State seeks to discipline doctor who prescribed unorthodox autism treatments

CHICAGO — Dr. Anjum Usman, who has been a star in the world of alternative treatments for autism for years, is facing professional discipline for her approach to the disorder.

In prescribing chelation, a hormone modulator and hyperbaric oxygen therapy, Usman subjected a young Chicago boy to unproven treatments and demonstrated “extreme departure from rational medical judgment,” according to a complaint filed this week by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

Listing those treatments, along with dozens of dietary supplements and other therapies, the state said “none has … been proven to influence the course of autism.”

Many such treatments are praised in online forums and at conferences like Autism One, held in the Chicago area every spring. Lured by testimonials professing miraculous recoveries, desperate parents of children with autism spend thousands of dollars on them despite a lack of evidence and in spite of known risks.

The complaint, which alleges that Usman “engaged in a pattern of practice or other behavior that demonstrate incapacity or incompetence to practice,” asks that her medical license be revoked, or suspended, that she be placed on probation or otherwise disciplined.

Usman, medical director of the True Health Medical Center, and the boy described in the complaint were featured in the 2009 Chicag Tribune series, “Dubious Medicine.” The series examined unproven alternative treatments for autism and concluded many amount to mass uncontrolled experimentation on children.

According to the complaint, which was filed Wednesday, Usman “made statements to (the boy’s) mother that the prescribed treatments had positive clinical benefits for children with autism, despite the lack of empirical research.”

And, the complaint said, Usman made false or misleading statements regarding the value of treatments and “abused the patient/physician relationship.”

The Naperville, Ill., physician is scheduled to appear before an administrative law judge on Nov. 28, when a hearing date will be set.

Usman’s attorney, Algis Augustine, wrote in an email that he and the doctor had not seen the complaint and so had no comment. “It is amazing to me that the media is contacted about a complaint against a doctor before the doctor even hears about it,” Augustine wrote. “Shocking, in fact, and wrong.”

Usman, he wrote, “is a caring, compassionate doctor whose top priority is her patients’ well being. Her patients love her, as they should, because she is an excellent doctor.”

The doctor did not respond to a request for comment. In 2009, Usman told the Chicago Tribune in an email: “We base our treatment protocols on the lab results, parent reports and physical examination of our patients — nothing out of the ordinary in the practice of medicine.”

Last year, the boy’s father, James Coman, filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court against Usman and another physician, Daniel Rossignol of Melbourne, Fla. The case is pending.

The treatments that Coman’s son received were also the subject of a divorce and custody battle between Coman, who opposed the therapies, and his wife. She had been a proponent of the therapies for the boy, according to divorce court records. Coman and his wife divorced. Coman was awarded residential custody.

According to the complaint filed by Illinois regulators, Coman’s son began seeing Usman shortly after he was diagnosed with mild to moderate autism in the spring of 2004. He was not yet 2.

Over the next five years, Usman allegedly diagnosed the child with a calcium-to-zinc imbalance, yeast, dysbiosis, low zinc, heavy metal toxicity and abnormally high levels of aluminum, antimony, arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, silver, tin, titanium and selenium, according to the complaint.

The complaint alleges the diagnoses were, in part, based on inappropriate lab testing. For example, hair analysis “does not provide a basis for the diagnosis of heavy metal toxicity,” according to the complaint.

The complaint lists Usman’s treatments: dietary restrictions; nearly three dozen vitamin, enzyme, mineral and dietary supplements; two antifungal drugs; four chelators or detoxifying drugs; a hormone suppressor; and hyperbaric oxygen treatments, in which the child is shut inside a pressurized bag filled with extra oxygen.

At one point, the complaint alleges, Usman prescribed selenium supplements even though the boy’s levels were normal. She “continued to do so even when (the boy) eventually showed a high level,” according to the complaint.

According to the complaint, Usman “made statements to (the boy’s) mother that the prescribed treatments had positive clinical benefits for children with autism, despite the lack of empirical research.”

And Usman allegedly made false or misleading statements regarding the value of treatments and “abused the patient/physician relationship.”

The complaint lists several chelators as treatments for alleged heavy metal toxicity. Some children with autism, such as Coman’s son, undergo rounds of chelation therapy to leach heavy metals from the body, though most toxicologists say the test commonly used to measure the metals is meaningless and the treatment potentially harmful.

In 2008, the National Institutes of Health halted a controversial government-funded study of chelation before a single child with autism was treated. Researchers at Cornell University and University of California, Santa Cruz, found that rats without lead poisoning showed signs of cognitive damage after being treated with a chelator.

In his lawsuit, Coman alleged that Usman and Rossignol prescribed “medically unnecessary and unjustified” chelation treatments even though his son did not suffer from heavy metal poisoning, subjecting him to the risk of kidney failure.

Coman’s attorney, David Wilzig, said he was “delighted” to hear about the complaint against Usman.

“I am happy for (Coman’s son) and for the dozens of people who have contacted me who are in the same position as the parents of (the boy),” he said. “They believed these treatments were medically advisable and required and now feel guilty and upset and now have kids who began with issues and now have added issues.”

The complaint against Usman comes five months after the Maryland Board of Physicians summarily suspended the medical license of Dr. Mark Geier. Geier’s son, David Geier, was also charged with practicing medicine without a license.

The Geiers were prominent promoters of their risky and unproven “Lupron protocol” for autism, in which children with the disorder are injected with Lupron, a drug sometimes used to chemically castrate sex offenders.

In June, based on Maryland’s action, regulators in Illinois ordered Geier to appear at a preliminary hearing. The next status hearing date for Geier is in November.

Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation, which supports autism research, applauded authorities for taking action. She believes that families are sometimes taken advantage of through “expensive, risky therapies that have no chance of helping children with autism.”

“These activities,” she said, “divert time and energy away from proven, evidence-based interventions like applied behavior analysis.”

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