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Race to be first led to autism research short-cuts

PUBLISHED: 12:12 14 August 2008 | UPDATED: 15:18 07 September 2010

By Tan Parsons A ROYAL Free doctor accused of serious professional misconduct during controversial MMR research admitted that short cuts were made in the quest for fame. Professor John Walker-Smith told the General Medical Council his colleague Dr Andrew

By Tan Parsons

A ROYAL Free doctor accused of serious professional misconduct during controversial MMR research admitted that short cuts were made in the quest for fame.

Professor John Walker-Smith told the General Medical Council his colleague Dr Andrew Wakefield was a man in a hurry, anxious to prove the connection between the MMR jab and autism before anyone else.

The pair are accused, along with colleague Professor Simon Murch, of blunders in research involving 12 boys between 1996 and 1998. They are alleged to have carried out invasive procedures at the Hampstead hospital, including colonoscopies and lumbar punctures on the autistic children without proper approval.

Asked whether Dr Wakefield had pushed him into it, Prof Walker-Smith said: "I think that's true. If we had not had any urgency to get on with it, we would not be in the muddle we are in now because we would have done it in the usual way by getting a referral. Dr Wakefield was a man in a hurry and in full-time research."

Sally Smith QC, for the GMC, told the hearing that Dr Wakefield, 51, wanted to get the approval for the study as quickly as possible so he could prove his theory. The resulting study, published in the Lancet medical journal in 1998, led to many parents rejecting the MMR vaccine.

She said: "There's a pressure to get there before someone else does. Dr Wakefield had a strong conviction that his hypothesis was correct. He believed it and that's what led to the pressure."

Prof Walker-Smith told the hearing he thought it was in the children's best interests to perform the controversial lumbar punctures - also known as spinal taps. He told the panel he thought he was doing the parents of these children (referred to by number rather than name in the proceedings) a service so they could rule out neurological disorders in the future.

"I would certainly want to exclude neurological disorder, and I think we gave these children a service," he said. "Some of them in subsequent years have had fits, and it was a useful baseline to have done these investigations."

Ms Smith said out of the 12 children, complications materialised in two. "I'm not suggesting that the complications were serious, but you would accept that having a child admitted to hospital overnight with a fever and feeling unwell is worrying for parents," she said.

Prof Walker-Smith said he thought the parents would value the knowledge that their children had no neurological disorders over smaller problems. "I personally would think it more important that neurological disorders had been excluded," he said.

The hearing continues.

tan.parsons@hamhigh.co.uk


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