Conflict of interest fear over study of autism
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
(Filed: 21/07/2001)

THE Medical Research Council said yesterday it was keeping a committee undertaking a study of autism under review after complaints about conflicts of interest.

The MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine controversy led to the Department of Health asking the council to report on the causes of autism, from psychological factors to infections and diet, against a background of legal action launched by hundreds of parents with autistic children.

Four members of the four groups conducting the review are involved in some respect with the action involving vaccine manufacturers but the council rejected claims of a conflict of interest.

Last week, several people raised questions at a workshop about whether the review groups should include scientists and lay people involved in the legal action.

Dr Andrew Wakefield, the scientist who first linked autism to MMR, two other scientists and a lay member asked to address the workshop, boycotted the meeting along with one invited delegate, citing concerns about the alleged conflicts of interest as their reason.

The council held a crisis meeting earlier this week after one member submitted a resignation letter and then withdrew it.

Lord Clement-Jones, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on health in the Lords, has asked the Government what advice it was giving the council to avoid conflicts of interest. Lord Clement-Jones, who is on the autism all-party group, said he was concerned by the "fuss that has been made over the people who have been advising the vaccine manufacturers in their court cases".

Dr Peter Dukes, of the council, said: "Quite rightly, parents involved in our review have asked us to explain how come we have scientists involved in the class action."

Four members are linked in some way to the legal action - Dr Eric Fombonne, of the Institute of Psychiatry; Prof Ian Sanderson, of St Barts Hospital; Prof Bert Rima, of Queens University Belfast; and Rosemary Kessick, a lay member.

The MRC report will be presented to the Department of Health in November and be available more widely by the end of the year.