Claudia Kalb: Another Resignation At Autism Speaks

by Claudia Kalb

It’s another resignation for Autism Speaks, the largest autism research and advocacy group in the country. In January, Alison Singer, then executive vice president of communications and awareness, quit the group, saying she could no longer support the organization’s investment in vaccine research. This week, Dr. Eric London, a member of Autism Speaks’s Scientific Affairs Committee, follows in her footsteps. In his letter of resignation, London said that Autism Speaks’s argument that “there might be rare cases of ‘biologically-plausible’ vaccine involvement…are misleading and disingenuous.” He goes on to charge the organization with “adversely impacting” autism research.

The longstanding vaccine-autism debate has focused largely on a subset of parents, who believe immunizations triggered their children’s autism, and scientists, whose studies show the shots are not to blame. Now the controversy is morphing into an organizational rivalry. In April, Singer formed a new research group, The Autism Science Foundation (ASF); its board of directors includes Dr. Paul Offit, whose book, Autism’s False Prophets (Columbia University Press, 2008) slams what he calls the “bad science” around claims of an autism-vaccine link. Singer says the Foundation, whose first major fundraising event is planned for May 2010, is focused on genetic research, treatments and support services; it will not devote any dollars to vaccine research. London’s wife is co-founder of the Autism Science Foundation, and London himself has been a member of its Scientific Advisory Board since it was launched. It was ASF that announced London’s resignation this week, posting his letter prominently on their website. Clearly, ASF wants to make its differences known and build its brand.

Autism Speaks, which has awarded millions of dollars in research grants, isn’t making a big deal of the news. In a statement to NEWSWEEK, the organization said: “Autism Speaks is currently pursuing a broad program of research, including studies on both genetic and environmental risk factors and the development of new treatments. We believe that our broad agenda will ultimately provide answers to the cause and treatment of autism spectrum disorders. We wish Dr. London well in his new endeavor.”