Author: Nicholas Jannetty
As a scientist, I feel that I must begin this with an apology. This post will undoubtedly make a lot of people angry and make a lot of people stop reading, but I must say it. I apologize that scientists, generally, are not good communicators. It is something we are working on, so please be patient. It does not come naturally to most of us, but we are trying.
Having said that, it is the duty of the scientist to communicate the hard facts of natural laws and to do so in a way that is approachable and relatable to our fellow man. And so, having said this, I will do my best to try to convince you that vaccines don’t cause autism. To do this, I will be using only one piece of scientific data and the most dangerous tool in the scientist’s handbook, cold hard logic.
Do Vaccines cause autism?
The short answer is no. I challenge you to find a reputable immunologist, virologist, or infectious disease doctor who will disagree with this. The universal acceptance of this fact by the scientific community can be explained in one graph. You can skip ahead, but before I reveal it, I would like to put this debate in context and provide a background.
In 1998, a flawed study was conducted that suggested a link between vaccines to autism. Now taking aside the glaring flaws in this study, scientists were concerned and thought, “we should look into this.” So, they turned to the great country of Denmark. Now, a lot of things, good and bad, can be said about Denmark, but what we are going to focus on is a requirement of their universal health care system. And no, I’m not talking about the political aspects of this system, I want to talk about the Copenhagen Healthtech Cluster. This wonderful idea by the Danes was to collect anonymous data about its citizens to allow researchers to conduct large studies about health trends. I’m not talking about those studies where they poll ten doctors, and nine out of ten recommend this toothpaste. These studies include hundreds of thousands of subjects in an attempt to unleash the power of statistics to answer profound questions of medicine and biology.
Researchers used this database to determine if the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine was contributing to autism. The basic idea is this: in Denmark, most people get the MMR vaccine, but a small subset does not. There are legitimate medical reasons someone cannot get a vaccine, including allergies and a compromised immune system. Researchers decided to observe a cohort that got vaccines and a cohort that did not over time. If the MMR vaccine causes autism, then it is reasonable to say that, over time, the vaccinated cohort would have a higher rate of autism. If the trend between the two groups is the same, then it can be reasonably said that the MMR vaccine does not cause autism.
This study has been conducted twice, once in 2002 and again in 2019. The latest results were released at the end of last year. Here are the results:
As you can see, in comparing the two cohorts, there is no statistical significance in the prevalence of autism, if anything, the non-vaccinated cohort may have a slightly higher penetrance of autism; which means that the cause of autism cannot be vaccines.
As a scientist, this is it. This ends the debate for us. We don’t need more evidence. With a sample size of 600,000, Mark Twain can take all his “lies, dam lies, and statistics” and shove it. You can’t, scientifically, argue with this data. Scientists now turn to the task of finding out what actually causes autism.
However, for some people, this study is not enough. So, I will try to address some of the arguments that I have come across in my life, not with data but with logic and [heaven forbid] emotions.
One of the things I constantly hear is that big pharma is out to get people, and vaccines are a tool of big pharma to make money. To that, I would like to use polio as a case study and ask the following question, what costs more: a vaccine or an iron lung? Now, iron lungs have not been mass-produced for several decades (thanks to the success of the polio vaccine) so, I am using some guesswork. According to the National Museum of History, in 1930 an iron lung cost about$1500 (about $23,000 in 2020). Now, let’s assume modern manufacturing and technology could cut that price by about half. That’s still a $10,000 machine that, at best, would be needed for two weeks. At worst, there is a 1 in 100 chance that your child will stay on this machine for the rest of their life. All of this would add up to massive profits for insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers. After all, treatable but chronic conditions are the fever dream of all pharmaceutical companies.
Now, let’s look at the polio vaccine. This eliminated the need for all that expensive equipment (cause your child won’t get sick), and it costs a whopping $0.13 to produce the oral vaccine and climbs to $1.90 for the injectable vaccine and costs $73 to get the vaccine at your local drug store16. So, by all means, keep fighting vaccines, you are just allowing for continued demand for the vaccine and demand for expensive procedures to keep people alive while fighting the disease, thereby allowing pharmaceutical companies to continue profiting. Don’t believe me? There is a reason we don’t have to pay for a smallpox vaccine. That reason? The smallpox vaccine was so successful; it irradiated the disease. Now, big pharma can’t profit off smallpox.
“These diseases aren’t that bad.”
No offense to anyone, but this is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard in my life. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the evidence. As promised, this is not more data (though a little stats), it’s photos. The descriptors of the diseases are from various sources because I am vaccinated and have never had these diseases. I will also not cover all of them but pull out a few to make my point.
Polio kills 1 in 20 kids and 1 in 3 adults that become infected with the virus. If you survive, you can still develop post-polio syndrome, a gradual decline in muscle function that occurs in 1 in 4 polio survivors. Think FDR. So, if your child gets polio, there is a 25% chance they will look like this in a few years:
With measles, the rash is the least of your worries. What doctors worry about with measles is the complications caused by the accompanying fever, which typically lasts for a week and can get as high as 105*F. The high body temp for so long can lead to lasting brain damage and occurs in 1 in 1000 cases. The leading cause of death from measles is from pneumonia, which occurs in 1 in 20 cases. If we extrapolate that out, without an effective vaccine, that’s about one death per classroom in every school in the United States.
That swollen part on the child’s left cheek (his left not yours) is extremely painful and is not limited to the face (sorry men). Think: having a cavity, and then someone punched you in the jaw, and then imagine this pain lasting 7 to 10 days. You also have a 5 in 10,000 chance of losing your hearing.That may seem like a lot, but this is the same odds that your toilet injures you, and we all know someone who has the displeasure of a fractured tailbone from sitting down without the lid.
All this is meant to scare you, and I apologize for this, but I’m trying to point out these are serious diseases. The only reason we are debating this is we have lost our collective memory of how horrible these diseases are since vaccines work so well.
Whooping Cough sounds like this in basically 100% of cases: The Sound of Whooping Cough
This cough can last for up to ten weeks. My friends with kids always say how hard it is to get sleep with a newborn. Imagine having your kid cough like that almost constantly for 2.5 months and having to worry that they could die if their fever spikes. Not to mention the medical costs if your child is admitted to the hospital with a 105*F degree fever. How much sleep are you getting, knowing your child might die, and it could have been avoided?
Exposure parties are one of the more dangerous trends in the anti-vax movement. For those of you who have not heard of this, it is the idea that the natural pathogen will be better for your immune system than an “artificial” source. So, if a friend gets, say measles, parents will take their children over and purposely expose them to the disease to get immunity. DO NOT DO THIS. This is one surefire way to put your child in harm’s way. If anyone is actually considering this, let me ask you this: Would you put your child in a room with someone infected with coronavirus (COVID-19)?
What causes autism?
The real question is, “what actually causes autism?”. The short answer is, we don’t really know. In the past, when we didn’t know things, we would try to make ourselves sound smarter by making up some hogwash about miasma and your ethers being out of balance. Now, we are fine with saying, I don’t know. Acknowledging that you don’t know something is the first step in learning. There are thousands of scientists around the world tackling this problem, but like all things in life, it’s complicated.
Autism is like cereal. If I tell you to get some cereal from the grocery store, and that’s all I say, you will spend ten minutes standing in the cereal aisle trying to decide what the heck I meant. Autism is similar. There is probably no magic bullet, and there will be different treatments that will need to be developed once causes are found, but we do have some hints.
One of the biggest predictors of autism is the age of the parents, both mother, and father..The older you are when having kids, the more likely you are to have a child with autism. Another, strangely enough, is the sex of the child. Boys are 4x more likely to be autistic than girls. There are other factors too — none of them are vaccines.
Why is autism actually on the rise?
I don’t have a good answer, but if you will permit me my two cents, I think two factors are contributing to this. First is the improved training of doctors. Fifty years ago, if you had autism or a related disorder, you were labeled “mentally retarded.” Yes, that was an actual medical term that was in official use until 2013. Now, we train doctors to recognize the signs and symptoms of autism, and as such, diagnosis is going up. Secondly, people are having kids later in life, and as I said previously, this is a risk factor for autism. Maybe we should stop talking about what we know is not causing autism and start talking about what does.
A final word to my fellow scientists. This is a frustrating fight but one worth having. However, I think we have been fighting it wrong. I recently read an article that profoundly changed my views on education. In this article, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman was asked a simple question, “what is the ultimate outcome of education?” His answer, “to change your beliefs.” I have been thinking about this statement a lot in the past few months and I realize that he is completely right. Look no farther than the Netflix documentary “Behind the curve.” In this documentary, a flat-earther literally has proof that the Earth is round, shown directly to his face, but rejects this fact because he was never prepared to change his beliefs. As scientists we are trained to change what we believe to be true when confronted with evidence, but the general population is trained oppositely. Think about how hard it would be for you to change your religion or to reject your cultural traditions. That is how hard it is for some people to change their mind about vaccines. It would mean that people they have grown to know and trust are wrong. We can present all the facts and evidence we want, but ultimately it is about understanding people and how belief works. Essentially, it is about getting them to accept the words of the Dalai Lama. “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in [Buddhism] to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” It is something scientists do every day, so I challenge you to try it too.
P.S. As an added bonus, one of my favorite videos on this subject by Penn and Teller:
Author: Kerry Silva McPherson
Does every scientist have that one field of science that you don’t study, but for some inexplicable reason you’re obsessed with it? I’m married to the cancer biology research field, my sidepiece is stem cell research. I love the biology and all the drama (policy) that goes with it. I’m nowhere near an expert, I’ve briefly handled adult stem cells in the lab once or twice. But that doesn’t mean I can’t read and read and read... and write about it.
Before we get into the narrative I’d like to share today, here are some stem cell basics:
What are stem cells?
Any cell with two properties:
Why do we research them?
What kinds of stem cells are there?
To discuss stem cell research without including science policy is a disservice to the history of the field. Stem cells and science policy are inherently intertwined. Displaying a love/hate, push/pull relationship, policy restricts research, causing scientists to innovate. On the other hand, scientists advocate and educate, causing change in policy.
Stem cell research during the Bush Administration
The first embryonic stem cell (ESC) line was made in 1998 from spare IVF embryos, a marvelous feat which “provide[s] a potentially limitless source of cells for drug discovery and transplantation therapies.” Public response to ESC research was quick, in part due to religious advocacy. In 2001, George W. Bush placed a ban of federal funds for research on any newly created embryonic cell lines. Unfortunately, most eligible lines were derived from Caucasian lineage, leading to racial bias in stem cell research. Furthermore, these lines were cultured using nascent techniques and lacked the quality necessary for regenerative medicine treatment.
As I said before, stem cell scientists are innovative. They had restrictions on their ability to perform ESC research, so they made embryonic-like stem cells. In 2006 the first adult mouse cells were de-differentiated into embryonic-like stem cells by Japanese researchers, leading to numerous research groups reporting the methodology on how to revert human cells to a stem cell state in 2007. The reprogrammed cells, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), exhibited stem cell-like morphology, expressed stem cell protein markers, and were capable of differentiating into cells of all three germ layers. iPSCs, in my humble opinion, is one of the coolest accomplishments in cell biology history. Converting adult cells into stem cells is Harry Potter-like transfiguration class stuff, but it’s not magic, it’s science!
iPSC and ASC research flourished during Bush’s administration. And scientists did some pretty impressive stuff with these cells. iPSCs are used for patient-specific cell models to study pathogenesis and drug discovery of diseases like Parkinson’s, autism, and heart disease. iPSCs are also potential therapeutics to rebuild tissues with limited risk of an immune response. Amidst the success of iPSC research there is concern about iPSCs’ limitations. iPSCs are not true ESCs and unwanted artifacts of the cell’s origin likely persist. Also, iPSCs take a long time to differentiate with a low success rate. Clearly, there is still a need for ESC research.
President Barack Obama's Executive order
The Bush stem cell restriction era was halted on March 9, 2009, when President Barack Obama issued an executive order allowing federal funding of embryonic stem cell research on new embryonic stem cells lines. This order was welcomed by Americans at a 60% approval rate (props to stem cell advocates and Michael J. Fox). But the ethical controversy did not die there.
Obama’s executive order was interpreted by some to violate the Dicky – Wicker Amendment, a 1995 law that restricts “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero.” In 2010, ASC scientists, Dr. James Sherley and Dr. Theresa Deisher sued the NIH for allocating funds to ESC research in violation of Dicky – Wicker. Although possible that Sherly and Deisher’s motivation to sue were their pro-life beliefs, it should not be ignored that Sherly and Deisher competed for funding with ESC researchers. Sherly and Desher ultimately lost. Obama’s executive order was upheld and the Sherley vs Sebelius appeal was rejected by the supreme court.
The 14-day Rule
Even with Obama’s executive order, ESC research is restricted by a 14-day policy where ESCs cannot be cultured for longer than 14 days in vitro. The 14-day rule is ubiquitous in most countries that conduct ESC research. For some time, the 14-day rule wasn’t much of a limitation, mainly because scientists could not sustain embryonic development in vitro for long. The embryo implants itself to the uterine wall on day 7, and until 2016 scientists could not cross the 7-day threshold. Recent advancements enable scientists to now culture embryos for two weeks in vitro. Researchers currently conducting embryonic research must halt their experiment at 14 days, not because the embryos aren’t viable but because of the 14-day policy.
Once again, researchers are facing a restriction impeding their research, and thus, they must innovate. Since scientists cannot use human embryos in vitro past 14 days, they have started making synthetic embryos from ES cell lines. Researchers at the University of Michigan are using microfluidics to culture embryonic-like structures in vitro and have successfully passed the threshold of the formation of the primitive streak, the hallmark event of gastrulation (production of three germ layers). The primary investigator of the study, Jianping Fu, claims the embryonic-like structures should be less controversial than using IVF embryos for research. They can be used to study embryo development, improve IVF methods, and test pharmaceutical toxicity to embryos.
Perhaps Fu is overly optimistic about the public’s opinion on synthetic embryos. In addition to destroying embryos, pro-life advocates are ardently against the creation of life. Fu argues that these synthetic embryos will not and cannot develop into a human being, and therefore should not be privy to the 14-day rule.
The NIH has not made any restrictions against synthetic embryo research, and as of now, it remains ambiguous as to whether or not synthetic embryos will be regulated similar to human embryo research. It seems once again that stem cell research policy needs to be revisited. But in which direction? More or fewer restrictions?
Regardless of which side of the stem cell debate you lean towards, it is necessary to consider public opinion. In a current climate where public trust of doctors and science is falling, we must advocate for policy that does not give the public further feelings of mistrust. The policy set into place should somewhat reflect the beliefs of the tax-payers who fund our research. If you are a scientist who passionately believes in the advancement of stem cell research, please participate in science education and science communications and advocate for your cause.
Author: Kerry Silva McPherson
I'd like to work in science policy or science communications after my PhD. I've begun to network and seek advice about career development opportunities. When doing so, I come by one piece of advice pretty often, “get writing!” and another less-common piece of advice, “make a twitter and start blogging.”
So, I got a twitter. I spent a month-or-so feeling out the academic and science Twitter-sphere. Engaging within these communities was encouraging, but even so, starting a blog seemed pretty daunting. For a successful blog, you need a website, a following, consistent participation in social media, and a steady flow of blog posts. It would require time and energy that I wasn't sure I had. For a couple of weeks, I considered not blogging at all.
One night, over a glass of wine (where all best ideas happen), I went for it. “Let’s make a blog!” (The “Let’s” meaning my dog and me). While making my website, I said to Adley (my dog), "it’s ridiculous that every PhD student/post-doc/scientist who wants to amass writing experience has to go through this." I wished there was a website where the blog infrastructure already existed that scientists could just submit their writing to (Queue epiphany angels singing).
Excited and optimistic, I made Bolded Science. I used the adjective “Bold” because I envisioned the tone of this blog to be fearless and opinionated. But ironically, I was not being bold at all. In the first month of Bolded Science's existence, my name was not on the brand. I authored anonymously, fearing the blog would be a failure.
Eventually, I got over this fear and credited myself as the creator of Bolded Science. Why? I found my “Boldness” through the support of fellow scientists, a couple of friends at work encouraged me to advertise myself and take ownership. Furthermore, the academic and science twitter community is positive and uplifting, I knew I could succeed in this environment.
And now, I invite you to be bold. Write a blog post for Bolded Science. Get some experience with public writing. Tell us about your field of study, advocate for something science-related you are passionate about, or share a story about yourself as a living, breathing, growing scientist. Get blogging and let Bolded Science worry about the website and twitter account.
By participating in the Bolded Science Community, you help grow a platform for scientists to speak out. I am thankful for every follower, reader, and guest author.
Percy Julian was born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama. His grandparents were enslaved and his parents were college graduates of Alabama State. Julian graduated from DePauw University as valedictorian. He attended Harvard University to pursue an M.S in chemistry, but since Harvard did not allow Black teaching assistants, Julian was unable to earn a PhD at the university. Instead, he pursued his PhD in Germany at the University of Vienna. Away from the Jim Crow laws, Julian thrived in Europe. He became the third African-American to receive a PhD in chemistry.
Julian returned to the states where he taught and researched at his alma mater, Depauw University. At Depauw he achieved his career-defining accomplishment, synthesizing physostigmine, used to treat glaucoma, from Calabar beans.
After his success in the lab, Depauw still refused to hire Julian as a full-time professor. He left academia to work for Glidden Company where he invented Aero-Foam, a soy-based protein product used to put out fires. He also perfected the extraction of sterols from soybean oil which allowed him to synthesize progesterone and testosterone in large quantities. Previously, steroids were extracted from animal tissue. The process produced low yields and was expensive. Synthesizing steroids from soy enabled widespread medicinal use of steroid hormones. Julian also developed protocols for high yield manufacturing of hydrocortisone and cortisone.
After Glidden, Dr. Percy Julian started his own lab, Julian Laboratories. In 1961 he sold his company, becoming a self-made millionaire.
Sources and suggested reading:
Percy Julian. Biography https://www.biography.com/scientist/percy-julian.
Percy Lavon Julian | Science History Institute. https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/percy-lavon-julian.
The Life of Percy Lavon Julian ’20 - DePauw University. https://www.depauw.edu/news-media/latest-news/details/22969/.
Mae Jemison, born in Alabama and raised in Chicago, dreamed of being an astronaut at a young age. She was inspired by the fictional Star Trek character, Lieutenant Uhura, a female Black cryptographer on the Starship Enterprise (proof that representation matters!).
Jemison attended Stanford where she majored in chemical engineering and African-American studies. After college, Jemison attended Cornell Medical School and received her MD in 1981. Jemison dedicated her early career to working in underdeveloped countries. She practiced in a Cambodian refugee camp, worked for Flying Doctors in East Africa, and traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia as a member of the Peace Corps.
After the Peace Corps, she took engineering courses and applied to NASA’s astronaut program. Jemison traveled to space on September 12, 1992, the first Black woman to do so. In space, she researched weightlessness and motion sickness.
After her trip to space, Jemison taught at Dartmouth College and began an organization, the Jemison Institute for the advancement of technology in developing countries.
Sources and suggested reading:
Ignotofsky, Rachel. Women in Science, 50 Fearless Pioneers who Changed the World.
Mae C. Jemison. Biography https://www.biography.com/astronaut/mae-c-jemison.
Mae Jemison. National Women’s History Museum https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mae-jemison.
Daniel Hale Williams was born in Pennsylvania in 1856, just five years before the civil war. Early on, Williams worked as a shoemaker’s apprentice. Disliking the work, he quit and decided to give barbering a try. At 17 years old, his barbershop failed, and he decided to pursue medicine. He apprenticed under Dr. Henry Palmer, a renowned civil war era surgeon, and then attended Chicago Medical College (now Northwestern).
Dr. Williams initially practiced medicine at the south side dispensary where he would service both Black and white patients. He began to earn a reputation as a skilled surgeon and implemented sanitary practices based on the newly developed germ theory. As a Black doctor, he was denied privileges at Chicago hospitals which also only accepted white patients. Therefore, he opened Provident Hospital, a hospital that admitted Black patients, hired a multiracial staff, and allowed the training of Black doctors and nurses. It was at Provident Hospital where Dr. Williams performed the first successful open-heart surgery on a stab wound victim, James Cornish. Cornish survived the surgery and lived another 20 years.
In 1894 Williams moved to DC to become the Chief Surgeon of Freedman’s Hospital, the highest-ranking medical position a Black man could hold in the US. He met and married his wife, Alice Johnson, and returned to Chicago a few years later. As Chief Surgeon at Provident, he was one of the first surgeons to successfully suture a spleen.
Williams could be remembered first and foremost for his skill as a surgeon, but his legacy was his advocacy for Black doctors, nurses, and patients. He enabled the medical training of a generation of Black physicians and nurses while also allowing black patients the quality treatment at hospitals they had been denied previously.
Sources and suggested reading:
Daniel Hale Williams. Biography
Daniel Hale Williams and the First Successful Heart Surgery | Columbia University Department of Surgery. https://columbiasurgery.org/news/daniel-hale-williams-and-first-successful-heart-surgery.
Who Was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams? | Jackson Heart Study Graduate Training and Education Center. http://www.jsums.edu/gtec/dr-daniel-hale-williams/.