BIRDS OF A FEATHER

No, Stem Cells Don’t Cause Autism

Anti-vaxxers and anti-stem cell-ers come together, thanks to a recent paper linking autism to vaccines that use stem cells.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty

The increase in recognition of autism spectrum disorders in Western countries continues to confound and confuse. Many theories have been put forward, ranging from the notion that there is no real increase or only an increase in diagnosis, to the thought that older paternal age is a substantial driver, to characterization of various genetic configurations that might predispose to the condition. And that’s not counting less scientifically grounded ideas like Tylenol exposure, “refrigerator Moms,” and mercury in vaccines.

Now comes a theory that brings together two groups deeply rooted in the American politico-medical terrain: anti-vaxxers and those against use of human embryonic cells (generally the anti-abortion crowd). The concept is that the use of human embryonic cells in the manufacture of vaccines is the smoking gun—a major cause of autism. Here, the bad guy is not the mercury or preservatives in vaccines, or the idea that producing immunity without actual disease is somehow against nature, but rather the human DNA remnants found in various vaccines. These bits, suggest the authors of a just-released article, are screwing up brain development by provoking inflammation and all sorts of other mischief.

Their proof is an overlay of the per-country epidemiology of autism against the introduction of various vaccines that are produced using some human embryonic cells, called human fetal cell lines in the article. They are able to detect tiny amounts of human DNA and RNA in various vaccine samples—a little creepy for sure but hardly shocking or medically concerning. The authors—at least one of who has published high-end articles on straight science topics in reputable medical journals—really pour it on with statistical twist after statistical twist, all in the name of controlling for noise.

They contort this way because they know, as does everyone in the field, that things happen over time that cannot be explained, and that many apparent “causes” are only coincidences. As a deliberately absurd example: has anyone examined the impact on the public health—and specifically on rates of autism—of having American presidents in the White House with only daughters and no sons? Autism, for example, has risen steadily since Clinton stepped in, followed by George W. and Obama, all with daughters only. Might this be the reason?

Reading the article, there is nothing new to get excited about or even interested in. It is a mighty tough slog, I will have to give them that, written in terse and exclusive science-ese. The authors are unusually energetic in the writing and reasoning, with endless graphs and figures. They reference their article intelligently and obviously are excited by the result. But the conclusion is easy to argue away, as is the entire vaccine-as-cause problem by the simple observation that boys with autism outnumber girls with autism by 3 or 4 to 1. Any environmental theory such as vaccines or Wonder bread or refrigerator moms must take into account this very basic and non-controversial fact. The old-dads theory does account for this, since sperm—not ova—determines progeny sex, and the quality of sperm set to produce a male is much frailer than that set to create a female, ever more so as the father and his sperm age. So too do various genetic theories.

Plus, there is the source of the article and its place of publication. The article comes from workers at Sound Choice, a group in Seattle that seems interested in several issues very important to human rights activists: human trafficking, executed prisoners, the vulnerable, and the exploited. But underneath the genuine concern is a single worry: that these activities are conducted in the name of human cell harvest, particularly sex trafficking and its obvious result of pregnancy and abortion. Their website seems almost exclusively involved with smoking out products and manufacturers that use aborted fetal cell lines. Their axe to grind, in other words, is far different from that of the conventional anti-vaccine crowd, but their final resting point is the same.

And let me add one snooty comment about the medical journal that has published the work, the excellent-sounding Journal of Public Health and Epidemiology. It is a new journal, started in 2009, and it is open access, meaning it’s available for free to anyone who wants to click its content. The articles they publish surely are interesting, at least in the title, and though I do not recognize any of the authors, that may be because of its broadly international scope and even more international set of editors. One thing about open access, free-to-the-public publishing, though: it is not free for the authors. For an article in the Journal of Public Health and Epidemiology, the author must fork over $650 for “handling.” This too is not as sleazy as it sounds—the well-regarded PLoS, a product of the National Library of Medicine, also shakes down its authors to offset the cost of editing and placing an article onto the Internet. But it might raise a bit of an eyebrow.

The one very concerning issue raised by this article however is this: the introduction of anti-abortion energy into the vaccine debate. The reality-based community might have a difficult time fending off these two fronts of affront. But actually, more noise won’t really shift the argument in either direction. Those who believe and those who do not are never swayed by the others’ arguments. We should know by now that a rational argument never can touch an affair of the heart.