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Fox Chase Cancer Center Scientist Receives Grant to Study Possible Link Between Childhood Measles Vaccine and Autism

PHILADELPHIA (April 10, 2002) -- Glenn F. Rall, PhD, a member and noted scientist at Fox Chase Cancer Center has been awarded $189,000 from the M.I.N.D. Institute at U.C. Davis in California to study whether a link exists between the measles vaccine and the development of autism.

"Few believe that the vaccine directly causes a child to develop autism," Rall says. "However, we have an obligation as scientists to investigate this disease and any of its possible causes."

Recent reports have fueled a debate within both medical and parent communities concerning the safety of childhood vaccines and their possible link to autistic spectrum disorders (ASD).

"However," says Rall, "if such a link exists, it is not well defined. It is imperative that this issue be resolved, either leading to the development of safer vaccine alternatives, or reassuring parents of the safety of childhood vaccines."

Rall and his colleagues at Fox Chase Cancer Center will be using transgenic mouse models, that is, mice that are genetically engineered to be susceptible to measles virus infected in the brain. They will explore the hypothesis that the immune response of a newborn mouse is directly influenced by the exposure history of its mother.

"Neonatal mice that nursed on unexposed mothers cannot resolve the infection," he says. "In contrast, we've found in our preliminary research that newborn mice nursed on mothers who were previously exposed to measles were protected from central nervous disease, suggesting that the maternal exposure history afforded protection to her offspring," Rall says. In some mice however, previous maternal exposure to measles leads to an absence of an appreciable immune response, which Rall and his colleagues believe may indicate a novel form of tolerance.

Autism is a neurological disorder that strikes one in 500 children, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Autism ranges significantly in its severity, and is characterized by dysfunction in areas of language, social interaction and behavior. The condition is four times more likely to occur in boys than in girls, and is often diagnosed between the ages of 18 to 30 months, during the same age that children in the United States receive the typical battery of 21 vaccinations.

"Not enough definitive research exists to prove or refute a link between the measles vaccine and the subsequent development of autism in a child. However, the powerful anecdotal evidence from parents demands an answer that can only be ascertained through credible research," says Rall.

Rall points out the remarkable benefits of vaccines for most children and he remains a strong advocate for their use. When children are not vaccinated, they are left vulnerable to potentially fatal diseases. According to the National Coalition for Adult Immunization, measles virus continues to be a significant cause of mortality worldwide, resulting in over a million deaths annually, many of which could be prevented by vaccination.

Rall, an expert in viruses of the central nervous system, has been working in the virology and immunobiology laboratories at Fox Chase Cancer Center since 1995 where he investigates the causes and mechanisms of central nervous system diseases. In addition to his current work with the M.I.N.D Institute, he has also worked with The F.M. Kirby Foundation, investigating Lou Gehrig's Disease. He received his Ph.D. in 1990 from Vanderbilt University in Nashville and has authored many scientific publications as well as being the recipient of numerous awards and grants.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, one of the nation's first comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute in 1974, conducts basic and clinical research; programs of prevention, detection and treatment of cancer; and community outreach. For more information about Fox Chase activities, visit the Center's web site at or call 1-888-FOX CHASE.

Editor's note: Dr. Rall is available for interviews. Please call Sue Montgomery Madden in the public affairs office at 215-728-7784 to reach him.

Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach.  For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).

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