Reprint
From the MMR investigation

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Memo warned MMR doctor

of research flaw

The Sunday Times, July 15 2007

Brian Deer

THE doctor at the centre of the row over the MMR vaccine was warned a year before he published his research that it may have been compromised, a confidential document has shown.

The memo was sent to Dr Andrew Wakefield, a researcher at the Royal Free hospital, London. It warned him that the parents of most of the children in his study, investigating alleged links between the vaccine and autism, were litigants seeking compensation from drug companies. The memo said this gave the parents “a vested interest” in finding a link between MMR and their children’s autism.

The document is regarded by lawyers as central to a hearing beginning tomorrow into the conduct of Wakefield and two of his former colleagues at the Royal Free – Professors John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch.

The doctors are facing a string of charges at the General Medical Council, which they deny, alleging serious misconduct over their research on MMR.

The three were the main authors of a study published in The Lancet in February 1998 which led to a worldwide scare over the safety of the vaccine.

Drawing on findings from just 12 autistic children, aged between 3 and 10, seen in 1996-97, the study reported that the parents of eight blamed MMR, saying their children’s “behavioural symptoms” started within two weeks of vaccination.

Despite the small size of the study, these allegations were represented by the doctors as highly significant. It was claimed the children were merely routine referrals by GPs and paediatricians to a bowel clinic at the hospital.

But the document, a memo dated February 20, 1997, from Walker-Smith to Wakefield and marked as copied to Murch, warned: “It is clear that the legal involvement by nearly all the parents will have an effect on the study as they have a vested interest.”

A copy of the memo only recently came to light among hospital records. Walker-Smith said in it: “I would be less concerned by legal involvement if our work was complete and we had a firm view.

“Never before in my career have I been confronted by litigant parents of research work in progress.

“I think this makes our work difficult, especially publication and presentation.”

The three doctors did not disclose the status of their research subjects’ parents.

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