Chelation study for autism tossed on the dustbin

Well, well, well, well.

Sometimes science and ethics do win out after all:

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.

Except that it wouldn’t have.

Antivaccinationists would never have believed this study if it were negative, and because there was no plausible biological mechanism by which it was even possible that chelation therapy could work, the the chances that any child would benefit were slim and none while the chances of a child being injured were not inconsequential. I’ve already discussed in detail why the proposed study represented both bad science and bad ethics, as has Steve Novella.

Overall, it was an excellent decision to kill this misbegotten and ill-conceived study. Just because a lot of quacks have convinced parents of autistic children that chelation therapy does anything more than line their pocketbooks is not in and of itself adequate justification to do a clinical trial. Certainly it’s no reason to bypass the usual series of studies necessary to justify and lead up to a clinical trial, including basic science, cell culture models, and animal models, required to provide scientific justification before testing a therapy in humans. And, once again, no matter what the results of the study, the true believers wouldn’t believe it anyway. In fact, they’d declare it a conspiracy, just as the antivaccinationists at Age of Autism will no doubt soon be calling it.

Still, sometimes science wins out, and yesterday was just such a day. Autistic children will not be subjected to risk with almost certainly no potential for benefit, and the money that would have funded this study can be spent elsewhere.