March 9, 2010 -- In perhaps the first lawsuit of its kind, a parent of a boy with autism is suing his son's doctors, claiming they provided treatments without proven scientific benefit. The suit says the treatments were expensive and carried risks of serious harm.
James Coman filed the suit in Cook County Circuit Court against Dr. Anjum Usman and Dr. Daniel Rossignol over the treatment of his 7-year-old son with autism. Usman treated the boy at her clinic in Naperville, Ill., while Rossignol prescribed treatments by phone without meeting the patient, the suit alleges.
"It's fraud, pure and simple, and they made a lot of money off my family and they're making a lot of money off a lot of families," Coman told ABCNews.com.
Usman and Rossignol are part of a physician's group called Defeat Autism Now, part of the Autism Research Institute. The group advocates a number of autism treatments discredited by mainstream doctors. As of press time, the directors had not replied to an e-mail seeking comment.
Among the treatments prescribed, according to the suit, were 30 different vitamin supplements and the use of intravenous chelation therapy. Chelation, which in this case was done 37 times, is used medically to remove heavy metals from the body. The procedure is done based on the largely-discredited theory that autism is caused by heavy metal poisoning.
The National Institutes of Health cancelled a 2008 study of chelation as an autism treatment, saying "there was no clear evidence for direct benefit to the children who would participate in the chelation trial and that the study presents more than a minimal risk."
That assessment has been confirmed by experts since.
Chelation Therapy: Doctors Say it Can be Dangerous
"There doesn't seem to be any scientific justification for using chelation to treat autism," said Dr. Paul Wax, executive director of the American College of Medical Toxicology and a toxicologist with the University of Texas, who is not involved in the case. "To date there's not been any scientific study that's revealed any definitive link between an environmental chemical and autism."
Chelation can cause a number of adverse effects, including kidney failure and death.
Coman, who is divorced from the mother of his son, said that as he researched the treatments being performed on his son, he became convinced something was wrong.
"I wasn't fully aware of the extent of the treatments, and when I researched the treatments online, I found that there was a very strong consensus that the treatments are not valid treatments for autism," he said. "My son does not have heavy metal poisoning. I'm not a doctor, so I don't know any of the details, but as far as I can tell and from what the doctors have told me, this is not a valid treatment for autism."
Lawsuit Challenges Chelation Therapy Against Autism
A number of court cases involving autism have made headlines in recent years, but most of those have involved parents suing for damages they claim are caused by vaccines. The Coman case is unusual.
"It is surprising that someone would turn against the physician who represents himself as the only one that cares," said Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of "Autism's False Prophets," a book about questionable autism treatments.
The most similar case to the current one involved Dr. Roy Kerry, who was charged with the death of a 5-year-old child with autism named Abubakar Tariq Nadama. He received chelation treatment in Kerry's office. Kerry voluntarily surrendered his medical license in 2008. While the charges were eventually dropped, the state medical board suspended his license for six months, with two and a half years of probation in 2009.
But while this case might be different, Offit does not believe it will make a difference in how doctors providing questionable autism treatments are perceived.
"I don't think it will have much of an impact at all, because it's a big business," he said. "False hope, to many people, is better than no hope."
Dr. Stephen Barrett, who is acquainted with the case documents, said that while he hears from parents who believe they have been deceived by providers of alternative autism treatments. "This is the first time a parent has had the fortitude to do something about it."
Barrett, a retired psychiatrist, operates the Web site quackwatch.org.
Barrett said he hopes the Coman case will discredit the urine toxic metal test -- a test used by some doctors who use chelation therapy on patients with autism.
Lawsuit Challenges Chelation Therapy Against Autism
For this test, patients are given a chelating agent, a chemical that binds to metals in the body and then is excreted in urine. Barrett points out that this leads to unusually high levels of metal in the urine, since they have been drawn out by the chelating agent.
Barrett said the test often gives a false impression that there are toxic levels of metal in patients who do not have it.
"They should just chelate everybody who comes in the door, because that's what they try anyway," Barrett said.
Wax, the Texas toxicologist, said many labs use chelation improperly, "Chelation can be dangerous if it's not used in the right circumstances," he said. "Since there's no scientific justification for it… my group really frowns upon the use of chelation in this setting."
For his part, James Coman said he hopes his suit helps other parents of children with autism.
"I hope to make it very, very expensive to do this kind of quackery, because it is predatory and it's fraudulent and it needs to stop," he said.
"There is a reason why most doctors won't do this, and I realize that people are desperate to do something, and that they definitely feel good about doing these things, and I also understand that children get better, but children do get better with age. That doesn't mean they're cured and there's no way to know if the doctors doing these things are what's causing this improvements."
Coman added, "Parents should be very wary of anyone who says they can cure an incurable disease."
Ki Mae Heussner and information specialist Carolyn Weddell contributed to this report.