Mercury is Better for you than a Glass of Milk! – The Omnibus Autism Proceeding – Second Set of Hearings (Thimerosal & Autism) – Day Nine – May 22, 2008
By Kent Heckenlively, Esq.
Success in a legal proceeding is usually the result of one side presenting a more compelling narrative than the other. The numerous pieces of evidence will then fall into one of the two competing narratives and the side which has the more credible evidence will generally prevail.
Consider the Scott Peterson case. The defense wanted the court to believe Scott was a loving husband who wouldn’t dream of harming his wife.
The prosecution pointed out Scott’s affairs, how he told Megan Fry he was a widower (before Laci disappeared), and in the weeks before Laci’s disappearance Scott was checking out tidal maps of the area from which Laci’s water-logged body was eventually pulled.
The petitioners in this case have a pretty simple narrative. Child is born healthy and develops normally. Child gets shot, has adverse reactions (probably the result of a genetic variation which doesn’t allow them to excrete toxins very well or deal with immune challenges), and descends into autism. Treatment by a DAN doctor documents high level of mercury excretion and child gets significantly better.
By contrast the government’s narrative is something along the lines of we could give kids a lot more mercury and nothing would happen! In fact, it’s even less harm to a child than a glass of milk! (I’m not making this up!)
Considering that as a science teacher I’m trained to evacuate my class and call a Hazardous Materials Team if I break a mercury thermometer, I don’t think it’s a winning argument.
Direct Examination of Dr. Dean Jones (Expert Witness for the Government)
Dr. Jones has a Ph.D. in Bio-Chemistry and has been a professor at Emory University for 24 years. He has a fellowship from the Nobel Committee for his research in medical toxicology and directs two laboratories. He’s published more than 325 peer-reviewed articles and over 100 on oxidative stress.
Jones was presented as an expert witness in oxidative stress and sulfur metabolism.
Glutathione has an important role in metabolism and is the major thiol and major sulfur-containing element. Glutathione has many functions, from detoxification, to its anti-oxidant properties, to serving as a co-enzymatic function for other reactions.
The main thrust of his testimony is that people have so much extra glutathione in their bodies that the thimerosal contained in vaccines could not possibly disrupt sulfur metabolism as theorized by Dr. Richard Deth. Sulfur amino acids are generally found in great abundance in animal products, while plant products normally contain about half that amount.
Dr. Jones did some experiments concerning how glutathione reacts to foods and found that you would have more glutathione depletion from drinking a four ounce glass of milk than taking six months worth of the combined thimerosal at one time in the vaccination schedule at issue in this case.
In responding to Dr. Deth’s studies of how low amounts of thimerosal can affect cell function, Dr. Jones says it’s very difficult to compare what happens in a test-tube to what happens in a living organism. However, upon questioning from Special Master Hastings, Dr. Jones stated he was not an expert in the area of detection of cellular effects from low levels of thimerosal. He says, though, that Dr. Deth’s research is inconsistent with the bulk of data which he has reviewed.
In commenting on the results of other scientists, such as Dr. Aposhian and Dr. Jill James, Dr. Jones makes the point that the body has numerous compensatory systems.
Cross-Examination of Dr. Jones (Expert Witness for the Government)
Dr. Jones has published several papers on how mercury affects the thioredoxin systems in the cells. Thioredoxin is one of the complementary anti-oxidant systems to glutathione. It was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Health.
Although he used high levels of mercury, he was able to show that the mercury affected the level of thioredoxin. If there was a change in the level of thioredoxin there would be effects in both the mitochondria and the cell.
Dr. Jones didn’t seem to believe that the known effect of mercury on thioredoxin could be compared to any hypothetical effect of mercury on glutathione. However, Dr. Jones couldn’t give a definitive answer to this question.
In his research Dr. Jones also found that mercury turns on the NRF-2 system, which results in cell death. Dr. Jones said whether a cell experiences cell death when exposed to mercury is dependent on the type of cell.
Dr. Jones was unable to answer the question of whether a cell becomes dysfunctional before it dies, or whether a toxic exposure might change cell function without killing it.
Dr. Jones agreed that the Burbacher monkey study from the University of Washington clearly showed mercury delivery to the brain of infant primates at extremely low doses.
The attorney for the families tried to get Dr. Jones to comment on a paper regarding the effect of mercury on the mitochondria, but it was outside the expertise of Dr. Jones.
Special Master Questions
Dr. Jones did not comment on the findings of Dr. Jill James of low glutathione in patients with autism because low levels of glutathione are associated with almost every disease population. (Author’s note – WOW!!!! In a detective story this is what's generally known as a "clue".)
Dr. Jones does not know whether the low glutathione is a cause or an effect of the disease process.
Direct Examination of Dr. Kemper (Expert Witness for the Government)
Dr. Kemper is a neurologist who works in brain research. He teaches at the Boston University School of Medicine, has published about 170 articles (including 30 on autism), and serves on the editorial boards of many journals.
Dr. Kemper is testifying about the results he got from dissecting the brains of individuals with autism. He got the first brain in 1980 and published his data in 1985. His collaborator in this endeavor is Dr. Margaret Bauman.
He has seen no evidence that the brains of individuals with regressive and non-regressive autism are any different. The changes seen in the brains of individuals with autism are differences in the brain stem, medulla, cerebellum, cerebral cortex, and in the limbic system. In the cerebral cortex it was noted that there were abnormalities in the Purkinje cells. The Purkinje cells are known as the “boss cells” of the brain.
Another consistent finding in autism is the misalignment of neurons, especially in what is known as the inferior olive area of the brain. Another curious finding is the enlargement of neurons. He does not know the significance of that finding.
He believes the loss of Purkinje cells can be dated to about 30 weeks of gestation. However, he admits that it’s hard to know whether the disruption of Purkinje cells happened before or after birth.
Neither Dr. Kinsbourne or Dr. Aposhian have proposed any mechanism by which thimerosal would interfere with normal neuronal development.
Studies have shown that after birth children with autism often have rapid and significant brain growth. This growth is in excess of normal infant brain development.
The studies of Dr. Pardo suggested that neuro-inflammation could be caused by toxins, as well as abnormalities present since gestation. The work of Dr. Vargas also mentioned the possibility that activated microglia (which have been observed) might reflect continued patterns of abnormal development that began prenatally.
However, he does not agree with Dr. Kinsbourne’s suggestion that “activated microglia can kill astrocytes with friendly fire.” In fact, Vargas’ work actually shows increased astrocyte activation in the brains of people with autism. The Vargas study actually showed no difference in the immune response of regressive and non-regressive patients.
There was a Lopez Hurtado article which reported a decreased number of neurons, an increased number of glial cells, and accelerated lipofuscan accumulation in the brains of people with autism. Dr. Kemper was not able to find the journal article in the Harvard Medical Library, the country’s second largest medical library. He also had some problems with their methodology. In his opinion the flaws were so great that the article would not have been published in a reputable journal.
In summation, he does not believe the microglia is active in autism and destroying the brain and doesn’t believe that astrocytes are either dead or inactivated. He also doesn’t believe the neuro-inflammation is present in autism.
Cross-Examination of Dr. Kemper (Expert Witness for the Government)
Dr. Kemper agrees that autism is a clinical diagnosis, not a pathological diagnosis.
Dr. Kemper has dissected nine brains of people with autism. He admits that given a prevalence of 1 in 156 people with autism and a U.S. population of 300 million, that this is a small sample.
He agrees that current methods such as MRI are not helpful in figuring out a great deal about autism.
He admits that his own studies did not allow for identification of astroglial cells.
He admits that Purkinje cells produce GABA (the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter), and that theoretically if Purkinje cells were destroyed it would have an effect on GABA production. However, there are many other cells which produce GABA.
Kemper admits that he has never looked for signs of neuro-inflammation in the brains he dissected.
He does not know whether the TGF-1 anti-inflammatory cytokine response is released by cells that are dying. He admits that the authors of the Vargas paper believed that the cerebellum is the center of inflammation in autistic patients, although they don’t describe a particular cause. However, they don’t rule out the possibility of it being due to an exogenous toxin.
In fact, another well-known medical researcher, Dr. Pardo hypothesizes that environmental factors can play a role in neuro-inflammation leading to autism.
Redirect of Dr. Kemper (Expert Witness for the Government)
He does not have any evidence that thimerosal affects brain development.
The autopsy work he did was meticulous, but did not look for signs of neuro-inflammation. The Vargas group looked for such signs, but found that astrocyte activity was increased. This is not consistent with Dr. Kinsbourne’s theory.
Dr. Pardo was a senior researcher on the Vargas study. Kemper remembers Pardo telling him that he didn’t think a neurotoxin was causing the neuro-inflammation. It is even in a private letter from Dr. Pardo which reads “the staining is inconsistent with toxic material . . .”
In a conversation with Dr. Pardo, he remarked that the observed neuro-inflammation could be consistent with a response to developmental abnormalities that occur prenatally.
Recross of Dr. Kemper (Expert Witness for the Government)
Dr. Pardo’s letter doesn’t say anything about astrocytes being unaffected by pro-inflammatory agents released by the microglia.
As a scientist Kemper relies on peer-reviewed research and admits that a letter from one researcher to another is less reliable than peer-reviewed research.
Concluding Thoughts on this Day of Testimony
Thioredoxin works in a complementary anti-oxidant capacity to glutathione and is greatly affected by mercury, but Dr. Jones can’t tell us whether it means something similar might happen with glutathione.
He also can’t comment on the Burbacher monkey studies which showed high levels of mercury being deposited into the brains of young primates from levels which should not have caused such a result.
Oh, and glutathione is depressed in practically all disease populations, but he doesn’t know what that means either. However, even low glutathione should be able to rid your body of all toxins.
Which raises for me the inevitable question of, how can anybody ever be affected by toxins?
For his part, Kemper doesn’t seem all that clear as to whether neuro-inflammation is present in the brains of people with autism, and if it is, it must be the result of something that went wrong before birth. However, the evidence which supports that view is a little sketchy.
There are two competing narratives in this case.
One is that the brains of infants are uniquely susceptible to toxic insults, and that some individuals have genetic vulnerabilities which render them especially at risk for such injury.
The other narrative is that you can throw the kitchen sink at a young brain and nothing will happen. For this narrative the only critical time for brain development is before birth. In their view, once you’re out of the womb you’re practically indestructible.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a glass of milk, or a syringe filled with an entire six-month load of thimerosal. You can take it.
Kent Heckenlively is Legal Editor for Age of Autism.