Field of Science

Another hero of the anti-vaccine movement bites the dust

I often wonder what motivates anti-vaccinationists. Are they in it because they truly believe they are offering valid treatments and advice? (Some of them do, I think.) Or are they just in it for baser reasons, such as money and fame?

Boyd Haley is a retired professor of chemistry from the University of Kentucky. His name has appeared several times in the Comments sections of this blog (for example, here and here), when commenters have presented him as a scientific expert supporting the claim that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism.

In his own words, Haley has said
“I have been a strong proponent of investigating thimerosal as the casual agent for autism spectrum disorders based on the biological science that shows thimerosal to be incredibly toxic, especially to infants.”
Haley also wrote
“If, indeed, the complete removal of thimerosal from vaccines was not followed in an appropriate time by a decrease in autism then this would be solid proof that thimerosal was not causal for autism.”
Thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines in the U.S. by 2002, and the rate of autism diagnoses continued to increase, but Haley simply changed his tune and continued to claim that thimerosal causes autism. The overwhelming (and still growing) evidence against the thimerosal-autism link has apparently done nothing to change his mind.

Is Haley simply a confused chemist who fails to understand epidemiological evidence? Or does he have another agenda?

Well, he does: money.

As Los Angeles Times reporter Trine Tsouderos wrote in a two-part story this past week, Haley and his company have been marketing a chelating agent – a powerful, highly toxic chemical that removes mercury from the bloodstream – as a treatment for autism. They also claim that this chemical, called OSR#1, is a harmless dietary supplement. Haley’s company, CTI Science, is selling OSR#1 as "a toxicity free, lipid soluble antioxidant dietary supplement." The LA Times ordered 30 100-milligram capsules of OSR#1 for $60 through an online pharmacy.

The FDA has sent Haley and his company a formal warning letter telling them to stop marketing this unapproved drug as a supplement. Haley’s claim that OSR#1 is a supplement is a flimsy attempt to try to avoid regulation of this dangerous chemical as a drug, though it clearly is a drug. (Dietary supplements are unregulated in the U.S. - a topic for another day.) The FDA letter is unambiguous, stating:
“this product is a new drug, as defined by section 201(p) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 321(p), because it is not generally recognized as safe and effective for use under the conditions prescribed, recommended, or suggested in its labeling.”
Just to be sure, I checked the CTI website today, and the main headline is “CTI Science Introduces OSR#1.” Haley is President and CEO of the company and his former University of Kentucky holds a patent on it. There are no clinical trials or other data showing that OSR#1 is safe or effective; on the contrary, the FDA letter explains that it has several serious side effects, including diarrhea, abnormalities of the pancreas, and lymphoid hyperplasia.

This hasn’t stopped Boyd Haley and his company from marketing their drug as a treatment for autism. The anti-vaccination site Age of Autism has promoted it; indeed, the LA Times reported that
[AoA’s] managing editor, Kim Stagliano wrote of sprinkling the white powder on her three daughters' breakfast sandwiches and orange juice. "We've seen some nice 'Wows!' from OSR," she wrote.
Boyd Haley may be misguided, but he has a deep financial reason for pushing the link between thimerosal and autism: without it, his company can’t sell its product.

Will the anti-vaccinationists start to doubt Dr. Haley? Will his obvious conflict of interest, and his violation of FDA regulations, make them wonder why he’s selling them a powerful, possibly harmful chelating agent to treat their children? I hope so.

For further reading, I recommend the recent articles by Dr. Steven Novella at Neurologica and Orac’s detailed discussion at Respectful Insolence.

Save NIH $$$: eliminate “alternative” medicine

This past week, President Obama called on all federal agencies to voluntarily propose budget cuts of 5%. What, cut the science budget? Well, Mr. President, you might be surprised to learn that there's a way for you that cut the NIH budget without hurting biomedical research. In fact, it will help.

Here's my proposal: save over $240 million per year in the NIH budget by cutting all funding for NCCAM and OCCAM, the two centers that fund alternative medicine. NCCAM is the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and OCCAM is the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and both of them exist primarily to promote pseudoscience. For the current year, NCCAM’s budget is $128.8 million, an amount that has rapidly grown from $2 million in 1992, despite the fact that not a single “alternative” therapy supported by NCCAM has proven beneficial to health. OCCAM’s budget was $121 million in 2008 (the latest I could find) and presumably higher in 2010. That’s over $240M, not counting money these programs got from the stimulus package (and yes, they did get some stimulus funding).

These two organizations use our tax dollars – and take money away from real biomedical research – to support some of the most laughably pseudoscientific claims that you can find. To take just one example, NCCAM has spent $3.1 million supporting studies of Reiki, an “energy healing” method. Energy healing is based on the unsupported claim that the human body is surrounded by an energy field, and that Reiki practitioners can manipulate this field to improve someone's health. Not surprisingly, the $3.1 million has so far failed to produce any evidence that Reiki works. But because there was never any evidence in the first place, we should never have spent precious research dollars looking into it.