The committee tasked with guiding federal autism research voted this week on whether or not to expand research into a link between vaccines and autism. But the outcome of the vote depends on who you talk to.

When the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) met earlier this week to update its strategic plan, vaccines proved to be a hot button issue. The goals in the strategic plan determine where federal research dollars for autism are allocated, so the committee’s voice can be a powerful one.

Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism advocacy organization, lobbied for the IACC to fund research into a potential link between vaccines and autism, citing Congress’s intent to include vaccines in federal autism research when the IACC was established in the Combating Autism Act of 2006.

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“There are aspects of vaccine safety research that have not yet been, and should be, considered,” Anita Miller Sostek, Autism Speaks’ vice president of scientific review and operations, argued in a statement to the IACC ahead of the meeting.

But when the committee met, members decided not to include several proposals related to vaccine research. They did elect to keep a reference to vaccines that existed in the 2009 strategic plan whereby vaccines are one of a number of environmental exposures that could be studied. Further, the IACC added an objective to research whether or not certain sub-populations have increased susceptibility to environmental factors such as immune challenges, which could include vaccines.

Autism Speaks responded to the committee’s actions by putting out a statement saying they are “encouraged” by the committee’s move “to include vaccine research studies in the objectives of the updated strategic plan.”

But vaccine skeptics quickly fired back, charging that Autism Speaks’ statement was “misleading” and saying that the updates made to the IACC strategic plan this week mean that vaccines will factor into the 2010 plan in much the same way they did in the 2009 plan.

“More than a dozen studies indicate that neither vaccines nor any specific ingredients in vaccines cause autism,” IACC member Alison Singer said in her own statement. “The IACC affirmed that there is no reason to call out vaccines as a specific area worthy of further study in relation to autism.”

Singer, who now heads the Autism Science Foundation, is a former Autism Speaks executive who left the group earlier this year over disagreements about whether or not further research should be funded looking at vaccines and autism. Singer says many saw the IACC’s 2009 strategic plan as a “no vaccine research” plan. “That’s what was confusing to me,” Singer says. “Why is there a mandate now?”

For their part, Autism Speaks says the one new objective mentioning vaccines is significant.

“This revised plan is an important step toward a more comprehensive approach to exploring the wide range of risk factors that may be contributing to autism,” the group’s chief science officer Geraldine Dawson said in a statement.

Updates to the IACC’s strategic plan for 2010 are ongoing and the committee will meet again in December to further consider research goals for the coming year.

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