On Thursday, the House Health and Human Services Reform Committee will hear a presentation on vaccine safety by a researcher who asserts that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine may not be safe for children — and part of the basis for the concern appears to stem from her religious opposition to the use of human cells in the vaccine. The testimony of Dr. Theresa Deisher is part of an official informational hearing, but Deisher’s assertions regarding autism and vaccines have been debunked by many researchers. Deisher — who is the hearing’s only testifier — has earned praise for her work from both the anti-vaccine and anti–abortion rights movements.
Deisher will present her findings at a hearing called, “Presentation on Vaccine Safety: New Considerations, Concerns and Insights.” According to her press release, she will present “a continuation of her public efforts to shed light on key elements regarding vaccine safety, specifically as regards the likely adverse affects of human DNA residuals in many widely utilized vaccines.” No one else is scheduled to testify.
Deisher contends that the MMR vaccine may cause autism in young children. She doesn’t assert that it does, only that it may and that she feels more research should be done. And her lab is soliciting money to do that research.
In 2008 testimony to the President’s Commission on Bioethics under President George W. Bush, Deisher proposed that DNA from human cell cultures used to make the MMR vaccine may be causing autism in America’s children.
“How might the human DNA contaminated vaccines contribute to human disease? First, there is the potential for the contaminating DNA to be mixed with our own genes by a process called homologous recombination,” she said. “We do not yet know if this occurs with the contaminating human DNA found in some of our vaccines, and if so, to what extent. Imagine the potential consequences of human DNA from a vaccine, a vaccine that is given to children at an average age of 15 months, being incorporated into a child’s developing brain. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to know that this potential has to be studied.”
The Minnesota Independent contacted several leading vaccine researchers who say Diesher’s claims are far from accurate.
Dr. Paul A. Offit, MD, is the head of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of Vaccinology and Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, as well as the author of the book “Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure.”
“I don’t know where that comes from,” he told the Minnesota Independent of Deisher’s claim.
In the 1970s, vaccine producers switched from using animal cells for the rubella vaccine — a component of MMR — to human cells. Researchers derived those cells in 1961 from embryonic lung tissue, a bit similar to the embryonic stem cell lines used today to study and develop cures for chronic diseases. That 1961 line is still used today for vaccine production, and manufacturers list DNA from those cell lines as ingredients in the MMR vaccine.
Offit says that the amount of DNA in a vaccine is extremely small and unlikely to cause any problems: “We are talking picogram levels, or one trillionth of a gram.”
“There’s very little chance that a DNA fragment could cross the blood-brain barrier and insert itself into brain cells,” he said. “This would be the best news for gene therapy,” a process that seeks to use fragments of DNA to cure disease.
If incorporating DNA into cells — let alone brain cells — were as easy as Diesher says it is, Offit says it could revolutionize gene therapy research.
He says that the trivial quantities from vaccines make no difference. “You are injecting foreign DNA all the time” from the food we eat. “Look, if it worked that way, after eating at McDonald’s, we’d all turn into cows.”
The bottom line, he says, is that the science is confusing and people become skeptical. “It’s easy to take advantage of the fact that most people don’t understand vaccine science.”
Dr. Neal Halsey, professor of International Health and director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, concurred.
“This claim has no merit,” he said. “The scientific data is now overwhelming that MMR is not a cause of autism.”
He added, “There is no evidence that small residual amounts of DNA from any source contribute to the development of autism.”
Dr. Halsey said that past research on links between autism and vaccines has been debunked.
“As I’m certain you know, Dr. Andrew Wakefield was the originator of the hypothesis that MMR causes autism,” he told the Minnesota Independent. “We have known for more than 10 years that the science behind his studies was seriously flawed. We now know through recent publications, that the studies were based upon fraudulent evidence.”
Earlier this year, British authorities found Wakefield’s research unethical, noting four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts abuse of autistic children through invasive and unnecessary testing.
But, the skepticism raised by Wakefield — and now Deisher — has had consequences beyond bad science.
So far this year in Minnesota, eight children have been hospitalized after contracting measles, and in at least some cases, parents of those children have followed Wakefield’s skepticism. Measles can be fatal in young children.
Does the MMR vaccine cause autism? “The answer could not be clearer and that answer is ‘no,’” said Offit. He said the vaccine has been researched in 12 large studies on three continents, and findings show the risk for autism after vaccination is no greater than for those children who have not been vaccinated.
Deisher: “Our pro-life work is our top responsibility”
Deisher’s questioning of the MMR vaccine seems to come from two related sources: religion and opposition to abortion.
In an interview in 2008, when she first opened AVM Biotechnology, LLC — the acronym stands for “Ave Maria” — Deisher said, “It is our goal to develop human therapeutics that are morally acceptable and compatible with the magisterium of the Catholic Church.”
Her ties to the church remain close; last year, the Archbishop of Seattle, Alexander J. Brunett, conducted a blessing of Deisher’s lab — complete with holy water and solemnization.
Deisher’s original focus was on embryonic stem cell research, and she successfully filed suit against the Obama Administration in 2010. The suit halted funding for embryonic stem cell research for a period in August of last year before an appeal was filed and a stay issued to continue the funding.
Now, the focus appears to be on vaccines, and an embryo that was killed in 1961 to create cell cultures that assist in the production of vaccines. That embryo was donated to research and was not aborted specifically for vaccine production.
“Many vaccines in the U.S. are contaminated with aborted fetal tissue,” she said. “There are no ethical alternatives, putting parents, physicians and pharmacists in a moral dilemma.”
Further, Deisher has said using research that involved embryonic stem cell research or fetuses would be akin to Nazism.
“It would be like using the research results on hypothermia from Nazi Germany that involved murdering people,” she said.
Diesher’s zeal in opposing human cell cultured vaccines and embryonic stem cell research has achieved for her star status in the anti-abortion movement.
“We are clearly unique in that we are open and upfront about our pro-life mission,” Deisher said in an interview with Xcomony Seattle. “Our pro-life work is our top responsibility. For most companies, fiduciary return is the top priority. We hope our investors will make lots of money, but that’s not our first objective. We won’t compromise our pro-life mission for economic returns.”
While it’s unclear who invited Deisher to testify at Thursday’s hearing, the committee is chaired by Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, the cosponsor of several abortion-related bills, including one that would criminalize embryonic stem cell research and another that would direct taxpayer funds to anti-abortion groups through sales of “Choose Life” license plates.