Joanna Weiss

Autism’s ‘unblessed’ scientists

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / June 1, 2010

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ONE FASCINATING thing about the vaccine-autism debate is how little the stalwarts are swayed by new information.

Last Tuesday, British officials revoked the medical license of Andrew Wakefield, the ethically challenged researcher whose 1998 paper first raised the specter of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Public health officials declared the case closed and lamented a decade of lost ground in the fight against infectious disease.

But Wakefield spent the rest of the week declaring that his work would go on (as well as promoting his new book, “Callous Disregard.’’) His followers were also undeterred. On Friday, Wakefield got a hero’s welcome at the Autism One conference in Chicago, sponsored by two groups that largely cling to the belief that vaccines can cause autism. “Andy needs our support more than ever!’’ blared a headline on the Autism One website.

Also speaking at the conference was Northeastern University professor of pharmacology Richard Deth. He is 65, soft-spoken, and intense, and he believes in the possibilities of outside-the-mainstream therapies and research.

He also understands the consequences of appearing at conferences like Autism One, of aligning with groups that operate on the fringes of accepted science.

“That’s a risk that I’ve recognized for several years,’’ Deth told me last week, “but I feel like a better person for having taken it.’’ He appreciates the audience of well-intentioned parents, looking for help. And he says those parents have given him ideas that have led to research.

Specifically, he’s been intrigued by the use of special diets and supplements, and curious why — on a cellular level — they sometimes appear to work. A few weeks ago, in his office at Northeastern, he gave me a two-hour primer of his work. It was a fast-flash course in molecular biology, but the gist of it was this: Exposure to certain heavy metals can keep brain cells from growing as they should. Some people, through quirks of their cellular makeup, are more likely to be affected than others. And kids with autism sometimes fit this profile.

Yes, vaccines contain heavy metals — most notably aluminum — but Deth allows that the troubles could be also caused by something in the air, the water, those baby bottles we didn’t know were toxic until recently. He claims not to care about the cause so much as the potential for prevention, even cure.

To my lay mind, his conclusions don’t seem terribly controversial. They seem, in fact, a possible path to common ground: If we could agree that vaccines are only risky for a few, perhaps we could learn how to identify those at-risk kids and immunize them safely.

But in the years that he has pursed this line of research, Deth often found himself persona non grata among his fellow scientists. Some Northeastern professors once told graduate students to leave his lab. A dean once sent him a letter, telling him to stop.

But now Deth has his colleagues’ respect. “He’s a man of great integrity,’’ said Mansoor Amiji, chairman of Northeastern’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, who was a student of Deth’s before he joined the faculty. Amiji said Deth’s research is relevant, not just to families of autistic children, but to aging people with degenerative disease.

“His approach is very fascinating,’’ Amiji said. “He’s looking at this issue of environment and its role.’’

But Deth has had trouble getting his most recent work into top peer-reviewed scientific journals. The rejection letters don’t dispute the research itself, but suggest that it isn’t interesting enough to other scientists.

It may be that they’re right. It may be, as Deth believes, that in the world of autism research, there are “divisions of information, some blessed and some unblessed,’’ and the “unblessed’’ information doesn’t get heard.

The “unblessed’’ scientists have made clear that they won’t stop. And if one good thing can be said of this protracted and ugly debate, it’s that it has spurred so much research into matters of vaccine safety — including a study released last week, spurred by parent concerns, that showed it was safe to give children multiple shots at once.

Deth, whose young granddaughter is due for shots soon, said the news was reassuring. He did have a few questions about the study. And when it comes to science, can asking questions ever be a bad thing?

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

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