More Evidence of Harm: Thimerosal Found to Disrupt Mitochondrial Function in Cells From People With Autism

January 21, 2015

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By Lyn Redwood, R.N., M.S.N., co-founder of SafeMinds

Thimerosal Found to Disrupt Mitochondrial Function in Cells From People With Autism

In 1999 when I came to the realization that my son had been exposed to over 125 times his EPA daily allowable exposure to mercury from his infant vaccines, I started researching a little known vaccine preservative called thimerosal.

The more I learned about thimerosal, the more surprised I became (that was a long time ago, I don’t surprise as easily any more).

I found out that the FDA never required extensive toxicological testing, the bedrock of pharmaceutical development, on thimerosal in order to prove that it was safe.

According to a literature review of thimerosal conducted in 2001:

“We [the FDA] have been unable to find sufficient information in the available literature to adequately assess the potential for neurodevelopmental, immunologic, and reproductive toxicity of Thimerosal. Data are also lacking regarding the biotransformation and pharmacokinetics of Thimerosal and its derivatives following intramuscular injection in humans and animal models.”

Three years later, in 2004, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) reviewed research regarding thimerosal exposure and autism.

The IOM’s recommendation? To end further research into thimerosal.

I was shocked and baffled. While the IOM acknowledged that, “experiments showing effects of thimerosal on biochemical pathways in cell culture systems and abnormalities in the immune system or metal metabolism in people with autism are provocative,” they concluded that, “available funding for autism research be channeled to the most promising areas.” And that the committee, “does not consider a significant investment in studies of the theoretical vaccine-autism connection to be useful at this time.”

Buried in the IOM report was the acknowledgment that the hypothesis that vaccines and components might result in harm in a genetically sensitive population:

“This hypothesis [that a genetic predisposition may make some children susceptible to vaccine damage] cannot be excluded by epidemiological data from large populations groups that do not show an association between a vaccine and an adverse outcome.”

In other words, the IOM report from 2004 recognized that a subset of the population may be at risk of being damaged from vaccines.

Yet the report failed to call for further investigation.

When I sat in my office with a strong cup of coffee and a highlighter pen and first read the report, I felt sick to my stomach. Multiple vaccines are given to more than four million people, mostly children, in America every year. State laws require that children be vaccinated to enter daycare or school, and parents are even threatened with losing custody of their children if they do not follow the CDC’s vaccine recommendations.

Because this is such a widely used medical intervention, it is imperative to have the safest possible national vaccine program.

It is for these reasons that SafeMinds feels strongly that vaccine safety issues, even if theoretical in nature, deserve to be investigated to the fullest extent possible.

That is why SafeMinds has continued to fund research into thimerosal and has funded over 1.5 million dollars in environmental research into autism over the past 15 years.

This past month another study supported by SafeMinds was published in the Journal of Toxicology. This study evaluated how children with autism (actually their cells) responded to exposure to thimerosal.

In this study, researchers used cultured lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCLs) from children with autism and those from control children without autism. They then exposed the cells to thimerosal. Concentrations of thimerosal tested ranged from 0.0625μM to 2.5μM, which is approximately 2 orders of magnitude lower than those used in vaccines.

Thimerosal, as you probably already know, is still being used in flu vaccines given to pregnant women and infants, as well as in vaccines for children shipped overseas. The concentrations in flu, meningococcal, and tetanus vaccines used in America is approximately 25μg of ethylmercury per 0.5ml dose, which equates to 200μM.

The authors had previously found that 32% of children with autism exhibited abnormal mitochondrial function (AD-A) at baseline, evidenced by abnormalities in mitochondrial respiration, which is basically how cells take in nutrients and convert them into energy. When researchers then exposed these already abnormally functioning cells to thimerosal, the cells were unable to maintain reserve capacity. In other words, the cells could no longer make enough energy.

Reduced reserve capacity is linked to several diseases, such as aging, heart disease, and neurodegenerative disorders. Complete depletion of reserve capacity has been shown to result in cell death.

Why is this study important?

This study supports the notion that over 30% of children with autism may have significant inherent physiological abnormalities in mitochondrial function and an increased vulnerability to oxidative environmental toxicants such as ethylmercury in thimerosal, which can induce mitochondrial dysfunction. The hypothesis that I mentioned earlier that was not ruled out by the IOM.

The findings also mean that in addition to thimerosal, a subset of children with autism may also be more vulnerable to other toxicants that also cause oxidative stress on cells.

The researchers also did an experiment where they pretreated the subgroup of cells that were abnormal (AD-A) with N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), a precursor to glutathione (which is the body’s natural antioxidant defense for reducing oxidative stress. It is also important to note that Tylenol has been reported to decrease glutathione levels, so parents need to be cautious about giving Tylenol to their children, especially after vaccinations). The NAC pretreatment resulted in a normalization of the cells baseline and mitigated the toxic effects of ethylmercury in this subgroup. Interestingly, NAC pretreatment did not similarly affect the normal (AD-N) cells.

This is a fascinating and important finding in a lab setting that might help us find a way to provide meaningful medical help to children with autism.

If NAC can help reduce the toxic effects of ethyl mercury in cells in a petri dish, it may be able to help damaged cells in a human body, so this finding provides preliminary support for the clinical use of NAC to treat oxidative stress in autism and deserves more research.

It’s not the first time researchers have discovered using NAC to be beneficial.

Previous research found that NAC can protect against oxidative-stress-induced mitochondrial dysfunction as well as mitochondrial-generated oxidative stress. Researchers have also found that in a mouse model of complex 1 deficiency, a type of mitochondrial disease, NAC was shown to improve cognitive deficits. You can read that study here.

Importantly, yet another study—a double-blind trial of NAC in children with autism—found that NAC proved efficacious in reducing symptoms of irritability, suggesting that reduced glutathione redox capacity and oxidative stress may also contribute to behavioral symptoms associated with autism.

Back in early 2000 I had the opportunity to work closely with several attorneys who had filed legal cases against several vaccine manufactures due to neurological harm that happened in children, including my son, from exposure the thimerosal.

Through the process of discovery, these attorneys found that Eli Lilly, the original manufacturer of thimerosal, had known as early as the 1970s that the concentration of thimerosal used in vaccines (1 in 10,000) could be “toxic for tissue cells, lymphocytes, etc.”

J.W. Smith, Ph.D., the head of the Biological Regulatory Requirements Department at Eli Lilly, concluded that, “merthiolate must be in the concentration of less than 1 in 1,000,000 in order not to be toxic to the tissue cells.” (my emphasis.) In this September 7, 1971 memo, Lilly recognized that the concentration in vaccines was 100 times higher than the level it considered to be safe.

Four decades later, thimerosal continues to be used, not only in vaccines given to pregnant women and children but also in over 200 other consumer medications.

In the meantime, autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in America, affecting a staggering 1 in every 42 boys. In 1971 many people were not even sure they knew what autism was. Today there is no one reading this blog who is not directly affected by autism, whether you have a child on the spectrum or not.

It’s time to take all mercury out of all vaccines.

It’s time for the CDC, FDA, and IOM to revisit the vaccine-autism connection.

What can you do to help? SafeMinds is currently working on efforts to have mercury removed from all medical products in the United States. Support our research, follow us on Facebook, and we’ll be keeping you updated on our progress in the coming weeks.


Lyn Redwood SafeMindsLyn Redwood, R.N., M.S.N., is co-founder and board member of SafeMinds and cofounder of the National Autism Association. In 2000, she testified before the Government Reform Committee on “Mercury in medicine: Are we taking unnecessary risks?” and in 2003 before a Congressional sub-committee on health. She has published in Neurotoxicology, Molecular Psychiatry, Medical Hypotheses, Mothering Magazine, and Autism-Aspergers Digest; appeared on Good Morning America and the Montel Williams Show; and been interviewed by U.S News and World Report, Wired Magazine, and People. She is prominently featured in David Kirby’s award-winning book, Evidence of Harm. Lyn Redwood also served on the Department of Defense Autism Spectrum Disorder Research Program from 2007-2009 and served as a public member of the National Institutes of Health Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee for the past eight years. She was awarded the National Autism Association’s Believe Award in 2013 for her dedication to the autism community.

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