Autism, MMR, Wakefield and the GMC: Research Ethics in the News

Thursday (January 28, 2010) the General Medical Council (GMC), which registers doctors, promotes standards and provides ethical guidance to protect the public in the U.K., issued a long awaited report of a Fitness to Practise Panel Hearing [PDF – 349 KB]. The Hearing addressed the case of Andrew Jeremy Wakefield, John Angus Walker-Smith, and C. Professor Simon Harry Murch and their (primarily Wakefield’s) pediatric research regarding a purported link between the MMR vaccine, autism and bowel disease. The GMC concluded the doctors are responsible for the unethical conduct of the clinical trial involving 12 pediatric patients. Some of the young children were subjected to unapproved and invasive tests, including spinal taps. In one case, a blood draw was conducted on children attending a birthday party for Wakefield’s son; the party-goers were paid $8 for their trouble. Furthermore, Wakefield et al. published the results of this dubious research in The Lancet without mentioning the £50,000 he was paid to carry out the research on behalf of attorneys representing parents who believed the MMR vaccine harmed their children.

Exaggerating, perhaps, Brian Deer in The Sunday Times declares that The Lancet publication [1998 Feb 28;351(9103):637-41 | PubMed PMID 9500320] and the resulting media coverage triggered “the health scare of our time”. The groundless fear of MMR-induced autism led many parents to refuse vaccinations for their children. According to the U.K.’s Health Protection Agency, cases of measles have sharply increased in recent years.

In April the GMC will reconvene to determine if the doctors have committed serious professional misconduct; one or all of them may lose their right to practice medicine in the U.K. Wakefield, however, continues to have a vocal following of parents (some heckled at the hearing); he currently lives in the States and runs an autism clinic, Thoughtful House, in Austin, Texas.

Related News and Links:

MMR scare doctor ‘acted unethically’, panel finds. Nick Triggle. BBC News. January 28, 2010.

British doctor rebuked over research linking vaccine and autism. Henry Chu. Los Angeles Times. January 29, 2010.

Fall of Andrew Wakefield, ‘dishonest’ doctor who started MMR scare. David Rose. The Times Online. January 29, 2010.

CDC, Vaccine Saftey: Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) Vaccine

Autism, MedlinePlus

Measles, MedlinePlus

Other Research Ethics News

Scrutiny emerges concerning conflicts of interest in veterinary literature. Jennifer Fiala. VIN News Service. January 26, 2010.

BMJ feature story peers into MIST controversy. Shelley Wood. HeartWire. January 26, 2010.

Corporate Backing for Research? Get Over It. John Tierney. The New York Times. January 25, 2010.

‘Guinea pigs’ also have rights. Kumudini Hettiarachchi. The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka). January 24, 2010.

Amphastar Pharmaceuticals files new appeal in FDA conflict-of-interest case. Andrew Zajac. Los Angeles Times. January 21, 2010.

A dubious practice, any way you slice it. Stuart Laidlaw. The Star (Toronto). January 15, 2010.

Chinese scientists dismissed after 70 suspect papers. Wu Ni. SciDev.Net. January 13, 2010.

Related: Publish or perish in China. Jane Qiu. Nature News (subscription required). January 12, 2010.

Draft Guidance for Institutional Review Boards, Clinical Investigators, and Sponsors: IRB Continuing Review After Clinical Investigation Approval; Availability. Food and Drug Administration, HHS. Federal Register: January 13, 2010 (Volume 75, Number 8 ).

– J.O.


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