June 30, 2008 -- Government health agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health, met in Indianapolis Sunday to discuss whether cellular diseases known as mitochondrial disorders should be considered in research on autism.
At the heart of the issue for many specialists and concerned parents is whether vaccines -- suspected by some people as being a cause of autism -- might trigger mitochondrial disorders, which lead to autism.
One of the people at the meeting in Indianapolis was Jon Poling, father of 9-year old Hannah Poling, who was diagnosed with autism after receiving a series of vaccines.
Poling, who is also a neurologist, said he believes the vaccines may have aggravated a pre-existing condition, called mitochondrial disease, which in turn, led to Hannah's autism.
Some hope that this meeting will generate more research.
"I guess I kind of feel like it's Christmas Eve," Poling said. "Tomorrow is Christmas morning and, hopefully, those presents will be grants in the form of serious federal monies to look into autism and its relationship to mitochondrial disorders."
Mitochondria are tiny structures inside the cells whose job is to generate energy for metabolism and other body functions. Doctors said perhaps 5 percent to 10 percent of patients with mitochondrial disorders show symptoms of autism.
"Parents have observed a time association between when their child got vaccinated and when they had a worsening of their clinical state," said Dr. Douglas Wallace, director of the Center for Molecular and Mitochondrial Medicine and Genetics at the University of California-Irvine. "But just because two things occur at the same time, it doesn't mean that one caused the other."
While many mitochondria specialists said they are excited to study this potential link, they also said there is no evidence that vaccines play a major role in causing autism, as many parents of autistic children suspect.
Dr. Bruce Cohen, a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic, has weighed the possible link and said the issue is complicated.
"I think there is some potential of causing undue concern when one hears about situations such as the Hannah Poling case," Cohen said. "But when we look at all the benefits of the vaccine program in preventing horrible diseases and horrible deaths, I think you have to take it all into consideration."
So how do you know if your child has a mitochondrial disorder? There isn't one simple screening test but a combination of examining patient family history, metabolic, physical and neurological systems, as well as a variety of tests, including blood tests, electrocardiograms , and magnetic resonance imaging.
According to a study by the Cleveland Clinic, 1,000 to 4,000 children per year in the United States are born with a type of mitochondrial disease.
Federal officials are also looking at a recent case of a 6-year-old from Colorado who was treated with the flu vaccine FluMist and shortly thereafter "became weak with multiple episodes of falling to the ground," according to a report in The New York Times. She was hospitalized, had surgery and later died.
Her case offers more evidence, according to the specialists, that the potential link between vaccines and autism merits government research dollars.
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