Conflicts of interest in research is one of the fundamental tropes of people who seek to diminish the value of biomedical research, even if the research is peer-reviewed and is published in a highly respected journal.
The vaccine deniers try to dismiss all medical research that has even the appearance of conflict of interest.
From my point of view – yes, we should examine research with a conflict of interest, especially in medical research, more carefully. But, as I’ve said a hundred times, it’s not one article that matters, it’s the body of work. Science is based on evidence that is analyzed, critiqued and, most importantly, repeated – repeatedly.
In the world of vaccines (including that annoying and loud anti-vaccine fringe group), one of the recurrent themes is that immunizations cause autism, and any research that disputes that belief is biased and/or supported by Big Pharma. That is the definition of conflicts of interest in research – this is repeated so often, sometimes I believe it.
But then I get back to reality and know that the scientific consensus, repeatedly repeated, supports the fact that there is no evidence that autism is related to vaccines or is caused by vaccines.
Conflicts of interest in autism research
Recently, I wrote an article about what I thought was groundbreaking research into the links between vaccines, thimerosal, and autism. The article, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America (PNAS), showed that vaccines, in many different combinations, including those with thimerosal (the preservative that is claimed to be pure, unadulterated mercury) were unrelated to autism in rhesus monkeys.
It’s wonderful research. Using a primate model that is a stand-in for humans (because, we all know that evolution is a fact, and that some monkeys are closely related to humans, genetically and physiologically), it compared vaccinated groups to placebo groups, and found no differences in neurological development.
Given the anti-vaccine trope that there is no good research unless it’s a comparison to a placebo, this study should end the trope forever. Well, I can hope.
Except I erred, badly. The research had a substantial conflict of interest that I failed to notice. I am a terrible, useless, careless skeptic. I should have read the “Acknowledgements” section which have lead me to ignore this paper that was nothing but a conflict of interest.
The study was partially funded by SafeMinds, an autism advocacy group that was probably looking to sponsor some good scientific research about vaccines and autism.
Wait! What? SafeMinds?
SafeMinds believes that vaccines, especially the thimerosal component, causes autism. They base their pseudoscientific belief an an article by Bernard et al. published in non-peer-reviewed journal, Medical Hypotheses, arguably one of the worst and most laughable journals in the world. The journal regularly published AIDS denial articles, so that about does it right there.
SafeMinds has no shame in its anti-vaccine advocacy. It’s scientific advisory board includes Dr. Bob Sears, who, if you read any pro-science website regarding vaccines, is one of the loudest and meanest antivaccination physicians around. Bob Sears simply pushes junk science about vaccines.
Science and conflicts of interest
This is how real science works with real scientists with integrity. Even though the research was sponsored by an “autism advocacy” group that probably has no integrity whatsoever, the research continued a long, long list of research that shows that autism is clearly unrelated to vaccines and thimerosal.
When I see a single paper published, sponsored by a Big Pharma grant, I get concerned, especially if that paper makes some claims about the Big Pharma drug that seems to be outside of the consensus. But if that paper is repeated by other researchers in other ares, conflicts of interest become much less important.
The body of research that says vaccines do not cause autism contains nearly 150 papers. Yes, some of the research is sponsored by Big Pharma. Part of the reason for the funding was because vaccine manufacturers were concerned whether there was something there.
Sure, they were probably scared of lawsuits or bad press, but what they really wanted to do was find out if A) it was true, and B) why? Science works by gathering data, and Big Pharma is based on science (mostly, I admit I wonder about some things). Drugs are discovered through the scientific process, and they’re improved by the same way.
Conflicts of interest in medical research should be an important factor. But it would introduce bias into results if those results are ignored, especially if those results are supported by other research.
At this point, I’m going to have to ignore the conflict of interest issues where an antivaccine advocacy group sponsored this recent study. It was challenging to do so. It made me a bit ill. But good research is good research, even if it is sponsored by SafeMinds.
- Bernard S, Enayati A, Redwood L, Roger H, Binstock T. Autism: a novel form of mercury poisoning. Med Hypotheses. 2001 Apr;56(4):462-71. Review. PubMed PMID: 11339848.
- Gadad BS, Lia W, Yazdani U, Grady S, Johnson T, Hammond J, Gunn G, Curtis B, English C, Yutuc V, Ferrier C, Sackett GP, Marti N, Young K, Lewiston L, German DC. Administration of thimerosal-containing vaccines to infant rhesus macaques does not result in autism-like behavior or neuropathology. PNAS; Sept 2015. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1500968112.