Chelation Study Dumped

18Sep08

CHICAGO (AP) — A government agency has dropped plans for a study of a controversial treatment for autism that critics had called an unethical experiment on children.The National Institute of Mental Health said in a statement Wednesday that the study of the treatment — called chelation — has been abandoned. The agency decided the money would be better used testing other potential therapies for autism and related disorders, the statement said.

The study had been on hold because of safety concerns after another study published last year linked a drug used in the treatment to lasting brain problems in rats.

Chelation (kee-LAY’-shun) removes heavy metals from the body and is used to treat lead poisoning. Its use as an autism treatment is based on the fringe theory that mercury in vaccines triggers autism — a theory never proved and rejected by mainstream science. Mercury hasn’t been in childhood vaccines since 2001, except for certain flu shots.

But many parents of autistic children are believers in the treatment, and NIMH agreed to test it.

The researchers had proposed recruiting 120 autistic children ages 4 to 10 and giving half a chelation drug and the other half a dummy pill. The 12-week test would measure before-and-after blood mercury levels and autism symptoms.

The study outline said that failing to find a difference between the two groups would counteract “anecdotal reports and widespread belief” that chelation works.

To be blunt: Good. One of the defining traits of the autism-vaccine linkage crowd seems to be the stubborn insistence that if only “Big Science” (or the “Rational-Fascist Establishment” or some idiotic phrase) would do a proper clinical trial, they would be vindicated. Or that, presented with such empirical evidence, they’ll go about their business. The fact that no such trials take place is just another example of the man keeping them down, and stone hearted scientists in the pockets of the pharma companies ignoring the impassioned pleas of desperate parents.

None of that is actually true. The reason no such studies take place is not that scientists hate the parents of autistic kids, or the kids themselves. Indeed, many have a great deal of sympathy for them, and have devoted their academic careers to finding the *actual* causal mechanisms for autism. These studies don’t take place because, as expressed by NIMH’s decision today, they are unethical. A clinical trial with no prior empirical evidence from cellular experiments, animal models or even credible biological plausibility, especially when it involves hazards to children, is not ethical. Period. Nor would the results of this study be “accepted”. Chelation therapy its ilk are sold to desperate parents by very compelling salespeople pushing their ideology, and like their comrades in arms the IDists (as far as the undermining of scientific evidence in favor of democratic anecdotes) there is always a way to squirm out of the way of otherwise definitive evidence. 

But for today, NIMH’s decision gives me a small bit of hope.

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