Researchers’ nightmares

This excellent article in the Chicago Tribune documents the abuses of science by quacks. Legitimate researchers identify certain properties of autism — markers for inflammation in the brain, for instance, or correlations with testosterone — and write up papers that even go out of their way to explain how their observations are interesting, but do not necessarily lead to therapies, and what do you think the medical frauds do? They use them to justify useless or dangerous treatments like injections of testosterone inhibitors or anti-inflammatory agents or loading up patients with intravenous immunoglobulin…treatments that have not been tested in any way, have not gone through clinical trials, and which are justified by tenuous connections to legitimate research, which sometimes contraindicates what the quacks are doing.

So when Pardo and his colleagues published their paper in the Annals of Neurology in 2005, they added an online primer that clearly explained their findings in layman’s terms and sternly warned doctors not to use them to develop treatments.

“We were concerned that the study would raise a lot of controversy and be misused,” Pardo said. “We were right.”

Over and over, doctors in the autism recovery movement have used the paper to justify experimental treatments aimed at reducing neuroinflammation.

It just goes on and on. Legitimate scientists find a weak connection to something, describe it with solid caveats, and these evil exploiters of the pain of others jump on it to advocate radical and dangerous treatments that ignore all the problems.

Pardo’s study is just one example. In May, the Tribune reported on another questionable use of research. A geneticist and his son who promoted treating children who have autism with a testosterone inhibitor had based their protocol, in part, on the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychopathologist at England’s University of Cambridge who has explored the role of the hormone in autism.

Yet Baron-Cohen told the Tribune that the idea of using the drug this way “fills me with horror.”

Pardo said that since his paper came out he has received many questions about unproven autism treatments. He is particularly haunted by inquiries regarding powerful immunosuppressant drugs usually used on organ transplant patients, calling the idea “completely wrong.”

Said the researcher: “People are abusing science for the treatment of autism.”

The article also names names: Dan Rossignol, Jeff Bradstreet, James Neubrander, and Patricia Kane are people who abuse the scientific literature to promote expensive and dangerous snake oil (I was also amused to see that Kane has her degree from Columbia Pacific University, the same sloppy institution that gave Jerry Bergman a Ph.D.—and the article is not kind in its characterization of CPU).

It’s good to see some strong skeptical coverage of medical science in a newspaper. This is exactly what good journalism ought to be doing — digging in and exposing the lies.