Wednesday, March 3, 2010

You Spin Me Right Round, Blaxill Right Round

On 12 February of this year Neurotoxicology withdrew the article Delayed acquisition of neonatal reflexes in newborn primates receiving a thimerosal-containing Hepatitis B vaccine: Influence of gestational age and birth weight co-authored by none other than Andrew Wakefield. KWombles of Countering Age of Autism was the first to break this news and Just the Vax also blogged about it along with Respectful Insolence, A Photon in the Darkness and several others that day.

AoA's Mark Blaxill only just issued a predictably petulant diatribe regarding the withdrawn paper by Hewitson et al. It starts off with the bewildered meanderings of one that is clearly not familiar with scientific publications and editorial accountability.
How can a scientific study simply vanish? This paper had cleared every hurdle for entry into the public scientific record: it had passed peer review at a prestigious journal, received the editor’s approval for publication, been disseminated in electronic publication format (a common practice to ensure timely dissemination of new scientific information), and received the designation “in press” as it stood in line awaiting future publication in a print version of the journal. Now, and inexplicably, it has been erased from the official record. For practical scientific purposes it no longer exists.
The answer, of course, is that this is no ordinary scientific study. Age of Autism reported previously on its importance HERE , where we noted that “one likely tactic of critics of the study will include attempts to nullify the evidence based on the alleged bias of those involved.” The obvious risk, of course, was that a co-investigator on the paper, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, might make the study a target, especially in light of the hearings then underway at the U.K.’s General Medical Council (GMC).
First, let me point out that Neurotoxicology isn't a prestigious journal; it's an okay journal with an impact factor of 2.4. It may be nitpicking but it is disingenuous to attach exaggerated attributes such as 'prestigious' and 'world-renowned', especially when referring to cranks and their science. But Blaxill is right about two things; that was no ordinary scientific study and Wakefield's self-inflicted predicament was undoubtedly targeted, after the fact however. The monkey HepB study was not good, in fact, the study design, methods and results were quite poor. It never should have passed peer-review but somehow did; perhaps the editorial staff at Neurotoxicology were hedging their bets on a bombshell study and had enough reputable authors to withstand the blowback. That is evidenced by this response to Lynn Redwood's request for information by Elizabeth Perill:
Elizabeth Perill (Elsevier is a division of Reed Elsevier PLC, a large scientific publishing corporation and owner of Neurotoxicology). Perill wrote the following note to Ms. Redwood on February 4th.

Dear Dr. Redwood [sic],
Aside from any authorship concerns, on reflection the paper is not suitable for publication in this journal. The decision was based on the fact that the paper should not have been accepted in Neurotoxicology and the paper is not suitable for the audience of Neurotoxicology.
Kind regards,
Elizabeth Perill
Publisher, Toxicology,
360 Park Av. South, New York, NY 10010

So when more scrutiny was applied to the study itself, it didn't pass muster.
When Joan Cranmer accepted the primate paper in Neurotoxicology, her decision could not have been an easy one. The study subject and one of the study authors, Andrew Wakefield, were known to be highly controversial. All of the information about the GMC proceedings and the accusations against Wakefield were well known to the editors and peer reviewers. Despite that knowledge and the risks involved, Cranmer and her editorial team judged the science to be sound and decided to go ahead. We complimented them at the time, noting that “the journal editors at Neurotoxicology have taken a courageous stand in publishing what is sure to be unwelcome evidence in some circles.” It appears, however, that Cranmer’s superiors within Elsevier did not share those views.
Emphasis mine. That's bollocks Blaxill; let's review what the Conflict of interest statement in the study stated:
Prior to 2005, CS and AJW acted as paid experts in MMR-related litigation on behalf of the plaintiff. LH has a child who is a petitioner in the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. For this reason, LH was not involved in any data collection or statistical analyses to preclude the possibility of a perceived conflict of interest.
And let's review what the known conflicts of interest really are. Andrew Wakefield was well in the midst of GMC misconduct proceedings against him regarding the 1998 Lancet paper and the Neurotoxicology study was not submitted until 16 June 2009. Thoughtful House routinely treats autism as vaccine injury and promotes the use of chelation and Wakefield was firmly in place as the director then. Laura Hewitson is registered as a DAN! and also is employed at Thoughtful House as is her husband, Dan Hollenbeck. He is on the board of directors for SafeMinds, one of the funding sources for the monkey studies and a vitriolic supporter of the mercury-autism 'hypothesis'. Additionally, both openly support chelation. David Atwood from the University of Kentucky is the patent holder for N,N’-bis (2-mercaptoethyl)isophthalamide an industrial chelator designed for cleaning up mining sludge, or better known as OSR which is being marketed by Boyd Haley, also of the University of Kentucky as an autism cure for children.

As Orac pointed out, those of us involved in the topic of vaccines and the claims of 'damage' are an oddball bunch; it's a niche interest and it is audacious to assume that journal editors would have all of this information at their fingertips about any authors that makes submissions to their publications. That is what COI statements are for and probably a substantial reason why this study was withdrawn. Think about it; a group of authors don't declare their full COIs and then one is later shown in a formal proceeding to have acted with callous disregard for children that he was supposed to care for, unethically and dishonestly, not to mention the other glaring omissions. That cannot be simply ignored, at least in the real world. As Dr. Perill stipulated, "Aside from any authorship concerns, on reflection the paper is not suitable for publication in this journal.", can certainly be taken as the science was more closely scrutinised after the appalling COIs came to light. An update to AoA's post on this confirms this:

UPDATE: After publishing the article, Age of Autism received this statement from Joan Cranmer.

“Scientific integrity and good science are fundamental principles for publication of research articles in Neurotoxicology. Although rare, the journal withdraws papers whenever these essential principles are cast into doubt. The January 28, 2010 UK General Medical Council ruling of research dishonesty by Dr. Andrew Wakefield cast into doubt the scientific integrity of a new related paper co-authored by Wakefield*. However, it would be inappropriate for either me or the other editors to discuss the specific factors publicly.

Professor Joan M. Cranmer, Editor, Neurotoxicology

This shouldn't be so difficult for Blaxill and Co. to parse, but somehow it is. Scientific integrity and good science; principles that seem to allude the vaccine-autism pseudo-scientists. Blaxill also predictably pulls out the Galileo gambit and compares Wakefield to Herbert Needleman a physician who made the discovery that lead poisoning is responsible for developmental disorders and took on a powerful industry that tried to railroad him.
One of the reasons that Needleman is revered in the neurotoxicology community is because he had to surmount formidable obstacles and fight powerful opponents in order to protect children from dangerous exposures to heavy metals. Like Wakefield, Needleman once served as an expert witness in a legal proceeding, in this case on behalf of a child from Utah who had been injured by lead pollution. Also like Wakefield, Needleman found himself facing off against powerful industry forces, in this case the oil and gas industry and their suppliers of lead, companies such as Ethyl Corp and E.I. DuPont de Nemours. Most notably, in order to defend their profits, the lead industry mounted an aggressive effort to discredit Needleman. In 1991, he was called before the Office of Scientific Integrity at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on charges of scientific misconduct.
The chasmic differences between Dr. Needleman and Wakefield are scientific integrity and unassailable science that prevailed even under intense scrutiny. It really is a grotesque affront to someone of Dr. Needleman's credentials and righteousness. Wakefield is no Galileo, no Needleman and no Marshall and Warren. Just because Wakefield is viewed by his supporters as David taking on the big bad Goliath of Pharma, that doesn't make him right. If he had the science to support his assertions, it would have been replicated and it would have withstood scrutiny.
Seen from this perspective, what if the next-generation incarnation of Herbert Needleman is Andrew Wakefield, but in today’s version of the story, the balance of power has shifted in critical ways? In Wakefield’s case the product is neither gasoline nor paint, but vaccines, one of the most privileged product categories ever invented, products that are produced and promoted by the medical industry with missionary zeal. In contrast to the limited scientific influence of the oil and gas industry, the medical industry Wakefield faces is far more powerful, pursues its interests with greater skill, controls the flow of scientific information and effectively dictates media coverage. It appears now that the medical industry is so powerful that it can rewrite scientific history when it wants and even erase important scientific publications in a reputable journal.
The oil and gas industry have limited influence? Are you kidding me? Sadly, that was a rhetorical question that I well know the answer to. If Pharma is so competent and omnipotent, how did they allow Wakefield to not only publish the 1998 Lancet case series, but leave it published for almost 12 years, not to mention all of his subsequent publications and the most recent Neurotoxicology study? And only just got around to getting the GMC to instigate proceedings against him? Scientific publications get retracted all the time, it's part of the process when scientific fraud is discovered, and Wakefield fits that bill.

Wakefield is in a league with the likes of Victor Ninov, Jan Hendrik Schön, Robert P. Liburdy and Hwang Woo-Suk, the latter also feigning ignorance of bioethics in his defence. But Wakefield is a rank amateur compared to the Piltdown Man hoax. Whoever that was, kept that going for more than 4 decades and the true identity of the perpetrator(s) remains unknown. Wakefield's fraud was discovered a mere 5 years after the 1998 (now retracted) Lancet paper by a journalist, no less. Even if one wishes to (erroneously) argue that Mr. Deer was aimed at Wakefield, if there was nothing there, then Wakefield wouldn't have been so thoroughly discredited and looking for his next gig right now.

AoA's call for Neurotoxicology's editor Joan Cranmer to resign in the name of 'think of the children' is preposterous and just isn't going to be considered, let alone done. It is a vapid attempt to rally the troops in the face of yet another failed attempt to get their pseudo-scientific tripe into a real peer-reviewed journal and game over for Wakefield. I think that even they can see the disgrace of having to publish in bottom-dwelling vanity press journals such as JAPandS, Medical Veritas (ooo, they say it's a 'pre-eminent' journal) and of course, Medical Hypotheses and even though that is an Elsevier journal, I think they would give the monkey study a go, given their standards.

If you are interested in reading more on this topic, please visit Countering Age of Autism and of course, Respectful Insolence.