In a striking follow-up to our reporting on the first child diagnosed with autism -- and his improvement after treatment with gold salts -- a chemistry professor says lab tests show the compound can "reverse the binding" of mercury to molecules.
"This does lend support to the possible removal of mercury from biological proteins in individuals treated with gold salts," Boyd Haley, professor and former chemistry department chair at the University of Kentucky, said Thursday.
The potential significance: Donald T. -- Case 1 among children diagnosed with autism in the 1930s -- showed marked improvement in his autistic symptoms after being treated with gold salts for an attack of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. That's according to his brother, who we interviewed earlier this year in the small Mississippi town where he and Donald, now 72, still live.
One theory of autism -- strongly dismissed by federal health authorities and mainstream medical groups -- is that the disorder is primarily caused by a mercury preservative called thimerosal that was used in vaccines beginning in the 1930s. Some parents and researchers who believe autism is, in essence, mercury poisoning are using treatments designed to remove mercury from the body or offset its neurological effects.
Haley is among a minority of scientists who holds this view, and after reading about Donald's improvement he set out to test whether gold salts have any effect on mercury. "You follow your nose in research, and when I saw that I thought, yes, this is a possibility," said Haley.
Haley's experiment was quite simple: He began with a colored thiol-containing compound. Thiols are the class of molecules that contain a sulfhydryl group (a sulfur and hydrogen atom bound together) and, because of the affinity of mercury for sulfur, these molecules bind tightly to mercury. Thiols are found in most enzymes, and when mercury binds to them, these enzymes lose their biological activity, which is needed to maintain healthy cells, he said.
Haley performed two tests involving inorganic mercury -- the type of mercury thimerosal breaks down to in the brain, he said.
Haley's compound was designed to turn colorless when mercury binds to it. In the first test, he added the mercury, and the "optical density" measurement went from 0.23 units down to 0.11 units immediately, and down to 0.03 units in half an hour -- a clear sign that the mercury had bound to the thiol.
In the second test he premixed the mercury with gold salts for two minutes, then added it to the same solution. This time the optical density dropped to 0.11 but then slowly increased back up to 0.23 within about 30 minutes -- "totally the opposite of the situation with mercury alone," Haley said. "The only way this could happen would be for the gold salts to remove mercury from the thiol-containing compound."
The advocacy group SafeMinds -- which opposes the use of mercury in medicines and provided Haley with the $142 prescription of gold salts to test -- called the results potentially significant but cautioned against premature use of the compound to treat autistic people.
"Clinicians have shown that some autistic children show strong recovery from their symptoms after biomedical treatment," said SafeMinds' Mark Blaxill. "So any time we discover a treatment that works in a child, we need to take it seriously.
"According to his brother's unprompted report, Donald T. recovered from autism after treatment with gold salts. We should be all over that, especially after Boyd's work. But we need to proceed with care to make sure that this is a safe treatment."
Haley made the same point. "Please note that I am not recommending using gold salts to treat autistics, but it would certainly be worth a project if carefully monitored by a physician in a good clinic."
In August Donald's brother described to us his "miraculous response" to gold-salts treatment for a life-threatening attack of juvenile arthritis. Donald was given injections of the salts over a two- to three-month period at the Campbell Clinic in Memphis at age 12 in 1947.
The arthritis cleared up, and so did the "extreme nervousness" and excitability that had afflicted him, his brother said. Donald also became "more social." He went on to college, where he was invited to join a fraternity; worked as a bank teller; and now, in retirement, pursues his love of golf and travels the world. Most of those early patients -- and thousands since -- were institutionalized when they got older or lived in extremely sheltered circumstances, according to follow-up reports. (Donald did not respond to our request for an interview, and we are not identifying him at this time beyond information in the original case study and follow-up.)
Before Haley tested the gold salts, he told us why he thought it was worth investigating.
"Nothing has a higher affinity for mercury than elemental gold. They form bonds that are very tight," Haley said. Devices designed to detect and filter out mercury routinely use gold, he noted -- and they obviously would employ a less expensive element if gold weren't so effective. Mercury was also used to extract gold from ore in mining operations.
In the body, Haley said, gold likely is "attracted to the same places as mercury. They would probably make it to the same spot in the body. It (gold) would probably cross the blood-brain barrier like mercury. There are reasons to think that if you put it in, it would chase mercury down because they're very similar in their chemistry.
"So you might be able to displace it with the gold. The chemistry gets complicated here, but gold does not do as much oxidative stress as does mercury. The gold isn't nearly as toxic as the mercury. ... It could take it off the enzyme it's inhibiting and reactivate that enzyme."
Haley said he was intrigued that the treatment may have benefited Donald when he was 12 -- old for such a positive response, according to proponents of biomedical therapies. The most controversial such treatment is chelation, which uses drugs in an attempt to pull toxic metals -- mercury in particular -- from the body.
"It doesn't seem to work with the older kids," Haley said. "These older kids are just lost." But, Haley emphasized: "Don't jump on this. Be careful. You can hurt kids."
That concern was underscored when a 5-year-old autistic child died this year while undergoing chelation in Pennsylvania. Federal officials say it is not a responsible practice, although one advocacy group says more than 10,000 families have tried it, with significant benefit.
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