TUESDAY, Jan. 11, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- The disgraced doctor who published a study more than 10 years ago claiming that a common childhood vaccine -- the measles-mumps-rubella inoculation -- causes autism may have been motivated more by money than conviction, investigators say.
According to the second in a three-part investigative series in the medical journal BMJ, Dr. Andrew Wakefield was retained by a lawyer seeking to extract money from vaccine manufacturers as his research was just beginning. He also allegedly applied for a patent for an alternative vaccine, set up a business to profit from that vaccine as well as diagnostic kits and other products, and worked with the Royal Free Medical School in London on these business ventures.
"It's horrible that institutions may have been involved and that this [may have been] a planned action," said Keith A. Young, vice chair for research in the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and core leader for neuroimaging and genetics at the Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans in Temple. "It looks like it was aimed pretty much at making money."
The first part of the investigation, published last week in the journal, accused Wakefield of forming his hypothesis before he even began to collect data, then doctoring that data to suit his theory and even stating that children in the trial had the regressive form of autism when, in fact, most did not.
That allegedly fraudulent research was published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet in 1998. The findings generated a huge response, particularly among concerned parents, many of whom then refused to vaccinate their children.
In February 2010, The Lancet issued a formal retraction of Wakefield's research, which is "unusual," according to Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
"A lot of bad science gets published that's never retracted," Offit said. He also noted that, "as a general rule, a study should have more subjects than authors; this  paper had 12 participants and 13 authors."
Last May, Britain's General Medical Council barred Wakefield from practicing in the United Kingdom.
"The MMR [measles-mumps-rubella vaccine] scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud," Dr. Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief of the BMJ, said in a prepared statement. "Such clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare."
However, that may be easier said than done, since public perception on the issue appears to have been permanently altered.
"It's now become fixed in the mind of people that there's the potential for a relationship between vaccines and autism, despite the fact that there are no real signs to support it," said Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a child neurologist with Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, University Hospital's Case Medical Center in Cleveland. "This paper and [Wakefield's] work has contributed to the development of a distrust of vaccines. As a consequence, [we've had] unnecessary illnesses and infections and unnecessary deaths."
Research monies have also been diverted "to disprove the unproven," Wiznitzer added. "[Those monies] could have been used elsewhere."
The new BMJ report, researched and written by U.K. investigative journalist Brian Deer, alleges that the lawyer who originally retained Wakefield was himself hired by an anti-vaccine organization called JABS.
It also says that the research ultimately published in The Lancet was funded by the UK Legal Aid Board, although this wasn't disclosed until years later.
Soon after the study's publication in The Lancet, Wakefield consulted with employees of Royal Free Medical School about forming a company to develop products based on his research. That company was incorporated and also received funding from the U.K. Legal Aid Board to initiate trials in children, the BMJ article alleges.
Royal Free Hospital and University College London (UCL), which is also implicated in the BMJ investigation, merged in 1998.
A statement issued by University College London in response to the first BMJ article said the institution "takes any allegation of research misconduct very seriously, and we will certainly investigate those raised in the BMJ. At this point, however, we have not been given the opportunity to view all of the articles to be published in the BMJ relating to this issue. We are therefore currently able to give only a general institutional response to the issues so far raised."
The statement went on to note that at the time the Lancet research was conducted, Royal Free Hospital was not part of UCL.
"We fully acknowledge the need to look closely at the research of someone alleged [in the BMJ article] to have carried out research misconduct," read the statement. "We are determined to learn from the mistakes made in relation to this case."
With regard to this second article, UCL said: "We have only just seen this so all we can say at this point is we're looking carefully at the allegations raised."
As for Wakefield, his Web site shows him as currently living in Austin, Texas, promoting a book published last year, Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines, The Truth Behind the Tragedy, and going on speaking engagements.
Speaking last week to CNN, Wakefield called investigative journalist Deer "a hit man -- he has been brought in to take me down, because they [pharmaceutical industry] are very, very concerned about the adverse reactions to the vaccines that are occurring in children."
For his part, Deer -- who says he was paid for his work by the BMJ -- scoffed at Wakefield's claim, telling CNN that the accusations of fraud come from not from him, but from "the editors of the BMJ, a very prestigious medical journal."
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on autism.