Doctor who began MMR scare stands by research

The doctor who linked MMR vaccine with autism, triggering a collapse in vaccination rates, has defended his research, saying he adhered at all times to official ethical guidelines.

Andrew Wakefield, lead author of the paper published in The Lancet in February 1998 which undermined confidence in the safety of MMR vaccine, said he had wanted to help treat and prevent autism after being approached by worried parents.

He and two former colleagues, Professors John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch, are accused of breaching ethical guidelines and acting against the clinical interests of the children who took part in the trial. Dr Wakefield is also accused of acting dishonestly in failing to disclose to The Lancet that he was advising solicitors acting for the parents who alleged their children had been damaged by MMR. All three deny charges of serious professional misconduct brought by the General Medical Council.

Giving evidence for the first time in the case, which began last July, Dr Wakefield, 51, said he was doing his "duty as a physician and a human being" when in 1995 he advised a mother worried about her child who had bowel problems and autism to seek a referral to his colleague, Professor Walker-Smith at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London.

He and his colleagues had developed a hypothesis linking MMR with autism and decided to conduct clinical studies to establish its validity, the GMC hearing was told. Dr Wakefield, a gastroenterologist, lacked formal qualifications in paediatrics. Children admitted to the study were under the care of Professor Walker-Smith, a consultant paediatrician and expert in paediatric gastroenterology.

Dr Wakefield said he wanted to do the research "so we could help in treatment and prevention". Asked by his counsel, Kieran Coonan, QC, if he was in breach of his position at the time in advising the mother, identified as Mrs 2, to seek the referral to Professor Walker-Smith from her GP, he replied "absolutely not."

He added: "I think if I had not given her that advice, if I had not responded in the way I did, then this panel would have every reason to have me before it. It was my duty as a physician and as a human being to respond to the plight of this mother, and if I could point her in the direction of someone who could help her, that was my absolute obligation."

Asked whether he had followed Royal College of Physician guidance on research practices, he said: "We complied entirely consistently with this document." He insisted that the children involved in the study for the Lancet paper had not undergone any procedures that were not deemed clinically appropriate by Professor Walker-Smith.

The hearing continues.