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updated 4/15/2010 7:04:23 PM ET 2010-04-15T23:04:23

A new autism disease identified in a flawed paper linking a common children's vaccine to autism, may not exist, new research says.

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A dozen years ago, British surgeon Andrew Wakefield and colleagues published a study in the journal Lancet on a new bowel disease and proposed a connection between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella.

The study was widely discredited, 10 of Wakefield's co-authors renounced its conclusions and the Lancet retracted the paper in February. The research set off a health scare, and vaccination rates in Britain dropped so low measles outbreaks returned.

In research published Friday in the medical journal BMJ, reporter Brian Deer examines if the illness described by Wakefield and colleagues — autistic enterocolitis, a bowel disease found in autistic people — actually exists.

In 1996, Wakefield was hired by a lawyer to find a new syndrome of bowel and brain disease to help launch a lawsuit against drug companies that made the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, according to BMJ article.

According to reports from London's Royal Free Hospital, eight of the 11 children included in Wakefield's original study had normal bowels. But in Wakefield's Lancet study, 11 of the 12 were said to have a swollen bowel, which was said to be proof of a new gastrointestinal disease affecting autistic children.

In 2005, Wakefield started a clinic in Texas to research and treat the syndrome.

The original biopsy slides from the children in the Lancet study are no longer available. Deer asked independent experts to examine hospital reports on the biopsies, who failed to find any distinctive inflammation that would qualify as a new disease.

In an accompanying editorial, Sir Nicholas Wright from the Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, said "any firm conclusion would be inadvisable." He said several studies have shown a link between inflamed bowels and autism, but too little evidence exists to prove there is a new illness.

In January, Britain's General Medical Council ruled Wakefield had acted unethically. He and the two colleagues who have not renounced the study face being stripped of their right to practice medicine in Britain.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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