

It’s all that and much, much less.

Let’s start by looking at the six “centers” where this research was carried out.

The Centers

The International Child Development Research Center (ICRDC):

This imposing name is attached to a rather less imposing edifice. The ICRDC, brainchild Dr. Jeffrey Bradstreet, is located in a strip mall in Melbourne, Florida, where it not only carries out “cutting-edge research” but also sells a complete line of “supplements” and treats autistic children with a dizzying array of “alternative”, “biomedical” and “integrative” therapies, including HBOT.

Daniel Rossignol MD (Family Practice), Lanier Rossignol (Nurse Practitioner) and Scott Smith (Physician’s Assistant) were the authors from the ICDRC.

The Center for Autism Research and Education (CARE):

This “center” is located in Phoenix, Arizona and has – according to its website – a single practitioner, Cynthia Schneider, MD (OB/Gyn), who is also an author on this paper. One of the “integrative” therapies this “center” offers is HBOT.

One of the other authors, Sally Logerquist, is a PhD psychologist who – according to the paper – is also associated with CARE, but also appears to run social skills therapy groups for autistic children using the “Logerquist Excellent Attitude Program” (LEAP).

True Health Medical Center:

It’s rather difficult to find anything about this “center”, apart from the fact that it is located in Naperville, Illinois – in what appears to be an office complex. Anju Usman, MD (Family Practice) is the author associated with this location.

Neubrander Center:

Although not officially called a “center”, the office of James Neubrander, MD (Pathology) is apparently one of the “centers” of this study. His office is located in the Menlo Park Mall (near Macy’s) and offers – you guessed it! – HBOT as a treatment for autism.

Princess Anne Medical Associates:

A Family Practice medical group in Virginia Beach, Virginia, this “center” is the home of Eric Madren, MD (Family Practice). It’s not clear if this four-physician practice offers HBOT.

The Rimland Center for Integrative Medicine:

A small, one-physician “center” in Lynchburg, Virginia, this is practice location of author Elizabeth Mumper, MD (Pediatrics). Not surprisingly, this “center” sells HBOT services for autistic children.

So, of the six “centers” involved in this study, five are single-physician operations. The remaining “center” has two physicians (three, if you count the naturopath).

I’m underwhelmed.

Well, what about the research itself? Maybe that’s better than the “facilities” might suggest. Let’s take a look.

The Subjects

This study initially enrolled 62 children (33 treatment; 29 control), but only 29 of the treatment group and 26 of the control group finished all 40 sessions. For reasons that pass my understanding, one treatment subject who only finished 9 sessions was included in the analysis. The authors stated that including this subject did not alter results, which begs the question: “Why did they include this subject if it made no difference?”

Outcome measures

The authors used the Aberrant Behavior Checklist (ABC), the Clinical Global Impression (CGI) scale and the Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist (ATEC) as their outcome measures. All except the ATEC are widely accepted for use in autism treatment trials.

The ABC is a 58-question checklist of – surprise! – aberrant behaviors which are each given a score from “0” (“not at all a problem”) to “3” (“severe problem”). This test has been use – and validated – in a number of disorders, including autism. It gives a global score as well as five subscales: a total of six measures.

The CGI is a generic rating scale used in a variety of clinical trials. For each parameter (e.g. “overall functioning”, “sleep pattern”), the rater gives a score of between “1” (“very much improved”) and “7” (“very much worse”). The authors had both the treating physician and the parents rate the subjects on overall improvement and eighteen discrete parameters: a total of 38 measures in all (19 by the physician and 19 by the parents).

The ATEC was developed by Bernie Rimland and Stephen Edelson and has not been validated. In fact, it has only been used in two published studies – one by Rossignol et al. The ATEC has 25 questions on which the evaluator rates the subject on either a three-point (“not true”, “somewhat true”, “very true”) or four-point (“not a problem”, “minor problem”, “moderate problem”, “serious problem”) scale. It provides a total score and four subscales: a total of five measures.

In all, each subject had a total of 49 evaluation measures (CGI scores and the change in ABC and ATEC scores), of which 47 are independent. The importance of this will become apparent in the section on statistical analysis.

Analysis

As I mentioned above, the decision to include one treatment subject who only completed nine sessions was curious. Why they included this subject and not any of the other three treatment subjects and three control subjects who also failed to complete the entire course of the study is concerning. The smart thing – and the proper response – would have been to drop this subject from analysis.

The authors’ method of analyzing the CGI scales was also curious. Rather than simply using the scores as they were provided, they took the scores and subtracted them from four (the “no change” score). There are a few problems with this.

For starters, the scores are not linear – the difference between “much improved” and “very much improved” is not necessarily the same as between “no change” and “minimally improved”. Nor is the difference between “no change” and “much improved” twice the difference between “much improved” and “very much improved”. For that reason, these types of numerical scores are often referred to as “pseudo-numbers”.

This may seem like nit-picking, but it is a serious concern. Imagine, if you will, that the numbers were replaced by colors. Is the difference between green and orange twice the difference between orange and red? If half of a population of birds are blue and the other half are yellow, is the “average” bird green? The simple fact is that it is not appropriate to treat these “scores” as though they were real numbers, to be added, subtracted and averaged.

Secondly, it appears that the authors used parametric statistics for their analysis of the CGI scores. This is a problem since – as I indicated above – it is nonsensical to do math on pseudo-numbers. I don’t have the raw numbers, so it isn’t possible for me to calculate the absolute impact of this mistake for all of the CGI subclasses, but I can figure out the raw numbers for one group, so let’s look at that one.

It took a little work, but the authors gave enough clues to tease out the raw numbers in the physician “overall functioning” CGI score. The treatment group had an “average” of 2.87 and the control group’s “average” was 3.62; using the unaltered data, a t-test [Note: not an appropriate use of the t-test] gives p-value of 0.0006, not far from what the authors report. When a more appropriate statistical test [Mann-Whitney U-test] is used, the p-value is 0.002, very different from the reported 0.0008. While this is still less than the threshold p-value of 0.05, see below for a discussion of multiple comparisons.

All of these statistical analyses of the CGI scores ignore the fact that these are pseudo-numbers and need to be treated as discrete groups rather than as actual numbers. In truth, even the ABC and ATEC scores should have been treated this way, as well, although it is fairly common practice to treat such multi-factor scores as real numbers. A Chi-square test or Fisher Exact test would be the ideal test, but the problem with that is that the treatment group has one score of “1” (very much improved) and the control group doesn’t. Likewise, the control group has two subjects with a score of “5” (minimally worse) and the treatment group has none. This prevents a Chi-square or Fisher test from comparing each score independently.

One solution is presented by the authors themselves, although they apparently didn’t use it. In their discussion of the CGI, the authors said:

“Children who received a score of ‘very much improved’ or ‘much improved’ on the physician CGI overall functioning score were considered to be ‘good responders’ to treatment.”

If we “bin” the scores into “good responders” and “others”, we find that there were 9 (out of 30 – 30%) “good responders” in the treatment group compared to 2 (out of 26 – 8%) in the control group. Unfortunately, this is not a statistically significant difference (p = 0.08) in the (Yates) Chi-square test and barely reached significance (p = 0.05, but see below) in the Fisher Exact test.

An even bigger problem in the statistical analysis was the failure to correct for multiple comparisons. This problem was brought up by one of the reviewers, and the authors responded by eliminating a table. They did not make the appropriate corrections.

The reason that multiple comparisons are a problem is that the analysis for statistical significance is based on probability. If the probability (the p-value) that the differences between the two groups (treatment and control) is due to random chance is equal to or less than 5%, that difference is considered to be “statistically significant” and accepted as real. That means that there is still a 5% (or less – look to the p-value) chance that the difference is due to chance and not real.

If multiple comparisons are made on the same group of subjects, the probability that one (or more) of them will be “statistically significant” by chance starts to climb. If 14 comparisons are made, the chance of an erroneous “statistical significance” is over 50%. If 47 independent comparisons are made – as in this study – the chance of an erroneous “statistical significance” is over 90%.

For this reason, it is standard procedure to apply a correction for multiple comparisons. The most well-known (and simplest) of these is the Bonferroni Correction, which changes the threshold for statistical significance by dividing it by the number of comparisons. In the case of this study, the threshold (normally p less than or equal to 0.05 or 5%) is reduced to 0.001.

Applying the appropriate correction for multiple comparisons changes the results of this study significantly. Only the physician CGI scores for overall functioning and receptive language reach significance – and these numbers are already suspicious because they were improperly handled to begin with. In fact, as I have shown above, the CGI “overall functioning” p-value wouldn’t reach significance. It is possible that – if the proper statistical tests were used – that the CGI score for “receptive language” would also not reach significance.

Another curious thing. The authors asked the parents after the study whether they thought their child was in the treatment or the control group. Rather than say that the parent’s guesses were no better than random chance (i.e. 50%), the authors stated:

“…there was no significant difference between the two groups in the ability of the parents to correctly guess the group assignment of their child.”

As I said, this was a curious way to put it. As I read this, all it says is that each group of parent were equally able to guess which group their child was assigned to. That could be a 50% accuracy (which would be equal to chance), but a 90% or 99% accuracy – if both groups were that accurate – would also fit that description.

Now, this could simply be an clumsy phrasing by the authors, or it could be a way to make it sound like their blinding was successful when it actually was not.

Summary

This study may have collected some useful data, but its analysis of that data rendered it useless. The CGI scores – where the only statistically significant result was (possibly) seen – were improperly manipulated and the wrong statistical analysis was used.

The other issue is that there is no discussion of why HBOT is thought to be superior to providing the same partial pressure of oxygen at room pressure. This study used 24% oxygen at 1.3 atm, which gives the same partial pressure of oxygen as 31% at sea level. This concentration of oxygen can be easily attained with an oxygen mask or simple oxygen tent – both of which are vastly less expensive than HBOT.

If the authors are arguing that the mild pressure of their inflatable HBOT chambers contributes to the treatment effect, they need to look at the literature on cell membrane compressibility. For those who want to do the calculations at home, the bulk modulus of water (the major component of cells) is 21,700 atm. This means that a 0.3 atm increase in pressure will reduce the cell volume by 0.0014%. The bulk modulus of the lipid bilayer in cell membranes is around 30,000 atm. This means that an increase of 0.3 atm pressure causes a 0.0010% reduction in membrane volume. These are well below the threshold for any clinical effects.

Real pressure effects on the central nervous system are seen at pressures over 19 atm. These effects are:

dizziness
nausea
vomiting
postural and intention tremors
fatigue and somnolence
myoclonic jerking
stomach cramps
decrease intellectual and psychomotor performance
poor sleep with nightmares
increased slow wave and decreased fast wave activity in EEG

None of these effects could be construed as “improvements”, even in autism.

So, this study fails to answer the following questions about HBOT and autism:

[1] Does HBOT improve any feature of autism?
[2] If so, is HBOT any better than supplemental oxygen (which is much cheaper)?

The only real effect of this study was to give a cover of legitimacy to practitioners who are already using HBOT to “treat” autism.

Prometheus

Mild hyperbaric therapy for autism – Shh!…don’t say it’s expensive

30 Mar

When I recently wrote about the new HBOT-for-autism study (Rossignol et al. 2009)1, I took issue with unlikely claimed treatment pressures for at least one of the study locations. While a potential methodological weakness, this is probably a fairly small problem in light of potential issues with blinding and interpretation of the results as quantitatively and objectively meaningful with respect to autism. But let’s set those potential issues aside for a moment.

Let’s assume that treatment with slightly enriched air (24% vs. 21% oxygen) in an inflatable hyperbaric chamber pressurized to 4 PSI2,3 above ambient atmospheric pressure, could confer some sort of benefit to an autistic child.

I’m not suggesting assumption that it does confer benefit. I’m asking readers to set aside any knowledge of hemoglobin’s role in oxygen transport, as well as any knowledge of real hyperbaric oxygen therapy (breathing 100% oxygen at greater than 1 ATA)4, and evaluate a simpler proposition. Accept the proposal that some sort of benefit is scientifically possible, but then ask yourself a fairly simple question:

Compared to 24% O2 at 4PSI above ambient atmospheric pressure in an inflatable hyperbaric chamber, equivalent oxygen delivery can be achieved with simple oxygen therapy (an oxygen mask) at a fraction of the cost5 – why is a study of the hyperbaric version of this increased oxygen important?

One possibility: studying what’s already for sale

While some might call it being on the “cutting edge”, others may consider it putting the cart before the horse. No matter how you see it, it’s no secret that some Defeat Autism Now practitioners were already selling this type of hyperbaric oxygen therapy well before this study came out. It should be noted that this study’s authors did disclose this conflict of interest with respect to derivation of revenue in their clinical practices from HBOT.

DAR, LWR, SS, CS, AU, JN, EMM, and EAM treat individuals with hyperbaric treatment in their clinical practices and derive revenue from hyperbaric treatment.

Lisa Jo Rudy over at autism.about.com6 had additional comments about the subject:

Dr. Rossignol is “the” proponent of HBOT, and has been speaking at conferences all over the world in support of the treatment. Clearly, he has a personal and professional stake in seeing that the outcomes of a research study are positive.

The present study was funded by the International Hyperbarics Association, a trade group of private hyperbaric therapy centers. Clearly, they have a similar stake in seeing positive outcomes.

While there may certainly be an aspect of genuine scientific interest in understanding if this type of hyperbaric oxygen therapy is beneficial for autistic kids, I think there may also be a certain degree of assumption that it is. After all, why would a practioner already be selling something if they didn’t “believe” it worked? Given the stated conflicts of interest, it doesn’t seem implausible that the authors might have an interest in seeing a long-term revenue stream that could come from additional, and deeper pockets than those of parents willing to “believe” and pay – despite the lack of really convincing scientific evidence at this point.

Consider the following portions of an interview with Dr. Dan Rossignol7:

We chose 1.3 ATA because a lot of children with autism are currently receiving this dose and we are hoping to prove that it works.

“Hoping to prove that it works.”

Dr. Rossignol’s point does not seem unclear. HBOT is popular, and he is, in his own words, “hoping to prove that it works”. This is a valid reason, I suppose, if he is also open to the possibility that it may not, or that it may be a completely moot point if something on the order of one tenth of the cost can do the same thing. Following Dr. Rossignol’s communication about the hope to “prove that it works”, the interviewer asks:

How is the insurance situation coming along?

Insurance situation? Coming along? Was this situation already a well-known “work in progress” back in 2006 (e.g. had it been decided by some, prior to the science, that “mild” HBOT for autism does work, and that insurance reimbursement is really the goal now? Let’s see if we can get Dr. Rossignol’s take on this.

Well, obviously, HBOT is not approved for autism, but we hope to get there. Interestingly, if you take the ABC scale and look at the lethargy subset score, we saw a 49% improvement in symptoms at 1.5 ATA with a p-value of 0.008. If you look at the New England Journal of Medicine study on risperidone from 2002, there was a 56.9% improvement on the ABC irritability subscale with a p-value < 0.001. So the results we had on these 6 children with 1.5 ATA approached the percentage improvement seen with a drug approved for the use in autism. We just need to be able to reproduce these type of findings in a placebo study.

Hopefully when we finish these studies and show that hyperbaric therapy works, then insurance reimbursement will follow.

I don’t necessarily see a geniune scientific perspective here, but that could just be me. I get more of a vibe (at least from this interview), that the interest may lie more in “finishing” the studies and showing “that hyperbaric therapy works”, rather that actually finding out, with really good quality scientific methodology, whether or not it really does work. I’ll acknowledge that I could be wrong about this. Do you think readers will have noticed that the study result mentioned for comparison, was from 1.5 ATA, and probably totally irrelevant to the 1.3 (or less) studies?

Is it just me, or would it seem naive to wish that a few studies like the recent one, are really going to catalyze insurance reimbursement in the long run? I get the impression that many parents may believe this. Insurance companies work to achieve cost efficiencies. One of the ways they do this is by reimbursing at higher rates for equivalent things at lower costs – hospital stays in contracted facilities, generic drugs as compared to name-brand versions, etc. Why on earth would an insurance company reimburse for a 4-5% increase in blood oxygen content for a couple of hours at a time, in an inflatable hyperbaric chamber (at a few thousand dollars a month), when the identical oxygen increase could be delivered with a simple oxygen mask (for under $200 a month)?

You don’t have to take my word for this comparison of oxygen delivery, you can take Dr. Rossignol’s acknowledgement in that same interview:

Some people have criticized using mild hyperbarics at 1.3 ATA because they state that when compared to this pressure, you can get just as high an oxygen concentration in the blood with oxygen by face mask without a chamber. And this may be true in some cases.

In fact, it’s true in most (if not all) cases. The physics of partial pressures does not discriminate. But there may be more to the story.

Squeeze in some hope

After acknowledging the reality of the partial pressure comparison problem, Dr. Rossignol continues:

However, we must remember we are dealing with 2 separate components with HBOT — the oxygen and the pressure. So it appears that many of the effects of HBOT are from the increased oxygen, but we cannot dismiss the pressure effect. I think we need more studies on this as well.

So “many of the effects” are from the oxygen increase, but we can’t dismiss the pressure effect? What pressure effect? Is there a demonstrated significant clinical effect for autism from a very slight, and very temporary, increase in atmospheric pressure alone?

Although I suppose it is possible, a clinically significant effect for autism at such low pressures doesn’t seem likely at all. If it turns out that I am incorrect, this may be good news for some of the parents of autistic children in several U.S. cities: Albuquerque, NM (5312′ AMSL), Aurora, CO (5471′ AMSL), Colorado Springs, CO (6035′-7200′ AMSL), Denver, CO (5280′ AMSL), Reno, NV (4505′ AMSL), and Salt Lake City, UT (4226′ AMSL), to name a few. Something as simple as a move to a closer to sea-level city might provide increases in atmospheric pressure not a lot unlike those provided by the inflatable hyperbaric chambers. If there were some beneficial effect of slight additional atmospheric pressure for autism, certainly there would have been some observations (anecdotal or media reports) over the years, of families with autistic children who moved from states like Colorado to lower elevation states like California – and noticed. Who knows? Perhaps this is something to yet be uncovered.

So, aside from the fact that an identical oxygen increase can be achieved with simple O2 therapy without a hyperbaric chamber at all (and at a fraction of the cost). And, aside from the point that the minute pressure increase (while certainly possible in a strict scientific sense) isn’t known to be a likely candidate to significantly clinically impact autism, is there anything else about this newest HBOT-for-autism study that may merit some critical thought? Maybe, but it’s really just a side-note (perhaps interesting to some, but not terribly relevant to the science itself).

Who farted in the HBOT chamber? (Shh!…Don’t say it’s expensive)

The original manuscript8 for this study contained what I thought was an appropriately realistic comment from the authors in the conclusion. This comment has value in terms of practical knowledge that readers who are not familiar with hyperbaric oxygen therapy would probably find useful. What follows is the first-draft conclusion of this study with that comment emphasized.

Hyperbaric treatment is a relatively time-intensive treatment and can be costly. However, given the positive findings of this study, and the shortage of proven treatments for individuals with autism, parents who pursue hyperbaric treatment as a treatment for their child with autism can be assured that it is a safe treatment modality at the pressure used in this study (1.3 atm), and that it may improve certain autistic behaviors. Further studies are needed by other investigators to confirm these findings; we are aware of several other planned or ongoing studies of hyperbaric treatment in children with autism.

Again, Lisa Jo Rudy over at autism.about.com notes:

No insurance company will cover the very high cost of HBOT for autism, as it is considered an experimental and unproven therapy.

But the above conclusion is not the conclusion that appeared in the peer-reviewed, edited version. Here it is:

Given the positive findings of this study, and the shortage of proven treatments for individuals with autism, parents who pursue hyperbaric treatment for their child with autism can be assured that it is a safe treatment modality at the pressure used in this study (1.3 atm), and that it may improve certain autistic behaviors. Further studies are needed by other investigators to confirm these findings; we are aware of several other planned or ongoing studies of hyperbaric treatment in children with autism.

Why would the authors remove that valuable bit of practical knowledge about time requirements and high cost? Apparently due to a comment from referee #3 for this paper.

Discretionary Revisions

Page 24 In view of the highly positive findings of this study and the fact that no other trial has demonstrated such benefits under strictly controlled conditions to open the conclusions with negative comments demeans the study. Many other inventions used for ASD children are equally time consuming and hyperbaric treatment need not be expensive.

Authors: “The negative comments were removed from the conclusion.”

Opening the conclusion with negative comments demeans the study? Such comments don’t really touch the content of the study itself, and what the now absent comment did do, was provide some practical perspective – quite likely, very accurate practical perspective. Why would it be suggested by referee #3 that the practical comments demean the study? Perhaps it was meant that the comments demean the use of mild hyperbaric oxygen therapy as an autism treatment (therefore actually demeaning a desired interpretation of this study)? That would seem a real possible concern, since the justification offered, has absolutely nothing to do with the study itself, and doesn’t amount to much more than logical fallacy and simple assertion.

“Many other inventions used for ASD children are equally time consuming…”

This is about as basic an example of the “two wrongs make a right” fallacy as can be presented. Two wrongs don’t make right. Just because other interventions are also time consuming, does not mean a researcher is unjustified, or shouldn’t add the point about practicality that HBOT is relatively time consuming. Further, if the authors are aware of such a potential practical issue, it could be argued that ethics would dictate that it is mentioned. Other treatments presenting similar impracticalities do not automatically relieve any potential ethical responsibility in this regard.

“…hyperbaric treatment need not be expensive.”

Compared to what? Hyperbarics in a gold-plated hyperbaric chamber? If there is no significant effect for autism from the brief, and small increase in added pressure in one of these inflatables, the increased oxygen delivered by providing 24% O2 at 4 PSI above ambient atmospheric pressure, is easily matched (or exceded) with simple O2 therapy. In short, this type of hyperbaric treatment would be the hard way, and the expensive way to achieve the results.

Referee #3 also added the following comment:

The reviewer has a preference for the word treatment rather than ‘therapy’. In view of the proven changes that relate to increased inpsired fractions of oxygen it is suggested that treatment would be preferable.

Authors: “The word “therapy” has been replaced with “treatment” throughout the paper.”

The “T” in the acronym “HBOT” does, in fact, represent the word “therapy” in medical usage. I happen to think the terms “treatment” and “therapy” are fairly interchangeable in the context of drug delivery, but I do wonder if there is any significance to such a preference. Is this a semantics issue that has the potential to impact perceptions of those who make decisions about insurance coverage for autism? But I digress. So what’s up with these comments from referee #3, comments with a little fallacious reasoning, that express possible concern about the perception of a high price tag for mild hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and a commment that communicates a preference for the word “treatment” over “therapy”?

I honestly don’t know. What I can tell you is that referee #3 was Philip James, MD. Dr. James is a professor in the field of hyperbaric medicine and hails from the U.K. He appears to have published quite a bit in the field of hyperbaric medicine as well.

According to the International Hyperbarics Association website:

Dr. James is responsible for founding the Hyperbaric Trust in the United Kingdom which promotes the treatment of cerebral palsy and the brain injured child and was responsible for having the National Health Service pay for this therapy.

Dr. James (Referee #3) appears to have been categorized (with a doctor profile) as a medical advisor to International Hyperbarics Association back in February of 2006 (shortly before this study9 began). Hey wait a minute, there’s that name again – International Hyperbarics Association. Where have I seen that before? Oh yeah, in the study itself:

We are grateful for the work of Shannon Kenitz of the International Hyperbarics Association (IHA) for an unrestricted grant which funded this study, which included use of hyperbaric chambers and funding for all hyperbaric technician salaries during the study. The IHA had no involvement in the study design, collection, analysis, interpretation of data, writing of the manuscript, or in the decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

I’m not sure how the International Hyperbarics Association defines itself exactly – are its listed medical advisors excluded from that definition? That would seem likely.

As of this writing, Dr. Rossignol is listed as a medical advisor at the IHA website. 10
As of this writing, Dr. Neubrander is listed as a medical advisor at the IHA website. 10
As of this writing, Dr. James (referee #3), is categorized as a medical advisor at the IHA website with a physician profile page.11,12

Side notes aside, where to, from here

So all in all, it seems that “mild” HBOT-for-autism researchers may have their work cut out for them. Although probably not very likely, it is possible that a small temporary change in atmospheric pressure could do something for autism, and that should be studied next, then, better replications should follow.

In the long run, it will be difficult to ignore the scientific fact that simple oxygen therapy alone can easily provide identical increases in blood oxygen content, at a fraction of the cost of mild hyperbaric oxygen therapy (as it currently being studied for autism). If HBOT-for-autism proponents think insurance companies should step up to pay for an expensive treatment that provides a 4-5% increase in blood oxygen (without scientifically establishing benefit of the small and temporary pressure increases), they might do well to consider these famous words (most recently from Barack Obama) – “You can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig.”

Notes:

1 Hyperbaric treatment for children with autism: a multicenter, randomized, double-blind, controlled trial

Click to access 1471-2431-9-21.pdf

2 Medical device pre-market notification (FDA-cleared)

Click to access K001409.pdf

3 Manufacturer product sheet

Click to access vitaeris-lowres2007-8.pdf

4 Definition of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
http://www.uhms.org/ResourceLibrary/Indications/tabid/270/Default.aspx

5 Hyperbarics and Hypotheses
http://www.autismstreet.org/weblog/?p=60

6 Hyperbaric Oxygen as a Treatment for Autism: Let the Buyer Beware
http://autism.about.com/b/2009/03/14/hyperbaric-oxygen-as-a-treatment-for-autism-let-the-buyer-beware.htm

7 Interview with Dr. Dan A. Rossignol: Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Improves Symptoms in Autistic Children

Click to access Rossignol%20HBOT%20Medical%20Veritas%202.pdf

8 Pre-publication history
http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2431/9/21/prepub

9 ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT00335790
http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00335790

10 Medical Advisors
http://www.ihausa.org/

11 Index of /docs
http://www.ihausa.org/docs/

12 International Hyperbarics Association Medical Advisor – Professor Philip B. James, M.D.
http://www.ihausa.org/docs/james.html

Autism, HBOT, and the new study by Rossignol et al.

21 Mar

I recently read the BMC Pediatrics article, “Hyperbaric treatment for children with autism: a multicenter, randomized, double-blind, controlled trial1. I know this paper is attracting a lot of attention in the media, and it is certainly being ballyhooed about the internet. Hell, I’ve even received e-mail spam about this study! But I’m sorry to say, I don’t really share the excitement. In fact, I see what looks like a pretty significant error in the methodology of this study. It’s one of those types of potential errors that stand out like a strobe light or a siren – it’s really tough for me to pretend it’s not there.

Once again, I’m going to ask readers to set aside, for the moment, anything they may know about the role of hemoglobin in oxygen transport and how the minute increases (probably around 3-4%) in total blood oxygen content afforded by this kind of hyperbaric therapy, or simple O2 therapy for that matter, are probably pretty likely to be insignificant.

Both the paper and ClinicalTrials.gov2 list the Center for Autism Research and Education, Phoenix, Arizona, as a study location. This is a problem, because the stated treatment pressure in the study (1.3ATM) seems highly unlikely to actually be achievable in Phoenix with the equipment that was apparently used for this study.

As described in the section titled, “Interventions”:

“These procedures included covering control switches, inflating and deflating the chambers to simulate pressure changes, and masking the sounds from the chambers.”

The use of inflatable monoplace hyperbaric chambers, is a clear indication that the actual total pressures (and quite likely results of this study) would have been affected by the ambient air pressures at the times and locations of treatment. In fact, the ambient air pressure is the largest component of the stated treatment pressure in this study (ambient pressure + added treatment pressure = total treatment pressure).

Ambient pressure

Local atmospheric pressure is typically reported as sea-level pressure3 for its utility to aviation, and the meaningful interpretation of weather maps, etc., but the actual station pressure is affected by the elevation. The expected ambient atmospheric pressure, corrected for altitude, (or station pressure) in Phoenix, Arizona4 is 28.69 in Hg (where there is a modest elevation of 1161’ AMSL). Wanting to give this paper the benefit of the doubt, and knowing that “high pressure” weather is typical of the Phoenix climate, I looked at 30-day data5 for actual station pressure in Phoenix at a station of slightly lower altitude than the Center for Autism Research and Education. The 30-day mean station pressure is 28.81 in Hg, so I’ll use that one for calculations, as it will yield results more likely to be in the study’s favor.

Added treatment pressure

The actual operating pressure of the inflatable chambers, as stated by the manufacturer, is 4 PSI. 6,7 This pressure is also indicated on the Center for Autism Research and Education’s website:

“The chambers used at care utilize a pressure of 4 psi.”8

Total treatment pressure

The total treatment pressure can be easily calculated with the following conversions:
in Hg * 0.491 = PSI
PSI + PSIG = Total PSI
Total PSI * .068 = ATA

For Phoenix, Arizona, this gives a calculated total treatment pressure of 1.23 ATA.

28.81 * 0.491 = 14.15 PSI
14.15 PSI + 4 PSIG = 18.15 PSI
18.15 PSI * .068 = 1.23 ATA

Damn, that’s a pretty big difference from the paper’s stated 1.3 ATM – representing an addition of only .23 ATM (instead of .30 ATM) above mean sea-level pressure of 1 ATM.

I’ve corresponded with the lead author of this study in the past, and he stated that he observes gauge pressure of 4.15 PSI. Despite the manufacturer specs, the FDA-cleared medical device premarket notification, and the Center for Autism Research and Education’s website (which all indicate operating pressure of 4 PSI), and wanting to give the benefit of the doubt, I’ll use 4.15 PSI for the next calculation, as it will be more likely to yield results in the study’s favor.

28.81 * 0.491 = 14.15 PSI
14.15 PSI + 4.15 PSIG = 18.30 PSI
18.30 PSI * .068 = 1.24 ATA

It could be argued that treatment pressure for the other study locations were properly rounded up to 1.3 ATM (even though the actual pressures were quite likely to be considerably lower), however, even with all the calculations purposely leaned in favor of a higher number for Phoenix, Arizona, the study’s stated treatment pressure, there, should have properly rounded to 1.2 ATA! This suggests an overstatement of the added treatment pressure for the Phoenix location of 50% (.3 ATM is 150% of .2 ATM). Even if given the benefit of the doubt yet again, and an exception to proper rounding were made for solely for the Phoenix location in this study, the study’s likely overstatement in added treatment pressure for Phoenix is still a full 25%. (.3 ATM is 125% of .24 ATM – 25% more added pressure above 1 ATM was claimed in this paper, than was probably delivered).

I think this is a big enough boo-boo, that the editors of BMC Pediatrics should call for detailed errata. In the interest of scientific accuracy, it would seem prudent for BMC Pediatrics to:

1. Clarify for its readership and the scientific community, that the stated pressure of 1.3 ATM in this study is rounded up, and includes the ambient air pressure, or alternatively, state the estimated pressure in terms of ATA.

2. Clarify for its readership and the scientific community, that the stated pressure of 1.3 ATM in this study is an estimated pressure, since no actual measurements of ambient station pressure for the locations, and dates/times of treatments were reported.

3. Note for its readership and the scientific community, that the stated pressure of 1.3 ATM was not likely to be uniformly achievable across all study locations due to the use of inflatable hyperbaric chambers and changes in elevation (and atmospheric pressure) across study locations, potentially confounding the results of this study.

4. Note for its readership and the scientific community, that estimated pressures in the placebo control group are affected by these same issues that affect the treatment group, potentially confounding the results of this study further.

What do you think?

1 BMC Pediatrics 2009, 9:21doi:10.1186/1471-2431-9-21
http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2431/9/21/abstract

2 http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT00335790

3Federal Meteorological Handbook No. 1 – Table 11-2
http://www.nws.noaa.gov/oso/oso1/oso12/fmh1/fmh1ch11.htm

4 LAT/LON 33.5º N 118.08º W

5 http://www.wrh.noaa.gov/mesowest/getobext.php?wfo=psr&sid=KPHX&num=720

6 Medical device pre-market notification (FDA-cleared)

Click to access K001409.pdf

7 Manufacturer product sheet

Click to access vitaeris-lowres2007-8.pdf

8 http://www.center4autism.org/therapyHBOT.asp

Age of Autism claim 'hundreds of case reports' of recovered children

16 Dec

A post on the Age of Autism about an interview with the New York Times describes how the interviewee believes that:

….none of our health authorities have any explanation of cause or cure [of autism], we have a whole community of doctors and parents who are actually recovering children. And, without ever treating an autistic child, interviewing a DAN! doctor who treats them, or exploring the several hundred case reports of complete recovery and thousands of stories of improvement…

I was fascinated by this. I have not ever seen one published case report of a child recovered by a DAN! doctor in a respected medial journal. In fact, its a common refrain of mine that these things do not in fact exist at all. And here the author of this post is claiming that there are ‘several hundred case reports of complete recovery’. I thought maybe there’d been an upsurge in PubMed so I went to have a look.

I found one case study that referenced DAN! methods: The recovery of a child with autism spectrum disorder through biomedical interventions. This study (for which no abstract is available) is published in ‘Alternative therapies in health and medicine‘ which claims to be a peer reviewed journal and who’s subject matter includes such medical breakthroughs as Reiki, prayer and reflexology. How this magazine got listed in PubMed I have no idea.

Anyway, suffice it to say that it is totally unsurprising that this study got published in such a publication (Eigenfactor here – compare to New England Journal of Medicine for an idea of how good it is).

So, here’s one very dodgy ‘study’. Where are the other several hundred case reports?

It is also well established that those who use Alt-Med and go on to claim recovery also use mainstream therapies (e.g Jenny McCarthy’s child who was on GFCF, some other stuff….and one-to-one speech therapy). In a 2006 study ‘Internet survey of treatments used by parents of children with autism‘, it was established that:

The mean number of current treatments being used by parents was seven….

I haven’t read the ‘study’ in the Altie journal but the experience with Jenny McCarthy’s child, and plenty of others I have read online indicates that this is true for most parents who claim to be recovering their kids biomedically. As such, you have to give weight to the treatments that are established to have some benefit already. And lets also look at the results of the recent Helt study which reported that a non vaccine related, non-biomed set of kids had somewhere between 3 and 25% recovery. This indicates that sometimes, kids just recover. For reasons we are not really aware of yet.

So I am left puzzled as to why the Age of Autism claim there are several hundreds of case reports. I am puzzled as to how they know it was the biomed intervention which precipitated the alleged recovery and I am puzzled as to how they link _any_ sort of treatment to recovery. All in all, it seems like a set of claims that are not reality based are being made. But maybe I’m wrong – if so, please – anyone from AoA – provide a link to the peer reviewed journal published several hundred of case reports that you claim exist.

Paul Shattock gets his Biatch on

29 Nov

Alongside the error strewn Edelson piece that I already blogged about, Communication also ran a response from Paul Shattock that avoided Edelson’s mistakes of making factual errors about chelation and Tariq Nadama by simply going for a handbag wielding biatch attack more suited to Paris Hilton sulking about Nicole Ritchie wearing the same dress as her:

Although of no relevance, Michael Fitzpatrick’s views on biomedical approaches designed to
ameliorate some difficulties experienced by people with autism, and on me personally, are widely disseminated in newspaper and magazine articles and blogs. I remain unenthusiastic about encouraging
discussions of my personal inadequacies in Communication.

Miaow! Paul Shattock’s lip trembles with rage as he considers the lack of worth of Michael Fitzpatrick’s opinion.

Actually, I can’t recall on part of Mike’s book that espoused any views on Paul Shattock. Having just done a quick check, I see that he appears 3 times. Once in the Preface, once on page 71 and once on page 118. On _none_ of these occasions does Mike express any opinions on Paul Shattock.

He goes on:

Evidence of efficacy for many interventions from appropriate and scientifically valid research-based protocols is being published.

Hear we go again. ‘Is being published’. How long has the autism community been hearing this? Tell us _when_ Mr Shattock, or preferably, refer to supporting material that _has_ been published in a decent journal. And what ‘interventions’ are we talking about? Mr Shattock is utterly ambiguous.

Shattock then goes on to claim that the entire membership of NAS wants research into such things. I can assure him thats nowhere near true. I can think of several NAS members who want to *move on* from this never ending promise of science that is always ‘coming soon’ and yet never arriving.

Shattock goes on:

The American Academy of Paediatricians (AAP) is now actively investigating the usefulness of such interventions and members of the American Academy of Paediatric Gastroenterologists (AAPG) are currently collaborating with the Autism Society of America (ASA) and the Autism Research Institute (ARI) in investigating gastrointestinal issues.

I think Mr Shattock maybe overestimating the AAP’s keenness to stay chummy with ARI. I also can’t find any org called the American Academy of Paediatric Gastroenterologists so I can’t comment on how closely they’re working with ARI, or if they exist at all.

Shattock fumed on:

Professor Rutter, at the recent NAS conference, drew attention to the need to investigate environmental factors and mechanisms involved in triggering autism and to study dietary
treatments for autism.

Mike Stanton saw Rutter at that conference. He didn’t mention what Shattock reports but there’s nothing particularly earth shattering about the idea of environmental factors and mechanisms being involved with autism – except we all know what Shattock, one time warm-up man for Andrew Wakefield, really thinks these are, and for those there is no evidence and I also doubt Rutter has any truck with these ideas either.

Its an odd, petulant semi-rant from Shattock. I have no idea what use he thinks it will be to seemingly purposefully misinterpret Mike’s words. It should be easy to refute Mike – stop talking about studies that will be published and get on with publishing them. Science is the final arbiter of scientific ideas, not a mudsling from someone on the edge of scientific ideas regarding autism.

Stephen M Edelson gets it wrong, wrong, wrong…

25 Nov

Communication is the members mgazine of the UK’s National Autistic Society. In an issue earlier this year, Mike Fitzpatrick, GP and author had an extract from his latest book published.

The extract touched on chelation and the death of Tariq Nadama.

This prompted a bilious response this month from Stephen M Edelson in this months Communication. The level of ignorance in his response is astounding. I have attached the whole response as a Word document to save me getting accused of taking things out of context. BUt for here, I’ll quote selected parts.

Fitzpatrick has been a longtime, outspoken critic of chelation. (Chelation involves a medication, such as DMPS or DMSA, which removes neurotoxic heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, from the body; it is given under the supervision of a doctor.) If an individual tests with very high levels of one or more heavy metals, chelation is the treatment of choice throughout the medical profession.

If test results indicate very high levels in someone on the autism spectrum, isn’t this person entitled to the same medical care as someone without autism?

This is far too simplistic. Of _course_ if someone on the spectrum has test results that indicate high levels of metals they should have the standard treatment. That is a strawman.

The _point_ is rather more complex that that as Mike mentions in his book and I have blogged about numerous times.

The labs that Mr Edelson and his DAN! colleagues recommend test for levels of metals in people on the spectrum very, very often give false results. Take this extract of the testimony of Dr Jeffrey Brent, a sub-specialty board certified medical toxicologist and the former President of the American Academy of clinical Toxicology.

…I have seen a number of patients now come to me because of these ‘doctor’s data’ type of laboratories which are based on urines – chelated urines – and they always have high leads in their chelated urines and I tell them ‘well, lets just do the gold standard test, lets get a blood/lead level and so far, *100% of the time they’ve been normal*.

So when ‘these Doctors Data’ type of labs do the tests they indicate the need for chelation. When _experts_ in the field such as Dr Brent do the gold standard tests ‘100% of the time they are normal’.

Dr Edelson needs to realise that _that_ is why chelation is an invalid treatment for autism. The fact that when taken to an expert in Chelation and Toxicology, the results usually indicate that chelation is not warranted.

Edelson continues:

In his article, Fitzpatrick brings up the accidental death of Tariq Nadama after chelation treatment. What he does not tell the reader is that Tariq was given the entirely wrong drug, one with a similar name and label that was nearby on the office shelf. Regrettably, these drug errors do
happen in hospitals and doctors’ offices and Fitzpatrick has exploited this unfortunate incident several
times in the past without explaining the complete story. (I have already corrected Fitzpatrick in a previous issue of Communication, and I am disappointed that the editor knowingly allowed such half-truths to be disseminated to NAS’ membership once more.)

Once more, Mr Edelson is quite wrong. Tariq Nadama was not given a drug by mistake ‘with a similar label that was nearby on the office shelf’.

When Dr Roy Kerry (who joined Mr Edelsons loose affiliation of practitioners after the death of Tariq Nadama) was prosecuted for the death of Tariq, the following was admitted by him:

70. Respondent admitted that EDTA is very rare to use on children.

71. Respondent admitted to using Disodium EDTA to chelate Tariq.

72. Respondent stated to Investigator Reiser that Disodium EDTA is the only formula of EDTA he stocks in his office.

73. Respondent admitted that CaNa2EDTA is available but that he has never used this agent.

I would recommend that Mr Edelson reads the entire complaint against Dr Kerry.

Edelson continues again:

Over the past 20 years, scientists have clearly documented immune system dysfunction and gastrointestinal problems associated with autism. Many of these problems can be treated successfully using established medical treatments.

Of course, this is twaddle. I challenge Mr Edelson to provide peer reviewed journal published science to back up these statements. As recently documented by Professor Stephen Bustin, the gastrointestnal ‘link’ to autism is not valid and never was.

I wonder why these treatments that so successfully treat autistic peoples autism have never had one single (that I can find) case study published?

Update 28 Nov 2008

An update from Mike who read some of this thread:

It is true that a number of environmental factors have been identified as causing autism in a small number of cases – these include viral infections (rubella, CMV) and drugs (thalidomide, sodium valproate). What is striking is that ‘over the past decade not a single new environmental factor has been identified as playing a significant role in the causation of autism’ (Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion, p 81). Indeed, it would be more accurate to say ‘over the past two decades’. By contrast, over this period there have been dramatic advances in the genetics of autism. Meanwhile intensive researches into alleged vaccine-autism links have failed to confirm any causative relationship.

‘The conviction of the biomedical activists that there must be some environmental explanation for the rising prevalence of autism has grown in intensity in inverse proportion to the emergence of scientific evidence in favour of any particular environmental cause.’

I object! (Part 3)

20 Nov

If you’ve been reading these past few days, you know that I find a recent letter sent to the IACC by a number of autism organizations to be, well, objectionable (hence the post titles!). I’ve noted that I don’t like the way they claim backing from a united “autism community”. I don’t like the way they are presenting their arguments in their letter (here and here).

And now, for the last part of their letter.

Bullet point (d), or, we want a bigger say

Provisions for accountability and evaluation for the research spending are absent. Adoption of oversight, review and evaluation mechanisms, such as an Autism Advisory Board and a Department of Defense grant review model, should be added to the plan.

They are asking for an “advisory board” or AAB and a grant review system. Generation Rescue attempted (and apparantly failed) to get an AAB put in place by lobbying he Secretary of Health and Human Services. Now they are pushing the IACC to institute an AAB and also add DoD grant review model.

Let’s look at these proposals one at a time, starting with the AAB.

This is not the time to institute the Autism Advisory Board. President-elect Obama will soon be in office. He has specific ideas on autism and disabilities in general. These include an “autism czar” to coordinate autism activities. Let Mr. Obama and his team make the next changes in the structure of how autism research activities are conducted.

Second, the IACC is already an advisory board. Why are people asking for a second layer, when the IACC process has been working well? OK, you got me, it’s a good bet that these people don’t think the process has been working well. If I were to venture a guess, they are unhappy about the lack of a prominent statement about the “epidemic” and/or “vaccines” within the Plan.

Would an Advisory Board change that? Let’s look at how the Advisory Board is mentioned in the report that accompanied the CAA (note that the “autism advisory board is not mentioned within the CAA language itself):

[congressional report] The committee further re-examined the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC). In particular, the committee wanted to increase the amount of public participation (from two individuals) to at least six. In addition, the IACC has been tasked to make recommendations to the Secretary regarding the public participation in decisions relating to autism spectrum disorder. For instance, the committee notes that the IACC may recommend providing other, additional, formal mechanisms, such as an Autism Advisory Board, to provide additional public feedback and interaction. Further, the Secretary may opt to provide such a mechanism without the recommendation of the IACC.

The committee expects that the IACC will be the primary mechanism for the coordination of all research, surveillance, and early detection activities within the Department of Health and Human Services. As agencies implement specific activities related to autism spectrum disorder, they should strongly consider those activities outlined in the Autism Research Matrix.

So, even if an Advisory Board were formed, it would still be the IACC that has the task of coordinating autism activities within HHS.

That would seem to me to be a potential reason why they are now asking for something akin to the DoD grant review process–to add some actual power–oversight and control–to the new “advisory” groups they are proposing.

Again, perhaps someone can correct me here in what I am about to say. But from my perspective I can’t see why the NIH needs a second layer of grant review. For the DoD, an agency that is not primarily involved in medical research, I can see a review board. For the NIH, an agency whose functions already include a peer-review grant process, I don’t see that the case is very clear at all for an additional review board. Let the NIH do what it is chartered to do.

Let’s look at that last bullet point from the letter:

[Letter]The planning process diminished the voices of important segments in the autism community. Future activities related to the SP should ensure integral participation of the diverse community representing families and individuals with autism.

First, I’d switch the wording in that last sentence to “….representing individuals with autism and their families.” (and I wouldn’t object at all to people who would change it to “…representing autistics and their families”)

Second, the very segments of the autism community who are signing this letter were given ample opportunities to be heard. IACC meetings have been dominated by a very few with a vary narrow message. An entire “Town Hall” meeting was held on the West Coast to obtain more input. Letters have been sent, investigations mounted and pressure applied. It is quite a stretch to state that voices were “diminished”.

Having your voice “heard” and having your requests acted upon are very different things, however. And that is the flaw in the logic of this letter: the voices were heard, but it appears that they carried a message that didn’t meet the basic criteria for inclusion in the Strategic Plan: a basis in sound science.

To take a recent example: People can say over and over, “we want research into chelation”. But, if (a) there is no reason to suspect chelation would help as autism is not heavy metal poisoning, (b) there is a possibility that chelation could hurt as demonstrated by recent rodent studies

Conclusion, or, tell them again

[letter]We ask that the IACC approve these specific action items: (a) adoption of amendments to the plan responsive to the above 5 concerns; (b) specification that research spending be at least the CAA minimum and establishment of a workgroup to be convened in January 2009 to develop recommendations to the IACC for increasing the research spending to at least that minimum and adding objectives which will bolster research on the environment, gene-environment and treatment; (c) inclusion of oversight provisions including an AAB and DOD-model review process; and (d) specification that oversight bodies and workgroups have strong and diverse community representation.

Which pretty much summarizes the bullet points above. My eye was drawn to the idea that a workgroup be convened in January 2009. Why? Could it be that they would like this workgroup to be a fait accompli when President Obama takes office? Again, let Mr. Obama put his plans into action.

The final short paragraph caught my eye as well:

[letter]Each day, decisions are being made on autism research by NIH and other federal agencies which are outside of the SP. It is imperative that the plan be improved in the areas noted above at the November 21, 2008 IACC meeting.

The strategic plan (SP) is not approved yet. By definition, decisions are being made that are outside of the Plan. Also, I sincerely hope that decisions continue to be made outside of the Plan. Who can predict what may happen in the next few years that may require action outside of the Plan? As the old saying goes, if we knew what the answers were going to be, it wouldn’t be “research”. I really have a hard time figuring out why they included that sentence in this paragraph.

The letter is then signed:

Autism New Jersey (formerly COSAC)
Autism Research Institute
Autism Society of America
Autism Speaks
Generation Rescue
National Autism Association
Organization for Autism Research (OAR)
SafeMinds
Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC)
Talk About Curing Autism (TACA)
Unlocking Autism

Much speculation could be had about what tradeoffs were made in order to get all these groups to sign the above letter. It isn’t much of a stretch to say that the letter doesn’t go nearly as far as many of the signatories would have gone on their own in the area of mercury and vaccines.

It is notable that Autism Speaks signed on to a letter with a number of groups that have been quite negative towards AS (to put it mildly). It is also notable that at least one, and this one major, autism research organization is not represented on this list.

I realize it is just one rather short letter, and my responses have been rather long in comparison. I also realize that many of these points are probably obvious to those at NIH and/or working on the IACC. And, yet, I somehow had to do this!

On to more important topics soon!

I Object! (Part 2)

19 Nov

It’s amazing that a relatively short letter could be so objectionable as to take multiple blog posts to discuss.

And, yet, here I am, on my third post. You can read the other two, I Object (Part 1) and Why should the Strategic Plan include vaccines.

Continuing on with bullet points (b) and (c)…

Bullet point (b), or “you are leaving money on the table”

[Letter](b) The plan fails to allocate commensurate resources. The CAA authorized $645 million for NIH research over five years. The plan falls short by close to $200 million. Given the urgent situation, we consider the CAA allocation to be a minimum requirement for federal agencies and feel that even greater resources are needed.

Who is going to say no to “we should apply more resources to the situation”? Certainly not I. But I’m not an MBA. I count resources in terms of how many good research groups are doing quality research in relevant areas. Counting the money, that comes second.

This is similar to the method used by the IACC. People tend to think–and this letter helps perpetuate–the idea that the CAA appropriated money and that the IACC worked from that budget to create the Plan.

Both ideas are incorrect.

First, in admittedly confusing language, the CAA authorized the appropriations. The CAA states, “…there is authorized to be appropriated..”, not, “this amount is appropriated”. Another way to look at it is to see how often “subject to the availability of appropriations” is used in the text of the CAA. It isn’t as though there is a bank account with $645M waiting to be tapped into.

Second, the IACC did not work from a budget and then decide on a Plan. They didn’t say, “Well, we’ve got $645 million, how will we spend it?” What they did was say, “what needs to get done?”. Near the end of the process, they passed the Plan on to the implementation subcommittee to draft the budgets for the various projects.

This sounds like the much more defensible method. The IACC can go to congress and say, “this is what we need to get the job done.” Had they come up with a budget higher than the CAA allocated, they would have been in a good position to ask for more. They are (I hope) in a good position to get their budget fully funded–they can defend why they came to the total cost in their budget.

That said, of course I’d like to see more research funded. But, I’d like to stay on a friendly partnership with the NIH too. Presenting their actions inaccurately (as this letter appears to do) doesn’t accomplish that in my mind.

let’s look at what the CAA authorized to be “appropriated“:

[Combating Autism Act]`SEC. 399EE. AUTHORIZATION OF APPROPRIATIONS.
(a) Developmental Disabilities Surveillance and Research Program- To carry out section 399AA, there are authorized to be appropriated the following:

`(1) For fiscal year 2007, $15,000,000.
`(2) For fiscal year 2008, $16,500,000.
`(3) For fiscal year 2009, $18,000,000.
`(4) For fiscal year 2010, $19,500,000.
`(5) For fiscal year 2011, $21,000,000.

`(b) Autism Education, Early Detection, and Intervention- To carry out section 399BB, there are authorized to be appropriated the following:

`(1) For fiscal year 2007, $32,000,000.
`(2) For fiscal year 2008, $37,000,000.
`(3) For fiscal year 2009, $42,000,000.
`(4) For fiscal year 2010, $47,000,000.
`(5) For fiscal year 2011, $52,000,000.

`(c) Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee; Certain Other Programs- To carry out section 399CC, 409C, and section 404H, there are authorized to be appropriated the following:

`(1) For fiscal year 2007, $100,000,000.
`(2) For fiscal year 2008, $114,500,000.
`(3) For fiscal year 2009, $129,000,000.
`(4) For fiscal year 2010, $143,500,000.
`(5) For fiscal year 2011, $158,000,000.’.

So, the $645 million number comes from section c. Two things to notice. First, there are large sums in sections (a) and (b) as well. I hope they are getting appropriated. Second, notice that there is money budgeted for 2007 and 2008 in that number. Remember that the CAA hasn’t been funded yet? Has NIH been sitting on their hands, waiting for the budget before they do autism research? Hardly.

The NIH budget for autism in 2007 is estimated at $127 million ($27M more than the CAA called for all IACC sponsored research, which includes CDC and other agencies). Similarly, $128M is the estimated budget for 2008 ($14M above the IACC budget).

Perhaps I am missing something. It is quite possible. But it appears to me that the NIH is working in good faith here.

Again, given the urgent need–to identify and serve the underserved in this country–I would consider there to be a great reason to increase resources applied by the IACC. I just don’t think that is want the signators of that letter had in mind. Consider the next point they make:

Bullet point c, More environmental research, or, what happened to the “V” word?

[Letter]Research on the environment, gene-environment interaction, and treatment are underrepresented in the draft plan. The plan should apply additional resources to these areas.

As already discussed, I found this statement interesting for what it doesn’t say, far more than what it says. What it doesn’t say explicitly is “mercury” or “vaccines”. As noted in that previous blog post: if the signatories of that letter are OK with this wording, it should be OK in the Strategic Plan.

Sullivan’s take

The order of these two bullet points sends a clear message: The Plan doesn’t use all the money “appropriated” and, yet, the Plan should put additional resources into environment and treatment.

Or, “why don’t you take some of the $200 million and spend it on these areas?”

It would be a good question if that was the way the process worked. (A) the money wasn’t appropriated (so there isn’t $200M sitting unused) and (b) the Plan was built on a “what needs to be done” basis, not “how much do we have to spend” basis. The push for more environment/treatment really needs to be justified in terms of “what needs to be done”.

But, again, I’d agree that more resources would be welcome. And, again, I would suggest attempting to meet the great need of serving the underserved. Research into services like the Taft Transition to Independent Living program comes to mind.

more to follow…

I object! (Part 1)

18 Nov

If you’ve been reading LeftBrainRightBrain lately, you know about “The Letter“. If you haven’t, here’s a quick introduction: A number of autism organizations drafted a letter and submitted it to the members of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC). The letter attempted to invoke “the autism community” (see the AoA blog post for more on that) and that was objectionable to me. Kev took up the idea of Who makes up the autism community. It is clearly an important discussion–there are over 100 comments for those two blog posts.

I’ve been told that the letter marks an achievement in advocacy–bringing together all these groups. And it was–someone got Generation Rescue to accept a document that didn’t explicitly call for research on vaccines. Whatever underling who told the top people there, “this is the best you are going to get” was pretty brave.

But, Let’s get back to the letter itself. Because, believe me, I for one have many more objections to that letter. Going through point-by-point takes some, but I present below my views. I’d suggest this: take a look at the letter, see what you may agree with or disagree with, and check back here to see if you agree or disagree with my take.

I’ll be frank. Every section had something objectionable in it.

Let’s take a closer look at the letter, shall we? I’ll add my thoughts section by section, starting in this post with the introduction and the first bullet point.

Introduction, or, “we are united”

[Letter]November 12, 2008

RE: Concerns on Draft IACC Strategic Plan

Dear Members of the IACC:

The Combating Autism Act required the IACC to prepare a strategic plan for autism research in order to enhance the quality, effectiveness, and overall benefits of autism research spending within HHS agencies. While the 2008 planning activities reflect improvements relative to earlier Autism Matrix efforts, ultimately the draft plan and the planning process have fallen short. Autism advocates have identified a range of deficiencies and each may place priorities on different concerns. Nevertheless, as a community we are united in expressing our disapproval of the draft plan for the reasons outlined here.

Ouch–there it is: “Nevertheless, as a community we are united in expressing our disapproval of the draft plan for the reasons outlined here”. For any confused as to what “community” means can read the title of the Age of Autism blog post, “Autism Community “United in Expressing Our Disapproval” of the NIH Strategic Plan for Autism Research.”

That’s been discussed a lot (feel free to join in) here and here.

But, let’s look at the substance of the Letter. They make a number of bullet points, (a) through (e).

Bullet Point (a), or “no Urgency”

[Letter](a) The plan fails to communicate a sense of urgency reflecting the alarming increase in prevalence and autism as a national health emergency. The beginning pages of the plan should embody urgency and the critical need of the government to apply the resources to address a crisis situation.

Variations on the word “urgent” are used at least 5 times in the Draft Strategic Plan.

What do they want? They want the Plan to specifically state that autism causes “considerable human and financial toll”, as support for the greater need for “prevention and treatment”. Those are speculations, those are statements from SafeMinds in complaining about the “Strategic Plan” in a previous letter.

Sullivan’s take on “urgency”
When I think of “urgent” in regards to autism, claiming an epidemic is not high (or anywhere) on the list. Finding better ways to help people with autism, yes, that would be high. In terms of the “alarming increase in the prevalence of autism”, I also see things differently that the authors of this letter. I see great strides in identification more people with autism. But, I see a job that is not complete. Racial and ethnic minorities are vastly under-represented in the current autism counts. Autism counts vary significantly by geography. Lastly, but certainly not least in importance, there is likely a vast pool of undiagnosed, underserved adults in this country. But, that is a topic where the mantra “absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence” is ignored in place of promoting an epidemic.

Ignoring the underserved is a truly shameful position that these organizations have taken.

However, I am pleased to see that within the Plan, ethnicity, race and lifespan issues are prominent. There is even a prominent statement in the introduction of the Plan on lifespan issues:

[Strategic Plan] Lifespan Perspective: Historically, ASD has been characterized as a disorder of childhood. Although most individuals with ASD will not outgrow their diagnosis, their symptoms will change in form and severity over time. There was great support during the development of this Plan for more research on ASD in older individuals, especially the need for practical strategies for increasing the quality of life and functioning of adolescents and adults with ASD. As individuals with ASD advocate for themselves and expand our knowledge of their experiences and needs, they become partners in the research effort.

Does that rise to the level of “urgency”? I don’t know, I’ll take “great deal of support” happily.

Urgency or politics?
The issues noted above highlight what I see as a big problem with this letter: it is attempting to make the Plan a political document, possibly acknowledging the “epidemic” of “vaccine injury” autism. I am not naive enough to think that there are no politics involved in government sponsored medical research, but the backbone of the NIH process is scientific peer review of research proposals. I’d rather see the Plan document stay closer to that ideal than become political fodder in a struggle that is ripping our community apart.

Such a short letter, so much to discuss. And, we are only at the first bullet point! But, even at this point, it is clear that this is a letter that doesn’t come close to representing the views of this member of the greater autism community.

More to follow…

Who makes up the autism community?

16 Nov

On a recent post, Sullivan asks why vaccines should be included in any strategic plan when ‘vaccines-cause-autism advocacy organizations can’t ask for it?’

Its a good point. What _I_ want to pick up on is the claim that some of the groups who co-signed the letter Sullivan refers to are in any way (as they claim to be) ‘the autism community’. Lets take a look at some of the biggest news events of the last five years related to autism.

The top stories from 2003 came in July of that year. Of the top 100, less than 10 mentioned vaccines. Of the other 90% of stories Generation Rescue mention none, SafeMinds mention none, ARI mention none, NAA mention none, OAR mention none, TACA mention none, Unlocking Autism mention none.

The biggest month for 2004 autism news was May. Non-vaccine stories (on page 1) accounted for 87%. Again, none of the above organisations discussed any of these stories.

The biggest month for autism news in 2005 was August. Of page 1 results, 19% mentioned vaccines (4 were from AoA and about 6 were about the death of Abubakar Nadama). Of the other 81%, none were mentioned by the above groups.

2006 and October is the busiest news month. 3% mention vaccines. Of the 97% of stories that don’t, the organisations above mention none.

2007 sees the busiest news month as April. Of the 93% that do not talk about vaccines, none of the above groups comment on their websites.

2008 – so far April is the busiest news month with 9 mentions of vaccines in the top 100 stories. Of the 91% not talking about vaccines, yep, you guessed it, none of the above organisations talk about the stories.

The single top story regarding autism this year was World Autism day. No mention of this on the websites of Generation Rescue, SafeMinds, NAA, ARI, OAR, TACA or Unlocking Autism.

And these are the people who claim to be the autism community?

The truth is that these people are a series of single issue groups concentrating on vaccines and autism. The truth is that fully 7 out of the 11 (63%) groups who co-signed this letter have no interest in autism beyond vaccines/toxins.

These groups do not, in any way shape or form represent the autism community. I hope the IACC see this clearly.