Anti-vaccine pseudoscience – more bad science on autism and aluminum

You’ve got to hand it to the anti-vaccine pseudoscience activists – they are nothing if not dedicated to their religious beliefs. And like the so-called “creation science” religion, which tries to “prove” their evolution denialist beliefs with pseudoscience published in creationist journals, the anti-vaccine religion tries to “prove” that vaccines are dangerous with bad science, pseudoscience, and misinterpreted science.

As of today, I’ve written a dozen or so articles about Christopher Shaw and   Lucija Tomljenovic, contemptible University of British Columbia anti-vaccine pseudoscience extremists. Shaw and Tomljenovic are well known for pushing garbage science to further their anti-vaccine religion. Of course, their “scientific articles” keep getting retracted, despite being published in low ranked journals whose standards rarely exceed “please use a good spell checker.”

Now, we have a new article trying to push the myth that somehow the tiny amounts of aluminum in vaccines are related to autism. Of course, we have hundreds of real scientific articles published in real scientific journals which have demolished the myth that vaccines cause autism. But these persistent anti-vaccine pseudoscience pushers keep trying. Because one of the central tenets of pseudoscience is to have a pre-ordained conclusion, and find any evidence, irrespective of quality, to support it.

So we’re going to take a look at this new “article.” I always examine anti-vaccine “research” from two perspectives – first, I take a look at the author(s), the journal, and other factors that might have an impact on our critique of the study. Second, I then critique the scientific data, methods, and conclusions.  So, here we go, into the fray.

Aluminum and vaccines

Before we start on this article, I need to provide some background on aluminum in vaccines. Aluminum (or aluminium, according to British English) is used as an adjuvant, a component of vaccines that increases the immune response to an antigen. Aluminum phosphate and aluminum hydroxide are the most common forms of adjuvants used in commercial vaccines. So that’s why it’s in vaccines – it makes the immune response better.

The overwhelming scientific evidence leads us to one conclusion – the use of aluminum in vaccines has never been shown to harm anyone. Furthermore, the dose of aluminum in vaccines, and dose is the central tenet of toxicology, is so low that it is difficult to accept that it has a biological effect. And we haven’t found any biological effect from aluminum in vaccines.

Many people have an obsession with aluminum toxicity and Alzheimer’s disease – something that has been utterly dismissed by the scientific community. In fact, the Alzheimer’s Society does not mention aluminum once in their discussion of risk factors for dementia. Maybe Big Aluminum is in control.

The reason why aluminum isn’t linked to neurological disease is that in huge epidemiological studies, no correlation was found between environmental aluminum and neurological diseases. None. The authors seem to ignore the wealth of evidence that dismisses their research. And I think there might be reasons for that.

Furthermore, science has pretty much squashed the tropes about thimerosal (which anti-vaccine pseudoscience refers to as “mercury”) in vaccines. This has caused anti-vaccine religious fanatics to transition to a new bogeyman, aluminum. Or aluminium.

The anti-vaccine pseudoscience study critique, part 1

The article, “Aluminium in brain tissue in autism,” was published online in the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology. The corresponding author for this study is Christopher Exley.

I’ve written about Exley before, and it wasn’t very favorable then. Basically, Exley published a junk study about aluminum adjuvants. As the loquacious Orac recently wrote about Exley,

The first time I dealt with Exley, he had published a truly execrable paper in which he measured aluminum content in mastectomy specimens taken from 17 women with breast cancer in which he tried to link aluminum from antiperspirants to breast cancer. He also wrote a review article trying to make the same argument. In both cases, he failed to make anything resembling a compelling scientific case for aluminum from antiperspirants as a cause of breast cancer.

So Exley has a long history of trying to tie aluminum to anything. Including breast cancer. And like this current paper on autism, he has failed to provide convincing, robust evidence to support his hypotheses.

My analysis of Exley’s first paper on aluminum and vaccines included the following critique of his data:

They published nice electron micrographs that show big aluminum globs  (my scientific terminology) in some cells. I don’t know what percentage of cells include these globs, because they didn’t have a control against which to compare. But here are some of the issues – there is no explanation of what are biological consequences of these globs, and no explanation if this representative of what may be the clinical application in real humans. Moreover, it is problematic that the lowest concentration of adjuvant used, 2.5 µg/ml which is 2-10X higher than the blood concentration immediately post-vaccination, showed no globs. They are using much higher concentrations of adjuvant to get results, and even then, a real human body would deal with it quickly by dilution and secretion.

And of course, like the the first paper, this current pseudoscience “research” was paid for by the anti-vaccine, Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI), which is run by the anti-vaccine crackpot, Claire Dwoskin. She is one of the most profoundly anti-vaccine sponsors of research in the world. In 2011, the Dwoskins also underwrote the anti-vaccine “safety” conference in Jamaica, which included as speakers, Shaw and Tomljenovic.

I’m just connecting the dots.

As I previously said about Dwoskin’s research funding,

These funding groups are just so anti-vaccine, it’s difficult for me to overlook the funding of this research in this case. I have found no indication that they give grants to any studies that are not supportive of any of the important tropes of the anti-vaccine movement.  I do think that the funding source should be given some weight in determining the bias of research. Even the anti-vaccine crowd agrees, because read just about anything they write in which they automatically dismiss anyone or any research that even has a tenuous tie to Big Pharma.

And back to CMSRI, Dwoskin’s pet project. Take a look at the pseudoscientific advisory board – it includes some of the most notorious names in anti-vaccine pseudoscience, including Shaw, Exley, Stephanie Seneff, Yehuda Shoenfeld, and other false authority anti-vaccine prophets who push bad science in an attempt to “prove” their religious beliefs.

Finally, they published this “research” in the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology , a rather low impact journal. I keep asking this question – if this research is so groundbreaking that it will cause a change in our vaccine strategies, why isn’t it published in a very high impact factor journal that is highly respected? Well, probably because Exley’s research is so bad, that he couldn’t get any real journal to accept it.

The anti-vaccine pseudoscience study critique, part 2

Now, let’s look at the data. Basically, the study is trying to find aluminum in brain tissue from autistic children. The paper’s introduction shows us what their goals in supporting their religious conclusions about vaccines.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a group of neurodevelopmental conditions of unknown cause. It is highly likely that both genetic [1] and environmental factors are associated with the onset and progress of ASD while the mechanisms underlying its aetiology are expected to be multifactorial. Human exposure to aluminium has been implicated in ASD with conclusions being equivocal. To-date the majority of studies have used hair as their indicator of human exposure to aluminium while aluminium in blood and urine have also been used to a much more limited extent. Paediatric vaccines that include an aluminium adjuvant are an indirect measure of infant exposure to aluminium and their burgeoning use has been directly correlated with increasing prevalence of ASD. Animal models of ASD continue to support a connection with aluminium and to aluminium adjuvants used in human vaccinations in particular. Hitherto there are no previous reports of aluminium in brain tissue from donors who died with a diagnosis of ASD. We have measured aluminium in brain tissue in autism and identified the location of aluminium in these tissues.

This introductory statement has so many falsehoods, that I could write several articles just on that. But, let’s take a 10,000 meter view of these claims:

  • No, there is no evidence that human exposure to aluminum is correlated to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In fact, there is simply no correlation between vaccines, aluminum or not, to ASD.
  • Most of these claims cite Shaw and Tomljenovic, including papers that have been retracted. Like I mentioned above, I have demolished and destroyed their papers several times. Look here and here to see the ridiculous pseudoscience of Shaw and Tomljenovic.

Orac’s takedown of these hypotheses is right on point:

First off, no, aluminum has only been “linked” with ASD by antivaccine cranks. There is really no good evidence that aluminum in vaccines causes ASDs, try as as antivaxers might to try to “prove” that there is. Particularly telling is that Exley cites papers by Tomljenovic and Shaw, who are well known for their proclivity to publish papers chock full of bad(and fraudulent) science purporting to link aluminum adjuvants to autism and other conditions. Any citation of one of their papers is a good indication of bad science. Heck, I even deconstructed one of the papers cited.

So, right off the bat, the scientific justification for this study is highly dubious, but it was done anyway; so we have to deal with the results. What did Exley’s team do? They obtained brain tissue samples from autistic people from the Oxford Brain Bank, which is hosted in the Department of Neuropathology of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust and the Academic Unit of Neuropathology of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences of Oxford University. The bank stores sample and clinical data relevant for research into neurological diseases. From this bank, it appears that Exley received five specimens of frozen brain tissue (4 males, 1 female, age range 15-50), consisting of samples from tissue from temporal, frontal, parietal and occipital lobes and hippocampus of each individual. Aluminum levels were measured using transversely heated atomic absorption spectroscopy.

But let’s get to the main problem, though hardly the only one, with this study – it lacks a control. If there is a central dogma of the scientific method, it would be to compare results to a control. It is the only way to show that an influencing factor actually causes a change.

I don’t care if Exley found an aluminum soda can in the cells of brain tissue from ASD. It would be irrelevant, unless I know if there is or isn’t an aluminum soda can in brain tissue of non-ASD patients. Exley’s methods do not even meet the lowest standard of good science.

But again, there are so many other issues, that allows us to dismiss the research right out of hand. Of the 10 patients used in this study (n=10 is so ridiculous low, that I cannot believe this article was published), Exley’s paper provided us with clinical information on none of them. None. Nothing about confounding data that might influence the observations. Nothing about the environment of the patients that may or may not have influenced the results. I’ve read a boatload of case studies from real research, published in real journals, and I almost always get to read about each patient (of course, protecting confidentiality).

And there’s more. In a few samples, there was a incredibly high level of variability in the amount of aluminum found in ASD brain samples. Take a look at this chart of the data.

 

These represent 3 repeated analyses of each sample. In many cases, the error (in parentheses) is substantially larger than the mean. The variability is so high, how can one even make any “conclusion” from this study? Who peer-reviewed this article? My cat?

There are a lot of reasons why this data varies so much. It could be incompetent techs. Bad research team (like Exley himself). It could be bad reagents. It could be anything. But extremely high variability in data means only one thing – it’s bad science that cannot be interpreted easily or competently. But the anti-vaccine religion seems to dismiss this right out of hand.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that Exley has shown us bad data with regards to aluminum and brain disease. He took brain samples from 10 Alzheimer’s disease patients, and once again, ignoring the need for controls, show high variability of data. In essence showing us nothing.

Exley himself says “how difficult it might be to use statistical measures of brain Al content as reliable indicators of potential neurotoxicity.” Yeah, I finally agree with something Exley wrote.

More analysis of the data – UPDATE

If there’s one take-home point about this pseudoscience is the data itself. Dave Hawkes commented on this study on a Facebook thread regarding this post:

If you exclude outliers (as defined by 1/3 samples being >10x higher than the average of the other two (and at least 5 x higher than either of the other data points)) then the four brain regions have an average Al between 1.76 and 2.3 µg/g. In large scale studies average Al in healthy brains was between 1.4 and 2.5 µg/g.

If you examine Exley’s previous work, 75% of results were under 2 µg/g Al in brain tissue. Thus, an average of five brain samples with an average of 1.76-2.3 µg/g is unlikely to be statistically significant. In other words, if we create controls (because Exley seems to not understand that science requires them) using his previous data, it’s obvious to anyone with a scientific mind that this study shows us nothing, and might show us that aluminum has not to do with anything.

Exley wants to prove the preconceived conclusions of the anti-vaccine religion – well, this research doesn’t do it, Exley’s incompetence in science is the same we’ve seen from dozens of other anti-vaccine “researchers.” They provide no evidence, but get the anti-vaccine religious activists all excited for nothing.

Conclusions

I’m sure that the anti-science religious activists will be all over this study. In fact, JB Handley wrote an article that is entitled:   Massive Aluminum levels in Autism brains, is this the smoking gun for vaccines? Well, based on my review, the answer is a solid no.

Handley, with his usual anti-vaccine religious fervor, states,

The one thing missing from all the work done to date about aluminum and its possible role in autism? Actual brain tissue of people with autism. All the studies published that appeared to be demonstrating strong biological certainty of how the aluminum in vaccines could trigger autism were done with MICE, and Professor Exley and his colleagues’ new research studied the actual brains of people with autism. The conclusions should make you gasp.

The only thing that makes me gasp is the atrocious quality of this article. The data is not compared to any controls. The precision of the microscopic analyses is remarkably and laughably imprecise. The research is supported by some of the most notorious vaccine deniers in the world.

All in all, this is just another example of anti-vaccine pseudoscience. It’s a conclusion in search of supporting data. And this isn’t that data. In fact, this study tells us nothing at about vaccines, aluminum and autism.

Citations

 
 
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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor

Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!