A solid new, blinded placebo-controlled Phase II study from a Duke team clearly shows no benefit of cord blood for autism. Surprisingly, the team has said they are encouraged by the results. As a result, they apparently will continue this kind of work anyway despite their data. In contrast, I see the data as a probable stop sign.
Few have been as upbeat over the years as this Duke team about the idea of cord blood for autism spectrum disorder. I have been one of the voices arguing on the other side against this idea for many reasons.
Their team is led by Drs. Joanne Kurtzberg and Geraldine Dawson. For background you can see a past YouTube video below of Kurtzberg talking about their autism research and the trial in the paper. I have followed her stem cell research for more than 15 years. The field overall has great respect for her as a stem cell researcher. So do I.
I don’t know Dr. Dawson’s work as well, but she seems to have an outstanding track record as a researcher too.
Let’s take a look at their newly published study.
Data: no efficacy of cord blood for autism
The paper in the Journal of Pediatrics by Dawson and Kurtzberg’s team presents data from their randomized, blinded, and placebo-controlled clinical trial. Overall, the trial found no significant efficacy of cord blood for autism.
This is a uniquely solid study in this area so in my view there’s not much room for hedging bets like “well, maybe trying things a little different will work” anymore. The key data in the paper are in Table II (screenshot below) showing across the board that there is no benefit of cord blood for these patients.
Note the huge p-values. We’re not talking about p=0.06 here or anything close to that.
The study missed both the primary and all of the secondary outcomes.
While the paper has a neutral title, “A Phase II Randomized Clinical Trial of the Safety and Efficacy of Intravenous Umbilical Cord Blood Infusion for Treatment of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”, the conclusion in the abstract at first seems far more direct:
“Overall, a single infusion of CB was not associated with improved socialization skills or reduced autism symptoms.”
That’s clear, right? I think so.
Is more research justified?
Unfortunately, the paper’s abstract ends, “More research is warranted to determine whether CB infusion is an effective treatment for some children with ASD.”
But is it warranted? Why?
And if you proceed, what do you do differently? More carefully select and assign your trial participants? Won’t that risk introducing bias?
Try more infusions per patient? If so, where do you get enough cells? Purify just the stem cells from the cord blood and grow them in culture for infusion? What are the risks to that?
The simplest explanation for these new negative data and other past reports suggesting no benefit is that this approach is just not going to work.
The Duke team looked for other reasons why cord blood still might work despite their study not showing it.
One main possible reason they suggest in the paper for why they didn’t find benefit was some imbalance. Participants with intellectual disability (ID) were imbalanced in representation in the autologous and allogeneic groups. Removing participants with ID from the analysis after the fact made some small possible trends show up, but notably still not significantly.
The paper emphasizes how hard it is to do this kind of trial and oddly enough that’s a possible reason to keep doing more trials. Can they learn from this one to do better trials of the same kind in the future? Maybe, but I’m not convinced it’s worth it. Further, would it make good sense to do a whole new series of cord blood trials just on ASD kids who have no ID?
This new study along with other data should also probably be the end of the road for the related idea of umbilical cord blood stem cells for autism, but it likely won’t be.
Why have I been so skeptical and even worried about this path?
Why have I been skeptical of stem cells and specifically about cord blood for autism for so long? You can see some of my thinking in the many past posts I’ve done here on The Niche, listed below over a period of 8 years:
- Top journal erred with Panama clinic stem cell for autism paper (2019)
- Stem cells for autism: time to hit pause in 2018?
- On Duke stem cells for autism trial, did new CNN article hit the mark? (2017)
- Cord blood for cerebral palsy: mostly discouraging new trial data (2017, note that the Duke team is also trying cord blood for other childhood brain conditions like CP.)
- Upbeat Update from Duke on Stem Cell Autism Trial, but Questions Remain (2015)
- Duke Launches Large, Debated Stem Cell Trial for Autism (2014)
- Why I do not believe in stem cells for autism today (2013)
- Stem cells & autism: dark echo of Sutter clinical trial will lead to more exploitive treatments internationally (2012)
- Stem cells for autism: are we there yet? (2012, on a new at that time study beginning at Sutter here in the Sacramento area; see image of my morning newspaper The Sacramento Bee from their story about this. Note that once completed the Sutter trial concluded there was no benefit)
The key reasons for my skepticism
I have condensed down the major reasons I’ve been so skeptical from what I’ve written before:
- “There still is no compelling evidence that I know of that stem cells or cord blood can help autism and that they would be definitely safe in kids, although the safety is starting to look much better overall as of 2020.
- The most common route of administration, IV into the bloodstream, doesn’t make much sense to me. Do a meaningful number of cells even get into the brain that way?
- If cells don’t get into the brain, you’re assuming they do something systemically that helps the autistic brain? Some folks believe that there is a definite autoimmune component to autism and that flooding the bloodstream with stem cells might reduce autoimmunity, but there’s little hard evidence for either of these ideas.
- If the cells do get into the brain, what do the cells that get into the brain do that is helpful and where do they do it inside the brain? Which brings me to the next question.
- What causes autism spectrum disorder? The field doesn’t really know so how can you treat it if you don’t understand it?
- Under that umbrella “spectrum” term there are many manifestations and probably many causes so stem cells (and cord blood more generally) are unlikely to be an autism panacea.
- Is there any evidence that once autism manifests that it is reversible?”
Stem cell clinics, cord products, and autism
Another big reason for concern here overall that was true 8 years ago and still is the case now in 2020 is that for-profit stem cell clinics around the world including here in the US and in Panama keep selling the idea of cord blood and umbilical cord stem cells for autism. They are literally selling this idea to make money. The clinics like to point to the Duke program and media about it as support for what they are doing too.
The most prominent clinic of his kind is The Stem Cell Institute in Panama led by Neil Riordan. They published a paper last year suggesting safety but without evidence of benefit of lab-grown umbilical cord stem cells for autism. I had a variety of reasons for concern about the publication of that article, which I wrote about here.
The funding for the Duke trial
This kind of Phase II trial is very expensive to run.
The funding for the Duke research, as reported in the paper, apparently comes almost entirely from a philanthropic organization called the Marcus Foundation. I didn’t see any indication of NIH funding. Different media stories over the years have listed the Duke funding from Marcus ranging anywhere from $15 million to tens of millions of dollars. I’m trying to learn more about the Duke autism research-Marcus connection, which will be the focus of another post.
The Duke team apparently will keep forging ahead on this path. Remarkably, in a news piece about their new publication the team actually seemed somewhat upbeat about continuing:
“Overall, we are encouraged by these initial results and plan to build upon them in future studies of cellular therapies in children with autism,” Kurtzberg says.
I realize that parents of children with autism and their families need hope, but it’s got to be solid hope. If you keep going down the same road when even your own data don’t support doing that, is that providing real or false hope?
What would it take in terms of data for you to decide to stop and maybe try something else?