July 9, 2008
Fringe Autism Treatment May Draw Federal Study — Chelation Process Fights Lead Poisoning
By Carla K Johnson
CHICAGO - Pressured by desperate parents, government researchers are pushing to test an unproven treatment on autistic children, a move some scientists see as an unethical experiment in voodoo medicine.The treatment removes heavy metals from the body and 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.
But many parents of autistic children are believers, and the head of the National Institute of Mental Health backs testing it on children - if tests are safe.
"So many moms have said, 'It's saved my kids,'" institute director Dr. Thomas Insel said.
For now, the proposed study, not widely known outside the community of autism research and advocacy groups, has been put on hold because of safety concerns, Insel told The Associated Press.
The process, called chelation, is used to treat lead poisoning. Studies of adults have shown it to be ineffective unless there are high levels of metals in the blood. Any study in children would have to exclude those with high levels of lead or mercury, which would require treatment and preclude using a placebo.
One chelation drug, DMSA, can cause side effects including rashes and low white blood cell count. And there is evidence chelation may redistribute metals in the body, perhaps even to the central nervous system.
"I don't really know why we have to do this in helpless children," said Ellen Silbergeld of Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was invited to comment on the study.
Despite lawsuits and at least one child's death, several thousand autistic children are already believed to be using chelation (pronounced kee-LAY-shun), their parents not content to wait for a study.
Before he started chelation at age 5, Charlie Blakey of suburban Chicago suffered tantrums. When his mother took him to school, she had to peel him off her body and walk away. But three weeks after he began chelation, his behavior changed, said Christina Blakey.
"He lined up with his friends at school. He looked at me and waved and gave me a thumbs-up sign and walked into school," Blakey said. "All the moms who had been watching burst into tears. All of us did."
There is no way to prove if chelation made a difference or whether Charlie simply adjusted to school routine.
Autism is a spectrum of disorders that hamper a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. Most doctors believe there is no cure.
Conventional treatments are limited to behavioral therapy and a few medications, such as the schizophrenia drug Risperdal, approved to treat irritability.
On the Web
National Institute of Mental Health: nimh.nih.gov/
Originally published by Carla K. Johnson Associated Press .
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