I want to start this post with an apology. Writing my last piece about the liquidation of Dr Wakefield's science I was rushed. Not only was I still suffering from the trauma of the GMC verdict but I was also finishing a book. Rushed and traumatised, I wrote a very truncated post that left out one of the most important acts of attempted censorship in British science in the last decade. As it happens, the case of Arpad Pusztie does more than echo the case of Dr Wakefield; because of an apparently odd coincidence, it actually links to it.
I should warn readers that what follows is a very unsavoury tale best not read over breakfast, or any other meal for that matter.
In 2007 Dr Richard Horton and Sir Peter Lachmann found themselves on the same side batting for the prosecution in Dr Wakefield's GMC Fitness to Practice Hearing. Lachmann's evidence intriguing. In his original Sunday Times article Brian Deer had suggested that Dr Wakefield had taken out a patent on an alternative vaccine to MMR, intimating that, had he been able to damage MMR in his Lancet case review paper and future studies, he would have been able to make millions from the sales of his own vaccine. The prosecution pursued this fairy story with absurd alacrity throughout two and a half years of the hearing. It has re-emerged after the verdict as well, again propagated by Deer and his associates. However, not only was this story a complete farrago, but the tall tale was actually dropped while Lachmann, the head honcho of British genetic modification, gave his evidence.
The patent that Dr Wakefield had taken out on behalf of the Royal Free Hospital, was for a particular type of Transfer Factor that he believed might conceivably by able to reverse the adverse reactions that some children might have suffered following MMR vaccination; in the event, it was given by a clinician to only one child with the involvement of the parents, and had no apparent success and so was not used further. Once again Deer, had turned an innocent and compassionate scientific idea into an untruthful fabrication which described Dr Wakefield as someone who thought he could take on single handed one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world and produce a vaccine to rival MMR. For this was the prosecution case on this issue: first Wakefield would attack the leading vaccine manufacturers with concocted stories of adverse reactions to the MMR vaccine, then he would distribute his new vaccine, presumably on a global scale. Did the prosecution believe this? Did Miss Smith, the senior prosecutor, believe it? Could they? Would you?
Certainly they never put such a story to Sir Peter Lachmann because even he would have had to put them right about the fact that Transfer Factor wasn't 'a vaccine' that would compete with MMR. So while Miss Smith took Lachmann through his evidence - she slaloming between very general comments about the possibility of using TF to inhibit various viruses and microbes - it was Lachmann who pointed out the fact that nowhere in any of the papers did it actually state that Dr Wakefield was using TF to inhibit measles virus - and more specifically as an untested and possibly dangerous treatment. Lachmann described the history of the therapeutic use of TF, telling the hearing that it had had mildly curative effects in some trials. However, inevitably, in Lachmann's opinion, Wakefield was completely misguided; the type of Transfer Factor he suggested would do no good to an autistic child, for this is what the subjects were according to Miss Smith, not children with inflammatory bowel disease but simply autistic.
Despite it being clear that Deer's description of TF as a vaccine that could rival MMR, wouldn't stand up, after Lachmann had given his evidence, the prosecution returned to this story and it has surfaced with repetitive daftness right up to the present day. Even on the matter of dangerous experimental substances and chances of serious adverse reactions, Lachmann did next to nothing for the prosecution. Miss Smith's stroll through Lachmann's evidence ended with this exchange:
Q As far as the Dr Fudenberg version, I hesitate to ask an eminent scientist to speculate, but are you able to give any assistance at all as to whether that might have side effects and what they might be?
A In general I would imagine it is very much like drinking goat's milk; I would not imagine it was any more dangerous than that. If they have stimulated these goats to make inflammatory cytokines in their colostrum, which is possible, then it might have the same possibility of improving or creating side effects due to immuno potentiation that you can get from other forms of transfer factor. I would have thought it was fairly unlikely that you would have enough of anything in there to produce cytokine storms or anything of this description. The more probable is that it would have no particular effects at all.
Sir Peter Lachmann's low-key evidence that mildly ridiculed Dr Wakefield, like so much of the prosecution evidence, took what was essentially Brian Deer's random and inarticulate accusations no further.
In fact, so little effect did the evidence have that each of the defence counsel turned down the opportunity to cross examine Lachmann. At the time I felt this was to some extent a missed opportunity, at least, I thought, they should have asked him about the strange case of the threatening phone call. Or did defence counsel not know that Lachmann was slightly more than he seemed?
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In February 1999 Hungarian-born Dr Arpad Pusztai, an established geneticist at the Rowatt Institute in Scotland, discovered that mice fed genetically modified potato suffered stunted growth and depressed immune function. The time of his finding was unfortunately propitious. Two years earlier New Labour had a landslide victory at the polls and Tony Blair headed up a government packed with Liberal industrial interests that had turned parliament into something resembling a stock exchange.
The bio-industrialist Lord Sainsbury, a life time Liberal who was to gifted around £6M to Blair's election victory war chest, between 1996 and 2001, was thanked for his contribution by a knighthood and given the position of head of science and technology inside the Department of Trade and Industry; Czar of all matters scientific, especially research.
This was the period when the brilliant US journalist Greg Palast wrote his dream-shattering book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, and coined the term Lobbygate to describe the scandal that he uncovered in the offices of Westminster. It was a time when Britain and everything in it was up for sale, auctioned off by elected and selected politicians and those YUPPIES in double breasted suites who might only a decade earlier have been called civil servants.
Lord Sainsbury and his trusted lieutenant Liberal peer Dick Taverne, both with an involved history with pharmaceutical and PR corporations, were hell-bent on introducing genetically engineered (GM) crops into Britain at Monsanto's behest. Accusations that he might have taken this tack because he was himself the owner of massive GM concerns worth millions of pounds, were laid to rest when he told the public that all his estates and Trusts were blinded for the duration of his time in ministerial office.
But of course it was hardly Dr Pusztai's fault that the results of 35 years hard work, hundreds of peer-reviewed papers and a commitment to honest scientific research, should produce such results at exactly the same time that the moneylenders had squatted the temple. Within weeks of his announcing the results of his research, Pusztai's career was terminated, and he became Public Enemy Number One. Having talked on Newsnight and the World in Action programme Pusztai was accused of breaking the rules of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) funding by breaking a gagging clause that prohibited scientists from becoming 'involved in political controversy on biotechnology and biological science'. Now as his life went rapidly down the tubes, he was, it was suggested, a second-rate research scientist, and, at age 68, past it: ‘an old man who had muddled his results’. His grants were withdrawn, he lost his position at the Rowett and the 18-strong research team that he had assembled was dismantled.
Sainsbury, who since he assumed his position as head of Trade, Industry and Science had, amongst other covert operations, begun to put together what was later referred to by a Guardian correspondent as a GM 'rebuttal unit', was, even then, building a science fire brigade, ready to rush to the scene of any research finding that did not suite it's funders. After a rather shaky start using the amateur crisis management scientists at the Royal Society, the rebuttal unit settled in at the Royal Institution and became the Science Media Centre. In the early days, however, it was just a loose collection of scientists briefed by one of Sainsbury's personal staffers at the Dti on how to fight off claims by those who 'got their science wrong'.
Pusztai was no push-over and although corporate and government interests tried to make him, in another word coined by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty Four, an 'unperson', he pursued his agreement with Dr Richard Horton of the Lancet to make ready his research paper for publication. Of course trying to stop a journal from publishing a paper is quite a different kettle of fish from taking a paper out of a journal once it had been published.
However, the rebuttal unit - some of the most decorated scientists in Britain - put their heads together and came up with what they saw as a good solution and in the Autumn of 1999, Dr Richard Horton revealed that a senior fellow of the Royal Society had threatened him with the loss of his job if he published Pusztai's research. The threat was carried out in the manner of all good thrillers, over the phone, probably with a white handkerchief over the handset, and although Horton, always the slippery gentleman, wouldn't name his antagonist, intrepid reporters from the Guardian newspaper took only a short time to deduce who had made the threat.
Chief amongst those in the Rebuttal cabal was Professor Lachmann, a vehement opponent of the precautionary principle whose extensive CV included at that time, a position on the scientific advisory board of the pharmaceutical giant SmithKlineBeecham (now GlaxoSmithKline), vaccine manufacturers that invested heavily in biotechnology. If you imagine that Lachmann's role in this unsavoury affair earned him a serious rebuke from his peers you imagine wrongly. In the Alice in Wonderland world of British science, the Neanderthals rule and the odd threat to a journal editor is seen only as robust science strategy.
In retrospect, the GMC Fitness to Practice Hearing looks increasingly like a fairground during a power cut glimpsed over the shoulder of a man on the run. Increasingly as well one's mind is blocked with a traffic jam of thoughts about how it might be possible to get some of its leading prosecuting actors into criminal court and then to Jail where they belong.
Martin J Walker is an investigative writer who has written several books about aspects of the medical industrial complex. He started focusing on conflict of interest, intervention by pharmaceutical companies in government and patient groups in 1993. Over the last three years he has been a campaign writer for the parents of MMR vaccine damaged children covering every day of the two year hearing of the General Medical Council that tried Dr Wakefield and two other doctors. His GMC accounts can be found at www.cryshame.com, and his own website is www.slingshotpublications.com.