Researchers Raise Eyebrows With Autism Findings

Father-son research team fuel debate over link between autism and vaccines.

ByJohn Donvan, Katie Hinman and Leigh Simons
February 10, 2009, 4:29 PM

June 26, 2007 — -- Earlier this month, outside the gates of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, parents angrily confronted government scientists.

They were passionate about one specific point of view -- that their kids had been poisoned by the mercury contained in the childhood vaccines they'd received, and now had autism.

These parents were frustrated by the mainstream media and mainstream medicine, which insists there is no evidence to support their theory. The parents believe that scientists allowed the poisoning to happen and were now covering up the truth.

In turn, many of these parents have gone and found a small group of scientists, doctors and researchers who also believe that the mercury in vaccines have caused autism.

And in this world, perhaps no set of names is more famous than Geier and Geier. Mark Geier is an M.D. with a Ph.D. in genetics. His research partner is his 26-year-old son, David Geier, who has no advanced degrees.

Together, the father and son duo argue in study after study that symptoms of autism are caused by mercury once widely used in vaccines.

When Mark Geier presented the research to the Institute of Medicine, perhaps America's highest medical authority, those who reviewed it declared the arguments so rife with "methodological limitations" that it was judged "uninterpretable." The link between vaccines and autism was found to be without foundation.

Though that was three years ago, the Geiers are still arguing the opposite view, and there is an audience still ready to hear that argument.

In a landmark vaccine trial being held in Washington, D.C., the Geiers serve as scientific consultants to a legal team representing nearly 5,000 families seeking damages.

Mark Geier has testified as an expert witness in more than 100 vaccine trails, though at times the court has not upheld his testimony. One court ruling in July 1993 called his testimony "intellectually dishonest," but Geier said he has "never been dishonest in any way, shape or form."

Although some of Geier's testimony has been deemed inadmissible in court, decades ago his work was firmly in the mainstream and he was considered something of a prodigy.

Mark Geier was featured in stories in Newsweek and The New York Times in October 1971 about a research team he was a part of at Johns Hopkins that completed the world's first successful gene-splicing procedure. At the time, he was only 23 years old.

He has a life outside the controversy. Over the years, he has prospered as a doctor running a profitable practice that offers genetic testing, such as amniocentesis for pregnant women. He is a tennis fanatic, as is his wife and his son David.

David Geier is often the spokesman for the two.

"They did studies, and they found harmful effects," David explained, referring to internal discussions at the CDC that started in the late '90s, which some activists construe as proof that the CDC was aware of a link between vaccines and neurological disorders. "But they're not going to tell the people, because no one would want to vaccinate their children. And we desperately don't want that to happen. So let's get rid of the mercury from the shots."

In the United States, the mercury is mostly out of the vaccines. The FDA recommended removing it as a preservative in vaccines in 2001, and now most American children receive vaccines that have only trace elements of mercury. Further, the CDC continues to hold that no studies have shown that mercury in vaccines causes autism.

The Rev. Lisa Sykes, a Methodist minister, places her trust and the trust of her 11-year-old son, Wesley, in the Geiers. "I'm one that really believes a lot in providence and justice, and I think the Geiers have a calling and a place in this debate that is unique," she said. "They combine science, epidemiology and clinical treatment with an integrity and a stalwartness that is very precious and very unusual in this world."

Sykes believes her son Wesley's autism was triggered by mercury poisoning. She said she had the heart-wrenching experience of watching her infant son learn words and then lose them.

"I think a fact is a fact," Sykes explained. "My son was exposed to toxic levels of mercury, and he is toxic. I think a fact is a fact."

Now a fervent activist in the anti-mercury movement, Sykes is attempting to sue a vaccine manufacturer for $20 million.

Mark Geier will probably testify if the lawsuit goes to trial. "Well, the Geiers are amazing in the number of aspects that they can address to this issue," Sykes explained.

Sykes has so much faith in the work of the Geiers that she allows Mark Geier to inject her son with a testosterone-reducing agent, the same thing given to sex offenders to stop their behavior. The Geiers said they have discovered that it also reduces the symptoms of autism and have published a paper detailing its effects. It was quickly attacked as having questionable methodology.

They have also applied for a patent for the concept.

Dr. Jim Laidler is one of the Geiers most visible critics because he has taken them on through his Web site, where he sets out to debunk what he said are theories and treatments based on bad science.

"Their science is not very strong," he said of the Geiers' work.

Laidler is an M.D. and geneticist, just like Mark Geier. He is also the parent of two autistic sons.

Laidler admits to practicing a lot of unproven treatments on his sons, such as an extremely restrictive gluten-free diet and various supplements. "I began to dare to hope," Laidler explained. "And hope is a very addictive drug. I wanted more."

He went deeper and deeper into the alternative world and then, he said, he saw the light.

At a breakfast buffet while on vacation, Laidler's son grabbed a waffle, which his diet restricted him from eating, and wolfed it down. "We were both aghast because we had been told … that he would just deteriorate before our eyes," he explained. "And nothing happened. And we got home and we thought, 'Well, what do we do now?' And my wife made him a big bowl of macaroni and cheese [also restricted] and he wolfed it down and nothing happened."

That was the moment that Laidler became a full-time skeptic. He now thinks the Geiers are off base in their research.

"What [parents] are getting in exchange for their hope, they're having to give time, money, effort, emotional energy that might be better spent other places," he said. "I know that when we stopped all the therapies on our kids, I suddenly found out I had the time and energy to actually play with them, to spend time with them, to spend time with them instead of on them."

The Geiers said that they are tracking 150 children who are receiving the testosterone-reducing drug. When asked, they insisted that they are not experimenting on kids, because each child who came to them had too-high testosterone levels in the first place.

Mark Geier said that "Not only were we not experimenting, we were doing the standard treatment. It's not even off label."

And when asked if it was a conflict of interest to treat kids for a condition when they have a vested interest in promoting the concept that mercury is causing autism, Mark Geier responded, "I don't get that. In that case, every doctor who talks about giving vaccines is promoting. … Not only that, there's so many autistics, I can't handle them all in a million years."

Spending time with the Geiers leaves one with the feeling that it is something other than money that motivates them to swim outside the mainstream. Perhaps it is defiance or ego or the love of people like Lisa Sykes, who trusts the Geiers and hope for a positive outcome.

While Laidler sympathizes with the plight of the Sykes family, he will continue to question the motives behind the science. "I have no problem with people getting hope," he said, "as long as it's not false hope. And I think what they're getting here is false hope."

Sykes, however, remained adamant -- both that the Geiers are good scientists and good men; and that her son Wesley was "poisoned" -- the word she uses -- by vaccines. "A fact is a fact," she said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events