OF MICE AND MERCK
What does this story have to do with autism? Nothing. What this story highlights is hypocrisy.
The newspaper story doesn’t mention whether Merck funded the laboratory studies that gave rise to the upcoming trials, but the company will surely participate in the trials. And if all goes well in the trials, Merck stands to make a lot of money. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a corporation making money or helping to develop treatments. But participation in the trials and subsequent profits would be an act of hypocrisy on Merck’s part.
The discovery that Mevacor might be useful for this purpose came about when Dr. Alcino Silva, a neurobiologist at UCLA, was approached by a former student who hypothesized that statins would impede a body’s overproduction of a protein called Ras, which many believe leads to some learning disabilities. So how did they test the hypothesis?
Postdoctoral fellow Weidong Li in Silva’s lab tested the theory using specially bred rats that had the neurofibromatosis 1 mutation and had previously been shown to have learning problems similar to those seen in humans with the disorder.
In one test, he trained adult mice with the mutation to follow a blinking light to obtain a food reward. After the animals received the drug, their performance improved 30 percent so that they outperformed normal mice.
Two other tests provided similar results.
“We think we have a real, fundamental reason to be optimistic,” Silva said. “Now, we are ready to go and treat the human disorder.”
Many of you are probably aware of the ground-breaking study by Dr. Mady Horning, of Columbia University, which showed the impact of thimerosal on immune-suppressed mice. That study provides much of the foundation for proving the connection between thimerosal and autism.
I’m really not certain if Merck promulgated a formal response to Dr. Hornig’s study, but we may safely assume that they did not issue any proclamations using the adjective “ground-breaking.” We do know that various parties, including one doctor with a connection to Merck, criticized the study, with the most common criticism being that mice do not provide a good model for the human brain for things like developmental disabilities.
Now Merck stands to profit from experiments that rely on the reliability of mice brains as being good models for humans. I can only hope that Merck will take one of two actions. They can issue a statement acknowledging that Dr. Hornig’s use of mice in her experiments was valid (I know better than to expect them to agree with the results of the Hornig study). The second option is to insist that language be inserted into the informed consent forms for the trials, telling the patients (or the patients’ parents) that the manufacturer of the drug to be administered cannot vouch for the reliability of the underlying experimental work because they do not believe mouse studies to be valid.
Silence would be hypocritical.