A new study linking aluminum in vaccines to autism is at the center of a controversy.
Scientists have harshly criticized the research’s methodology and say they even found fake data.
The research, originally published in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, has now retracted.
Two of the study authors, Christopher Shaw, PhD, and Lucija Tomljenovic, PhD, previously had another paper on vaccine-related illnesses retracted in major scientific journals.
In the paper, the scientists from the University of British Columbia said that aluminum adjuvants (additives in a vaccine that help to produce a stronger immunological response) injected into mice could provoke the development of autism, changing the brain’s immune response.
The study authors write that the effect of aluminum adjuvants on the immune response is “the disruption of normal neurodevelopmental pathways resulting in autistic behavior.”
However, it didn’t take long for other scientists to chime in on their work.
They took issue with many different aspects of the paper, including its design, methods, and analysis.
In numerous blog and forum posts, researchers attacked the paper repeatedly, one calling it “anti-vaccine pseudoscience.”
In one response, critics said the study researchers injected the aluminum adjuvant under the skin of the mice, which is inconsistent with how vaccines are given in humans. They are injected into muscle tissue.
Others disputed the value of a mouse model entirely.
One blogger, writing under a pseudonym, said that their methods for measuring certain biologic markers were antiquated, calling the technique “very old, very clunky.”
“Quite frankly, in this day and age, there is absolutely zero excuse for choosing this method,” one scientist wrote.
But critique of the science itself was just the tip of the iceberg.
Soon discussion broke out online about whether elements of the data had been faked.
Visual components of gene activity and protein amounts in the study appeared to have been manipulated.
“This is probably the most damning thing about the paper. If the data were manipulated and images fabricated, then the paper needs to be retracted and UBC needs to do an investigation into research misconduct by the Shaw lab,” said two science bloggers, writing under pseudonyms.
Dr. David Gorski, an oncology professor at Wayne State University in Michigan, didn’t mince words either, stating, “Not only do we have poorly done and analyzed experiments, but we also have self-plagiarism and, quite possibly, scientific fraud” as reported to Ars Technica.
So far, all parties involved have claimed ignorance of how the visual elements of the paper came to be manipulated, including the study authors and Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry editor John Dawson.
In a statement, Dawson said, “We don’t know how some images in the manuscript came to be altered. We investigated when the first suggestions came out in Pubpeer and confirmed that some of the images had indeed been manipulated.”
Dawson didn’t respond to Healthline’s requests for comment.
Dan Li, also known as Alice Li, the first author of the research, has since retained a lawyer on the matter, which was confirmed to Healthline by Shaw at the University of British Columbia.
“The lawyer, Neil MacLean, has offered on behalf of Dr. Li to turn over to us her PC so that we can try to find the missing data and anything else that might be of interest. We do not have a timeline for this, but hope it will be soon,” Shaw told Healthline.
Authors Dan Li, Lucija Tomljenovic, and Yongling Li have all since left UBC, said Shaw.
As for the future of the now jeopardized research, Shaw says researchers may reattempt it, but not before next summer.
Both Tomljenovic and Shaw have previously been criticized by the scientific community for apparently faulty research methodology.
In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) called two of their publications linking aluminum adjuvants in vaccines to autism, “seriously flawed.”
WHO notes several concerns about the papers including “incorrect assumptions about known associations of aluminium with neurological disease.”
The editor of Vaccine, a preeminent peer-reviewed journal, retracted an article by the pair last year that suggested a link between the HPV vaccine Gardasil and behavioral changes.
“This article has been withdrawn at the request of the editor-in-chief due to serious concerns regarding the scientific soundness of the article. Review by the editor-in-chief and evaluation by outside experts confirmed that the methodology is seriously flawed and the claims that the article makes are unjustified,” the editors wrote in their retraction notice.
All the organizations support anti-vaccine or vaccine-critical research.
For his part, Shaw remains defiant about the criticisms leveled at him and his colleagues regarding their latest research.
He said that on discovering the altered data, they supported retraction.
“We jointly with the editor called for the retraction due to some images having been apparently altered,” he told Healthline.
Nonetheless, he remains leery of the online community of scientists and bloggers that pushed this work into the spotlight.
“We do note that three papers we have been associated with have had attacks over the last year... Three incidents in one year on papers by three labs involved in aluminum adjuvant work seems more than a coincidence to me and follows closely the sort of thing that investigators in other controversial fields have experienced,” he said.