Anti-vaccine James Lyons-Weiler writes about aluminum and autism

Here we go again. Another anti-vaccine pseudoscientist publishes a paper that calls into question something about vaccines, and the anti-vaccine religion genuflects in their general direction. The anti-vaccine side has nearly zero evidence supporting their claims, so they have to cling to anything they can get. And a new article from James Lyons-Weiler continues that tradition.

The anti-vaccine religion is littered with these false authorities that have few credentials or experience in vaccines, yet, because of a “Ph.D.” after their name, the anti-vaxxers make it appear they speak for millions of scientists. There’s Tetyana Obukhanych, a former immunologist who has published no peer-reviewed articles about vaccines, who has denied all of her scientific education and training, and who makes egregious and simplistic mistakes about vaccines in all of her proclamations.

Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic are multiple-retracted “researchers” who shill for the anti-vaccine religion by publishing weak and easily critiqued research that doesn’t even stand up to the tiniest of criticism. We’ve often speculated as to why the University of British Columbia, where they do their “research,” hasn’t ended their relationship.

Look, I’m not impressed by credentials and degrees. I don’t care if someone is a janitor or a Ph.D. in immunology at Harvard University. If you deny established scientific consensus based on your whims, cherry picking evidence, or rhetoric, you have nothing. You bring nothing to a scientific discussion. If you want to overturn the scientific consensus on vaccines then you better be an expert in the area of vaccines, and you better have a broad, robust body of evidence that shows problems with the scientific consensus.

Now, it’s time to look at this new false authority in the land of vaccines, James Lyons-Weiler. Is he another false authority and pseudoscientist? Or does his new paper give us something new to examine about vaccines? Yes. No.

Who is James Lyons-Weiler?

According to his Linked-In page, Lyons-Weiler received his Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution & Conservation Biology from the University of Nevada in 1997. And he describes himself as an “evolutionary biologist,” which is a respectable scientific pursuit, although almost by definition, one of the fundamental principles of biology is evolution – every Ph.D. in any biomedical discipline is, by default, an “evolutionary biologist.”

He then did a postdoctoral fellowship in Computational Molecular Biology at Penn State University from 1997-2000. And had a faculty position someplace else. A typical starter academic career for any post-graduate student. Eventually, he landed at the University of Pittsburgh, where he became director of the Bioinformatics Analysis Core until it closed in 2014.

Lyons-Weiler himself, and the anti-vaccine religion loves to peddle his scientific career in a way that makes it appear that he brings something to the discussion about vaccines. Nothing special, but nothing he has done is even peripherally related to vaccines.

A review of his publication record is telling – other than a few papers on statistical modeling, he has no published research in basic biomedical sciences where he was the first or last author. What’s the importance of position in a list of authors? It’s everything.

Generally, the first author did all the work. And the last author is the person in whose lab the research is done. Everyone else is either a courtesy authorship or someone who made some other contribution.

James Lyons-Weiler got those courtesy authorships because he was the director of that Bioinformatics Analysis Core. As the riveting Orac writes in a recent article about Lyons-Weiler,

Also note that he was the director of a bioinformatics core. Core directors don’t exist to do their own research, not usually. Cores exist to serve the faculty of a university by providing expertise and research tools to them for a discounted price in order to assist them doing their research. That means a core director is paid to support other people’s research, not to do his own. Now, don’t get me wrong. Being a core director is an incredibly hard job, as I’ve learned just observing core directors with whom I’ve worked, and the expertise of core directors can be very helpful—even essential—to a successful project, and there’s a lot of customer service involved as well. I don’t know if I could be a core director. It is not, however, usually a faculty position where you get to conceive of and do your own research. At best, if you do have your own research projects, they will always be secondary to making sure that others get their projects done.

In other words, he has done little to show that he’s an independent researcher of note in real sciences, despite the claims of the anti-vaccine religion. I don’t want to belittle the work of Core directors across the research world – they provide important and critical analyses to complex science. But it’s not that the primary researchers dump a boatload of data on the Core, and then wait for some analysis – it’s a cooperative effort. But someone like James Lyons-Weiler do none of the hard work in science – they don’t write the study protocols, they don’t do the research, and they don’t stand up to criticism of their peers.

Using the term “scientist” to describe someone who hasn’t done real scientific research, especially with respect to vaccines, seems strange. I want to see the first authorship on a body of papers where clinical trials, epidemiological studies, or basic scientific research are described and analyzed that focuses on vaccines. The anti-vaccine world might want to tout James Lyons-Weiler as a scientist, but he doesn’t do basic scientific research, so that is a title that is probably undeserved.

Maybe my definition of “scientist” is too exclusive, but here’s the thing – I know it when I see it. Generally, denying the scientific consensus, whatever your credentials, without providing corresponding levels of quality and quantity of research, is the surest sign of pseudoscience.

Since Lyons-Weiler is an avowed anti-vaccine shill (and attempts to “prove” that’s he’s more anti-vaccine than other anti-vaccine shills), and has absolutely no credentials in anything remotely related to vaccines, and has never presented (until now) any evidence in the quality and quantity of evidence supporting vaccines, the only thing we can conclude is that James Lyons-Weiler is not a scientist – he’s a pseudoscientist.

A paper by James Lyons-Weiler

The paper, to be published in the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology in July 2018, basically pushes the anti-vaccine trope that aluminum in vaccines is somehow dangerous. He claims that “the dosing of aluminum in vaccines is based on the production of antibody titers, not safety science.” Basically, Lyons-Weiler is attempting to make a case that the calculations of safety levels of aluminum are wrong (going against what several US and International agencies state), while ignoring all the other evidence about aluminum.

Before we go to the scientific criticism of the research, let’s start with a meta-critique.

    1. This paper does not present original scientific research. It is not a primary pre-clinical or clinical study that accumulates data from experiments that might lead one to accepting or refuting a hypothesis, like “is the amount of aluminum in vaccines toxic?” The paper is not a meta- or systematic review, which collect and critically analyze multiple research studies or papers. The paper is more like an op-ed that provides us with an “opinion” about whether aluminum concentrations in vaccines may or may not be an issue.
    2. The article’s publisher is the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology, which has a 5-year impact factor of 2.978, a moderately low number. An impact factor basically measures the importance of a journal, and it is roughly a measurement of how many times an average article is cited by other articles. To be fair, the journal is a niche one, and often those types of journals have lower impact factors.
    3. The article seems to start from a point of confirmation bias. In the summary, Lyons-Weiler said the “safe” levels for aluminum in vaccines was wrong, then developed calculations to support it. Are there calculations that may show them safe? Yes, from WHO and the FDA, which he seems to dismiss without actual toxicological data that says he’s right and they’re wrong.
    4. The statement of the author’s conflicts of interest is notable: “LW has a potential conflict of interest as he has consulted on two vaccine injury cases on behalf of complainants.” In other words, he makes money “consulting” on legal cases in support of individuals trying to claim that vaccines cause harm. Of course, he would want some published paper that supports his unsupported conclusions.
    5. This research was funded by Weiler’s own Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge. Setting aside the utter arrogance of such a name, as the aforementioned Orac wrote in the same article about Lyons-Weiler:

He formed the “Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge,” described as a “not-for-profit organization* which exists to perform scientific research in the public interest.” Unfortunately, a lot of that “science” is antivaccine. For instance, there is a project where “IPAK has invited Drs. Gatti and Montanari to submit a proposal to investigate where the microcontaminant nanoparticles found in vaccines go in the normal developing mouse.” You might remember that study. It was a truly risible use of electron microscopy to “find” nanoparticle contamination in, well, almost every vaccine. If James Lyon-Weiler thinks that Antonietta Gatti’s abuse of electron microscopy is worthwhile science, he’s lost the plot.

But these are just 10,000-meter level critiques, not down in the data level. But given James Lyons-Weiler lack of scientific background in any field of biological sciences that are germane to vaccines (or aluminum toxicology to be fair), the inherent confirmation bias of the study, a number of other meta issues, it’s hard to find this study serious scholarship.

Critique of paper

Lyons-Weiler seems to do a very good job of cherry-picking data. For example, he cites the previously discussed Shaw and Tomljenovic who made nonsensical claims that aluminum in vaccines cause autism. And conveniently ignores the fact that the study he references as a basis of his hypothesis has been retracted.

Furthermore, Lyons-Weiler ignores that the vast body of high-powered, peer-reviewed research that rejects the hypothesis that vaccines are causally linked to autism. If we had evidence of any correlation between neurodegenerative condition and vaccines, Lyons-Weiler’s research could be a starting point in determining biological plausibility. But right now, we have overwhelming affirmative evidence that vaccines are not related to neurological conditions. So right off the top, this paper is trying to chase a goblin that’s not there – in other words, pseudoscience.

The second major criticism is that Lyons-Weiler, like many others heading down this rabbit hole, has failed to provide us evidence that aluminum, in the microgram quantities in vaccines, has shown any danger to anyone. Unless utilizing retracted research is the basis of his scientific claims. In fact, there is some good evidence that human physiology is quite capable of dealing with large quantities of aluminum and remove it from the blood quickly. Effectively, aluminum in vaccines is biologically irrelevant.

The third point is a major one. The amount of aluminum in vaccines is measured in micrograms or one-millionth of a gram. The maximum allowable amount of aluminum in a vaccine is 1250 µg (this was originally a typo that said 125), although most vaccines have significantly less than that.  Based on the recommended schedule of vaccines, the maximum amount of aluminum an infant could be exposed to over the first year of life would be 4225 µg (or 4.225 mg). Let’s put this into context – a newborn baby averages a body burden of about 384 µg of aluminum before even getting vaccines. In addition, typical concentrations of aluminum in breast milk (10-49 µg/L), soy-based infant formula (460-930 µg/L), and milk-based infant formula (58-150 µg/L) means that the dose of aluminum from these sources far exceed the dose of vaccines in just a few weeks. A baby also inhales several hundred micrograms of aluminum per day, unless they live in some bubble with ultra-pure air.

So, a baby would receive about 4.2 mg of aluminum from vaccines while receiving 10 mg from breast milk, 40 mg from infant formula, or 120 mg from a soy-based formula. Now, I know some will claim that vaccines deliver aluminum in a way that eating or inhaling it don’t. These type of magical beliefs just don’t stand up to real science. All aluminum is the same, whether from vaccines or pure breast milk from an organically fed mom. I tires of these arguments from science deniers that try to claim that one molecule has some ridiculous difference than another.

Once the aluminum gets into the bloodstream, the powerful human physiology deals with it efficiently. About 90% is bound to a protein called transferrin while the other 10% binds to citrate. Once the aluminum is bound, the majority is eliminated through the kidneys, while a small amount is eliminated through bile, and a very small amount is retained by the body, though eventually eliminated. With aluminum being one of the most ubiquitous metals on earth and being the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, the physiology of most vertebrates, including humans, evolved these systems to tolerate aluminum.

The whole basis of Lyons-Weiler’s hypothesis is so far off-base that it becomes problematic to even criticize his analytical methods, which were obviously developed to support his pre-ordained conclusion. He states,

…the full effects of the high injected doses of aluminum on the developing brain are also unknown. Indications of accumulation of aluminum associated with autism were recently published [42] in which the majority of tissue samples from post-mortem brains of patients diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were found to contain high concentrations of aluminum.

Citation 42 within this quote refers to a highly critiqued study written by Christopher Exley, a frequent shill for the anti-vaccine religion. I jumped on the group who critiqued this awful article, which included the loquacious Orac, who wrote about the conclusion of Exley’s paper:

Not surprisingly, the antivaccine movement jumped all over the study, claiming that it showed that the brains of children with autism are “loaded with aluminum.”

No. They. Are. Not. At least, if they are, Exley’s paper doesn’t demonstrate it.

There is no evidence that there is more aluminum in brains of autistic children. None. So the whole basis of Lyons-Weiler’s “research” shows nothing because there is nothing there. We have a good idea what causes autism, and it’s not aluminum!

Summary

Vaccines are not related to autism. We know this.

There is not more aluminum in autistic brains. That has not been shown by anyone.

And this article by James Lyons-Weiler has no value because he’s trying to show toxicity of aluminum in vaccines, when we have substantial evidence that the level of aluminum in vaccines is easily processed by human physiology.

I have no clue why this journal accepted it, but it’s always amusing that these “researchers” find some obscure journal to publish it. If this really was an important piece of research, there are dozens upon dozens of important journals where this would matter. It’s because this is bad science, and real journals wouldn’t even look.

Citations

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!