Bad medical ideas often start with good intentions. Most doctors are interested in preventing and treating disease, and some diseases are particularly challenging. Some rise to this challenge, forming clever hypotheses and finding accurate ways to test them, but others aren't so successful. Sometimes, hypotheses are too implausible to be worth spending much time on. Sometimes, the method used to test a hypothesis is simply not valid.
This story begins on the website Age of Autism. AoA is one of the homes of the antivaccination movement and gives a lot of time to those who still believe that vaccinations and other "toxins" cause autism. The site is full of remarkably paranoid rants. When Chicago Tribune journalist Trine Tsouderos won an excellence in health care journalism award, AoA accused the CDC and Trib of having "bought" the award. They are boosters of every unproven and implausible "treatment" for autism, such as chelation, hyperbaric oxygen, and chemical castration through lupron injections. Recently, they provided a platform to Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the physician who's Lancet paper drawing a link between autism, vaccinations, and gut disorders, was formally withdrawn by the journal's editors. Due to accusations of scientific and ethical misconduct, he is likely to lose his license to practice medicine in England.
So it came as no surprise to see one of their writers hyping a study in progress that is testing oral enzymes for the treatment of autism. In the piece, Theresa Conrick incorrectly implies that the existence of this study is vindication for both the autism-gut hypothesis and for Wakefield's behavior.
In 1998 Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the prestigious medical journal the Lancet. In this study, he claimed that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine caused observable changes to children's intestines which eventually lead to autism. The study led directly to falling vaccination rates in the UK, an increase in vaccine-preventable disease, and helped launch the modern antivaccination movement in North American and Europe. The study, as it turned out, was so fraught with conflicts of interest and poor science that several of the authors dropped their association with it, and it was eventually withdrawn from the journal. Wakefield himself was lambasted by England's General Medical Council for his unethical behavior associated with the study, and will likely lose his license to practice medicine.
Wakefield's hypothesis about autism and gastrointestinal disease was never terribly plausible to begin with, and despite the retraction of his original study, there persists a belief in many parts of the autism community that the gut is somehow implicated in the development and treatment of autism. Wakefield still has many zealous adherents and dietary therapies for autism have grown in popularity. Jenny McCarthy attributes much of her purported success with her child to severe dietary restrictions which she recommends for others. So far, however, there is no good body of literature supporting any connection between gut disease, diet, and autism. A new study aims to change that.