Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier hits a new low: Age of Autism rallies to defend him

Remember Luc Montagnier? Sure, you do. He’s the Nobel Laureate whose identification of the virus that causes AIDS garnered him plaudits, laurels, and, of course, the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Unfortunately, since winning the Nobel Prize, from a scientific standpoint, Montagnier’s been on a downward spiral. Sadly, it didn’t take long after his Nobel acceptance speech for disturbing signs of crankery and quackery to appear. For instance, Montagnier published a paper that implied that DNA could teleport, using this study, whose results were almost certainly the result of contaminants in Montagnier’s PCR reactions, as support for the principles of homeopathy. On another occasion, Montagnier appeared in an HIV/AIDS denialist film and appeared to be saying that HIV can be cleared “naturally” with diet and supplements. Worse, of late Montagnier has been turning his talents to the treatment of autistic children. Indeed, he’s run highly unethical study of long term antibiotics as a treatment for autism. His low point came a month ago, when he actually presented his work at that yearly autism “biomed” quackfest, Autism One. Let’s face it. As a scientist, it’s really hard to go from winning the Nobel Prize to the ignominy of presenting to a quack conference in such a short period of time, but somehow Montagnier managed it. I thought that was as low as Montagnier could fall.

I was wrong. What to my wondering eyes should appear yesterday on that wretched hive of scum, antivaccinationism, and autism “biomed” quackery, Age of Autism? I saw a post urging AoA readers to write to the President of Cameroon defending Luc Montagnier:

A recent article in Nature shows that the vaccine industry has been closing ranks against Dr. Luc Montagnier ever since his brilliant lecture at AutismOne last month. In particular, 35 Nobel Laureates, led by one who sells commercial products to the vaccine industry, sent a letter to the President of Cameroon protesting Dr. Montagnier’s leadership position on a national research organization dedicated to HIV research. Robert Gallo, the man who tried to steal credit for Dr. Montagnier’s discovery of HIV and is now being funded by the Gates Foundation to develop an HIV vaccine, wrote a similar letter attacking him to the Cameroonian President. Please send the below letter to the Office of the President of Cameroon, Paul Biya, to defend Dr. Montagnier!

Now that’s as low as you can fall, scientifically speaking, as a Nobel Laureate. Montagnier has now gone from the highest heights of science to the very deepest depths, and it doesn’t get much deeper than having an antivaccine crank website urge its antivaccine crank readers to write antivaccine crank letters defending you against valid scientific criticism from 35 other Nobel Laureates. Seriously, if I were Montagnier, I’d just put a paper bag over my head now and slink out of the limelight in shame.

But what, pray tell, is this all about? Conveniently, AoA doesn’t link to the Nature article, but I had heard about it before. I had almost even blogged about it before after having seen Abbie Smith blog about the situation last week. If you read Abbie’s post and the article by Declan Butler in Nature about the situation, you’ll find out that—surprise! surprise!—AoA is telling a highly filtered version of the story.

Basically, what happened is that a fledgling AIDS research center in Cameroon, the Chantal Biya Inter­national Reference Centre (CIRCB) in Yaoundé, chose Montagnier as its interim scientific director. The center, according to the article, has a comprehensive AIDS research program that includes a health care program that tests newborn babies for HIV and treats them to prevent maternal transmission of the virus. It sounds like a really impressive institute:

It is the only research institution in central Africa with the technology and expertise to monitor people with HIV thoroughly, and one of the few African sources of hard data about the spread of the disease. It has an annual budget of about US$1 million, an array of international collaborations and around 20 local staff members, most of whom trained abroad.

This is, of course, exactly the sort of research institute Africa needs, bringing high-powered, state-of-the art science to the regions where a large number of people suffering from HIV and AIDS live. It’s the sort of endeavor that needs to succeed, and it’s well-positioned to help the population suffering the most from AIDS. Indeed, that’s why the Nobel laureates acted. They are concerned that having Montagnier as interim director endangers the good that the institute can do. So are several board members of CIRCB:

The letter was coordinated by Richard Roberts, a Nobel-prizewinning molecular biologist and chief scientific officer of New England Biolabs in Ipswich, Massachusetts, who also wrote personally to Biya on 4 June, to resign from the CIRCB’s scientific board. Roberts says he is concerned that Montagnier plans to pursue his unorthodox research at the centre. Several other board members have also resigned.

Robert Gallo, head of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, who had battled with Montagnier over which of them had discovered HIV, has also entered the fray. On 4 June, Gallo wrote to Biya expressing concerns similar to those of the Nobel laureates and informing Biya that his institute, a founding sponsor of the CIRCB, was immediately severing its links with the centre.

I will concede that it probably would have been better if Robert Gallo had kept his nose out of this and his big mouth shut. He’s probably not helping the situation because in light of his feud with Montagnier over who discovered HIV first his involvement will be certainly be perceived by many as sour grapes, regardless of his true motivation. On the other hand, I do have to admit that it’s rather amusing how AoA has to characterize Richard Roberts as someone who “who sells commercial products to the vaccine industry.” It tells me that AoA really had to stretch to find a creative way to smear Roberts with the “pharma shill” gambit. After all, anyone who’s worked in a biomedical research lab has probably used products from New England Biolabs (NEB). It’s not just the vaccine industry. NEB made its name manufacturing restriction endonucleases. I’ve been using NEB restriction enzymes ever since my graduate school days. So have a lot of scientists, the vast majority of whom are in academia. NEB manufactures great enzymes, among other products. That’s why I chuckled heartily at how much AoA had to stretch to tar NEB as part of the evil “vaccine-industrial complex.”

Yes, it was that lame, but, then, it is AoA we’re talking about.

In any case, it sounds as though the CIRCB is in a bit of chaos, having suffered from a lack of a stable full-time leadership. The consequence of that left an opening for Montagnier to be appointed interim director, apparently because the search committee couldn’t agree on a permanent leader. Now here’s the thing. Montagnier has clearly gone crank on us. He has argued for homeopathy, suggested that DNA teleportation is possible, and carried out a highly unethical clinical trial on a vulnerable population, autistic children, in which he treated them with antibiotics with no biologically plausible mechanism by which antibiotics could help autistic symptoms. That quackery appears to be in the cards for the CIRCB if Montagnier stays on. Roberts and the other Nobel laureates are right to be concerned:

On the day that Roberts resigned, for example, the scientific board was officially dissolved, and no clear timetable has been set to reestablish it. Colizzi is concerned that this deprives the centre of its main mechanism for enforcing rigorous peer-review and ethical oversight of research proposals. Montagnier says that he intends to continue all research previously approved by the board, and that he will ask the next board to review the programme. He also plans to embark on new research, including a “key project” using his electromagnetic-wave theory to detect reservoirs of HIV in the body that persist after antiretroviral treatment. Any new projects, including his own, will need to be approved by the centre’s science board and ethics committee, he says.

Montagnier’s “electromagnetic wave” theory? First off, it’s not a “theory.” It’s a hypothesis, and a half-baked one at that. I’ve written about this before. Basically, Montagnier has claimed that DNA emits radio waves that can produce electronic imprints of itself so convincing that enzymes can mistake the imprints for real DNA and copy them to make the real thing. I’m still pretty sure that what Montagnier has “discovered” is contamination in his PCR mixtures. It’s also pretty obvious that Montagnier has not discovered what he thinks he’s discovered. Finally, it’s even more obvious that it would be a horrific waste of resources, effort, and scientists to pursue something this dubious in AIDS research. New board or not, does anyone think it’s likely that the board of directors would block a study proposed by the Nobel laureate whose team first identified the virus that causes AIDS who is also the director of the center? Such a happenstance is unlikely, at best.

Yes, as I said before, the Nobel laureates are right to be concerned, and they have acted. The hilarious thing is that AoA thinks that its cranks can compete with that scientific firepower, particularly using the text suggested by AoA, which I will quote here in its entirety because it is such a magnificent work of antivaccine paranoia:

Dear President Biya,

I write to you as a US citizen who is concerned about the vitriol and fallacious attacks directed against the Nobel Prize-Winning Scientist who discovered HIV – Dr. Luc Montagnier – by the American vaccine industry, which accuses him of holding “anti-vaccination views” for raising the possibility of a link between vaccines and autism at a recent conference held in the United States.

The latest attack on Dr. Montagnier, according to a recent article in Nature, comes in the form of a letter signed by 35 Nobel laureates attacking his role as interim director of the Chantal Biya Inter­national Reference Centre. I do not know who all the signatories are, but the coordinator of this letter – Dr. Richard Roberts – runs a biotechnology firm that sells commercial products to vaccine manufacturers. I understand you have also received a similar letter from Dr. Robert Gallo – who tried to take credit for Dr. Montagnier’s discovery of HIV. Gallo is currently receiving a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop an HIV vaccine. Bill Gates has appeared on American television dismissing the vaccine-autism link as an “absolute lie.” The MMR vaccination – one of the vaccines most suspected of causing autism – was first introduced when a now-senior adviser to the Gates Foundation, Dr. Bill Foege, was director of the US Center for Disease Control.

Despite the best efforts of the vaccine industry, they have completely failed at covering up a vaccine-autism connection. Their own studies have implicated vaccines in autism – one study from Denmark cited as evidence against a link showed a 45% increased risk among those vaccinated with MMR as opposed to those not given the vaccine. When a McGill University scientist, Dr. Samy Suissa, wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine pointing this out, his letter was censored from publication. Moreover, the author of this study who funded this work, Dr. Poul Thorsen, has now been indicted on fraud charges by a US court. Another commonly-cited study to “prove” no link found a peak in parental concern for their child’s development within the months following MMR vaccination. One of the authors, Dr. Elizabeth Miller, sat on a panel that approved a brand of MMR vaccine known for causing meningitis in the United Kingdom while concealing that risk from the public. It also showed an increase in autism began in the first children to receive this vaccination after it was approved. Yet both Miller’s and Thorsen’s studies form the bulk of the latest report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) claiming no association between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Similarly, the original 2004 IOM Immunization Safety Review Report claiming no association to autism from either the MMR vaccine or the mercury-based thimerosal preservative had a preconceived position from the beginning. The chairwoman of this report, Dr. Marie McCormick, said behind closed doors while referring to autism that “…we will never come down that it [autism] is a true side-effect…” This report cited reports from Denmark – also involving Poul Thorsen – claiming that autism prevalence rose after thimerosal was removed from Danish vaccines. In reality, these reports concluded this on the basis of fudged statistics, while the coauthors privately conceded about the rates of autism that “the incidence and prevalence is still decreasing in 2001” following thimerosal removal. Elizabeth Miller also did a study claiming no association between autism and thimerosal, but in private email correspondence, the Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, Dr. Thomas Verstraeten for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that the study “might not be worth doing” due to its inability to find a true autism link even if one exists. Yet this study was done anyway, published, and is continuously cited as negative evidence for an association. Dr. Verstraeten’s own original analysis showed an 11.35 increased risk associated with early thimerosal exposure and autism, and in private emails to his colleagues, Dr. Verstraeten concluded that thimerosal was causing real harm – namely autism. The latest CDC Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network report from one US state found a 20% decrease in autism spectrum disorder prevalence in children born in 2000, the first year after a joint statement was made in the United States by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the US Public Health Service calling for thimerosal to be removed as soon as possible. This is the first statistically significant decrease in autism reported in this surveillance system’s decade long-history. Yet this preservative, as you may not be well aware, is still used in vaccines exported to your country. Through exposure to this vaccine preservative, children in your country are being exposed to mercury at levels that are many times the safe limit set by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Meanwhile, there have been numerous cases of compensation paid out to families of children who had sustained vaccine injuries resulting in an autism diagnosis here in the United States. Just recently, an Italian Court acknowledged a child’s autism was caused by his MMR vaccination. The UK’s Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Andy Burnham, has asked the Secretary of State for Health – Andrew Lansley – to consider this legal decision.

In conclusion, the evidence to date shows that Dr. Luc Montagnier’s serious consideration to the vaccine-autism connection is as correct as his original discovery of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Please do not cave to the coercive and corrupt powers of the vaccine industry, which includes an old rival who previously tried to take credit for Dr. Montagnier’s Nobel Prize-Winning discovery of HIV. We believe that through his work on autism, Dr. Montagnier has further demonstrated a level of scientific rigor and innovation of unparalleled accomplishment that could hold significant promise for patients suffering from AIDS, as it does for patients with autism.

Sincerely,

[signed]

As I said, this letter has to be seen to be believed, and I want you to take a minute to take in the utter depth of antivaccine crankery contained therein. Yes, AoA really seems to believe that Montagnier is being attacked by shills and minions of the antivaccine industry, led by Roberts, who to AoA is a shill and minion of the vaccine industry because his company sells restriction enzymes and other reagents to vaccine manufacturers, just as it does to thousands of labs in universities all over the world, and Robert Gallo, who is a shill and minion of the vaccine industry because he’s working on an HIV vaccine—just as, I note, Montagnier is as well. So what makes Gallo “bad” and Montagnier “good”? They’re both working on vaccines! Well, obviously, it must be the connection between Gallo and the other dark lord of vaccination besides Paul Offit, Bill Gates.

The rest of the letter is a cavalcade of the antivaccine movement’s greatest hits. Fallacious attacks on the Danish studies? Check. The claim that because Poul Thorsen might have embezzled funds must mean that the Danish studies are not valid? Check. Hoary old misinterpretations of the Verstraeten study? Check. The list goes on and on. In fact, if I had any advice for Montagnier, it would be to point out that with friends like AoA he doesn’t need enemies. A smart guy would tell AoA, “Thanks but no thanks.” But these days Montagnier doesn’t seem to be too smart anymore, at least not about these things. Don’t believe me? Then check out this response by Montagnier on his website.

Basically, it’s a stream-of-consciousness rant, all in a single very, very long paragraph, that’s borders on incoherence. I’m not sure if it’s because English is not Montagnier’s first language or because he’s just ranting, but it’s pretty sad to see. It begins with the Galileo gambit, in which Montagnier laments how some scientific discoveries are not always received well by the scientific community at first and how he believes that this is now happening to him. Montagnier then tries to explain his views on autism:

My studies on the role of microbial infections in chronic diseases led me, in 2010, to search for a coherent organic origin of autism. The hypothesis is not new that abnormal passage of bacterial products from the gut to the blood circulation and from the blood to the brain could affect the maturation of neurones in children. But I was able to confirm, by a new technology (see below) and also by the clinical experience of my physician colleagues, the validity of this hypothesis.

Right here, Montagnier is basically parroting Andrew Wakefield’s hypothesis, except he’s substituting “bacterial products” for the measles virus. Based on his pseudoscientific hypothesis, with no good evidence to support it, next Montagnier did this:

This led me to propose highly regulated courses of appropriate antibiotics, administered with antifungal and antioxidant treatments for improving the condition of young autistic children. Several clinical trials were proposed and submitted to ad hoc ethical committees. Finally, under the aegis of the French Ministry of Health, a double blind trial with placebo will be set up in several centers in France to verify our anecdotal results already obtained in more than 200 children.

I really have to wonder right here whether the only reason this horrifically bad, pseudoscientific piece of nonsense of a study managed to get approval from research ethics boards is because it’s fronted by Luc Montagnier, Nobel laureate. Whatever the reason, if this is true, France has a serious problem with its research ethics committees. In fact, Now I wonder. Note how Montagnier says “ad hock ethical committees.” One wonders whether these are like Mark and David Geiers’ IRB, which was stacked with antivaccine believers and chaired by Mark Geier himself!

But, wait. There’s more:

It is within this spirit that I responded positively to the invitation of a U.S. association of parents of autistic children, AutismOne, in Chicago, in May 2012. In my talk, I described the results obtained in Europe by the above mentioned antibiotic treatment, and the new technology for detection of bacterial DNA in the blood, and our physio-pathogenic explanation. Among the possible multifactorial origins of autism, I never cite vaccinations. Yet, a Forbes journalist entitled his article: “French Nobelist joins the anti-vaccination crowd”.

That would be this excellent post by Steve Salzberg, to which I add in this post: By agreeing to be a keynote speaker at the quackfest known as Autism One, Montagnier basically threw away whatever scientific credibility he might have had left. And if that didn’t do it, this next passage will. After assuring us that, oh, no, he is not “antivaccine” at all, that he credits vaccination with the eradication of smallpox, Montagnier also says that there was a “horrific price,” encephalitis. Then, if he really isn’t antivaccine, he sure does do a fantastic impression of an antivaccinationist:

Many parents have observed a temporal association – which does not mean causation – between a vaccination by puncture and the appearance of autism symptoms. This should not be neglected by the medical community and public health decision makers. It is therefore of prime importance to study the risk factors, both environmental and genetic, which could be involved in order to prevent them. Presumably, vaccination, especially vaccination against multiple antigens, could be a trigger of a pre-existing pathological situation in some children. The vaccine denialists are not the courageous individuals who raise the problems of vaccination accidents, but are those people who deny the existence of these tragic accidents. The latter believe in the dogma “vaccines are good”, period. They are forgetting the Hippocratic oath: primum, non nocere. First, do no harm.

His denials notwithstanding, it is clear that Luc Montagnier has drunk deeply of the Kool-Aid. He has become antivaccine. It’s all there. While admitting that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, Montagnier makes it clear that he thinks it does in this case. He cribs the idea, long beloved of antivaccinationists, that somehow there is a “predisposing” condition or genetic background in which vaccines “trigger” autism. He even steals Ginger Taylor’s favorite ploy of labeling those who tell antivaccinationists that they are peddling pseudoscience as “denialists,” thus co-opting the very language used to describe vaccine denialists/antivaccinationists, going so far as to call antivaccinationists “courageous”!

What Luc Montagnier is learning now about science is one of its greatest strengths. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what your past accomplishments have been. No one is sacred, and if you descend into pseudoscience even your Nobel Prize will not protect you for long from the consequences you so richly deserve. Those consequences include criticism, loss of funding, and loss of leadership positions. True, the Nobel Prize might protect you for a while, but eventually science wins out.

I’m just glad that it was Montagnier’s appearance at Autism One that was obviously the last straw that spurred the scientific community to action against Montagnier. I’m also very sad that a once-great scientist has fallen so far. Now that it has fallen that far, however, it is a good thing that the antivaccine movement is rallying to defend Montagnier. They’ll dig his scientific grave faster than anyone else ever could. Let’s just put it this way. Even a Nobel Prize can’t save you if you willingly lecture at the same event as a woman who advocates bleach enemas to treat autism.