Two years after a Maryland doctor lost his medical license for using a controversial treatment for autistic patients, the state Board of Physicians has suspended his business partner for allegedly writing the same dangerous prescription for several patients.
The board suspended John L. Young's license to practice medicine in the state Feb. 13. On Feb. 21, Young resigned from his post on the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents, citing a desire to "devote more time to other activities." The resignation was announced Feb. 25.
Chancellor William E. Kirwan said Tuesday that the board was "surprised and saddened" by the allegations.
Young, 61, could not be reached for comment.
Young's business partner, Mark Geier, became a nationally known physician for his use of the hormone suppressor Lupron and chelation therapy, which removes heavy metals from the body, to treat autistic children. He gained a devoted following among some parents of children with severe autism who felt other treatments did not work. But such treatments have been dismissed by medical experts as junk science.
In the order suspending Young's license, the Board of Physicians concluded that he wrote Lupron prescriptions for nine of Geier's patients, who ranged in age from 6 to 17 and all lived outside Maryland. The board also said that Young, who sometimes used Skype to speak with patients, broke restrictions against prescribing medicine for people who live outside the state.
Young's actions "constitute a substantial likelihood of risk of serious harm to the public health, welfare and safety," the board wrote in the suspension order. The board did not say that Young used chelation therapy.
According to the order, Geier and Young had a medical practice together from 1980 to April 2011. Geier headed Genetic Consultants of Maryland, a company that had offices in Rockville and Owings Mills.
The scientific community has rejected Lupron as a treatment for autism. It is approved for treating prostate cancer and ovarian fibroids, and for chemical castration of sex offenders. Chelation therapy can have significant side effects if used improperly, including kidney damage and cardiac arrhythmia.
"There is no reason why any child with autism should be receiving those drugs," said Dr. Neal A. Halsey, director of Johns Hopkins' Institute for Vaccine Safety. "Do you really want people giving those drugs to your children when they have no benefit?"
Geier has defended his use of Lupron, saying in a 2011 letter published by The Baltimore Sun that "countless" parents told him their lives had been transformed by the treatments.
The Board of Physicians reached its conclusion by reviewing records of prescriptions that Young had written and the medical files of the patients, and by interviewing Young. It is unclear whether any of the children were harmed by the treatment.
Young, a Potomac resident, had been a member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents since 2009. The 17-member group of gubernatorial appointees sets policy for the state university system. He served on the committees that dealt with education policy and student life, as well as economic development.
Kirwan said Young emailed him the Board of Physicians decision about the time he announced his resignation.
"I knew him quite well," Kirwan said. "He was a very dependable and reliable board member. I was most surprised and saddened that there was this difficulty. The board members feel the same way."
Gov. Martin O'Malley's spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory, declined to comment on the Board of Physicians' findings and said a search for Young's successor is under way.
O'Malley appointed Geier's son, David, to a 26-member Commission on Autism in 2009. David Geier, who was not a doctor and had only a bachelor's degree, was removed from the panel in 2011 after the Board of Physicians found that he was practicing medicine without a license and fined him $10,000. He denied the allegation and said his role at his father's clinic was largely administrative, accusing the Board of Physicians of unfairly targeting his family.
Geier believed that autism was the result of high levels of mercury from vaccinations and that too much testosterone worsens the symptoms, hence the use of both Lupron and chelation therapy. Geier diagnosed the children with early-onset puberty, usually a rare diagnosis, and used Lupron to control their hormone development.
Medical experts call what was dubbed the "Lupron protocol" a junk science that can be dangerous for children because it can disrupt their sexual growth.
The Board of Physicians said Geier "profited greatly from the minimal efforts he made for these patients."
Autism, a developmental disorder that affects the ability to communicate and interact with others, has no known cure, and scientists are not sure what causes it. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder. It is typically treated with behavioral therapy or anti-psychotic medication.
The Kennedy Krieger Institute maintains what it contends is the largest autism database in the world, with about 46,000 participants. Families in the database typically spend about $500 a month on therapies, and the database has entries for 400 different kinds of treatments for autism. Only a very small number of families reported using Lupron or chelation therapy as a treatment, according to the institute.
Some parents can be desperate for a cure for their autistic children, Halsey said, leaving them vulnerable to doctors such as Geier who use unconventional treatments.
"We just need some better system for helping these families sort out what is appropriate and what is not appropriate," Halsey said. "Too many parents have fallen into the trap."
The Board of Physicians says Young, a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist, obtained a permit to dispense prescriptions after Geier's medical license was suspended. The board reviewed the medical records of about a dozen patients for whom Young prescribed Lupron or its generic equivalent, finding that many of them had not been diagnosed with autism.
One patient who was prescribed Lupron by both Geier and Young was described as an intelligent 17-year-old woman with anger management problems, premenstrual syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to Geier's notes reviewed by the board. The doctors did not document a diagnosis of autism.
Young can appeal the suspension of his Maryland medical license, and the board must make a final determination on whether the license should be revoked. Young holds active licenses in seven other states.