Field of Science

Vaccines, autism, and Obama

I’m really disappointed in my candidate.

I recently put a “Scientists for Obama” bumper sticker on my car, because I liked his positions on science and other issues, but this week he joined McCain and Clinton on the bad science bandwagon that continues to attempt to link vaccines to autism.

First, McCain made a statement that “there’s strong evidence that indicates it’s [the rise of autism] got to do with a preservative in vaccines.” In fact there is no evidence in support of this and much evidence against it. Then Clinton answered, in response to a questionnaire from an autism activist group (which is promoting the bogus vaccine-autism link), that she was “committed to ... find the causes of autism, including ... vaccines,” and further that “we don’t know what kind of link there is between vaccines and autism, but we should find out.” Wrong, Senator Clinton – we do know what kind of link there is, because we’ve run dozens of studies, and the answer is that there is no link. No link!

And finally, most recently, our last hope, Barack Obama, who had stayed out of it, said at a rally this week that “some people are suspicious that it’s [autism is] connected to the vaccines.... The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.” Wrong, Senator Obama. The science is as conclusive as it can get, and there is no link. Unfortunately, most people – and most Senators, it seems – don’t understand that scientific methods cannot prove a negative. So if there is no link between A and B, you can study it to death, and the best you can say is that “we failed to find a link.”

I blogged on the autism-vaccine issue not long ago, so I won’t repeat that here, except to remind readers that the controversy all started (see my earlier blogpost) with a fraudulent study by Andrew Wakefield in The Lancet arguing for a link between vaccines and autism. Wakefield's data was collected fraudulently, and after the fraud came out – including Wakefield’s financial interest in the study – his own co-authors repudiated him and retracted their findings. Wakefield is under criminal investigation in the UK, so he relocated to the U.S., where our lax regulations have allowed him to set up shop again, offering his own brand of “help” to parents of autistic children. Meanwhile he tours the U.S. giving talks and interviews, pushing this bad science, and making plenty of money off the parents of autistic children.

The blogs I’ve seen on this have multiple responses from vaccine-autism believers, including parents with heartbreaking personal stories, and a growing number of journalists who are astonishingly ignorant of science (including David Kirby at the Huffington Post, who seems to think he’s figured it all out). They are all wrong, but their activism continues to muddy the waters and confuse the public. There are numerous sites explaining the science in more measured terms, including the Institute of Medicine’s detailed reports, and it’s a shame that the science is being shouted down.

I wrote to Senator Obama today – on his campaign website – asking him to talk to a real scientist about this issue and to reconsider his statements. If he doesn’t – and I don’t expect that his staff will even tell him about my comments – then we’re left with three leading candidates who are all misinformed on this important public health issue. My only (slight) consolation is that Obama’s statement is the most muted of the three, since he didn’t actually assert that there was a link, just that the science was inconclusive. If I get a reply from the Obama campaign, I'll be sure to post it here.

WARF is evil

No, not Worf – the bad Klingon with the heart of gold in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I like him just fine.

I’m writing this week about WARF, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Sounds harmless, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately it’s not. You see, WARF holds three patents on embryonic stem cells, and they are using these patents to slow down or block research on stem cells – research that is one of the most promising avenues for curing a wide range of diseases, and even slowing the effects of aging.

Why would anyone want to hinder the progress of stem cell research? Well, there are two reasons (at least). Everyone knows that some people are morally opposed to the use of human embryonic stem cell research, but WARF doesn’t have a problem there. (Neither do I; in fact I strongly support it.) No, the second reason is simply this: money. WARF wants to impose licensing fees on anyone who wants to do embryonic stem cell research – that’s the whole purpose of their patents. WARF isn’t a research institution, it’s just a money-making foundation for the University of Wisconsin, so they’re not doing any research themselves. The patent is nothing more than a dollar-extracting device for them.

Personally, I think the whole patent system is a mess, and it should be scrapped and replaced by a system that can handle modern technology, and that gives scientists and engineers the freedom to pursue their work, rather than wasting countless hours (and dollars) on lawyers. But that’s a larger issue.

Even if I liked patents, I would oppose patents on embryonic stem cells. These are a life form, not an invention. Research is at an early stage, and patents are particularly damaging at this point in their development. One damaging effect – impossible to quantify – is that patents will discourage scientists from going into the field in the first place, because they know they might have difficulty pursuing their ideas. Scientists have already pointed out that the the WARF stem cell patents are overly broad, making it too easy for WARF to demand payments from scientists working on a wide range of new techniques.

The most recent development (in March) was that the US Patent and Trade Office (PTO) ruled in favor of WARF on 3 legal challenges to their stem cell patents. The lawsuits were filed by two citizens groups who claimed that the invention was obvious and not deserving of a patent. Last year the PTO agreed to take a look, which raised everyone’s hopes (except WARF’s), but this new ruling is a big letdown.

Scientists have complained in the past that WARF charges high fees – especially high for private companies, less so for universities) and requires them to wade through reams of paperwork (a huge waste of time) to use embryonic stem cells. See the Science article from last April in which George Daley of Harvard complains that his mouse research “would grind to a halt” if he had to deal WARF’s red tape.

I’m not surprised that the PTO ruled in WARF’s favor – after all, PTO has a selfish interest in keeping the patent system as it is. The more patents, the better (for them). The real problem, though, isn’t the legal claim – the challenge to the patents was a long shot in the first place, and I never thought they had a good chance of winning. The problem is that we allow these types of patents in the first place.

Meanwhile, WARF claims it is seeing “a small amount of commercial royalties” – as if the fact that they weren’t making much money was somehow a mitigating factor. If this is true, then why are they holding the entire research enterprise hostage for a small amount of money that they want for themselves? Obviously they are trying to distract attention from the real issue, which is that we’re allowing a private entity to prevent work on problems that could benefit all mankind. This is completely and utterly illogical; it appears that our legal system has us so tied into knots that we can’t - as a society, as a species – do what’s best for ourselves.

I’ve heard the arguments from the other side – that patents are necessary for a thriving commercial sector, especially for technology companies. I don’t buy it. The arguments just don’t hold up in today’s rapidly changing environment. Giving a person (or a corporate entity) exclusive control over an invention for 20+ years may have made sense 50 or 100 years ago, but it doesn’t today. And even if it did, it doesn’t work for stem cell technology. WARF is hampering research for their own short-term profit goals.

If the University of Wisconsin truly wants to benefit society, then it should insist that WARF license its stem cell patents for free to anyone who wants them. (WARF’s home page says that it “ensures the inventions of UW-Madison benefit humankind” – so they apparently agree with me!) If they argue that they deserve some profits, I’d point out that the U.S. government paid for the work in the first place. It’s true that U.S. law allows universities to claim ownership – and patents – on work produced on their campuses with federal support, but just because you can do something doesn’t make it okay.

WARF is evil.