Sunday, June 29, 2014

When Liars Cross the Line - GMO Insulin

I was shocked, but not surprised, when a internet meme from GMO-Free USA popped up on my Facebook page:

GMO Free USA (and GMO Free Canada, eh) really shows their true colors with this one.  The referenced paper has nothing to do with GMO insulin, other than saying that it is better than the stuff from animals.

The rocket surgeons over at GMO Free USA really stepped in it this time.  They are using their fear-based misinformation machine to now scare people away from life-saving insulin therapy.  We all depend on insulin, a hormone synthesized in the Pancreas, to control blood sugar levels. Elevated blood sugar can lead to a variety of metabolic disorders and long-term damage to various organs. Type II diabetics produce too much at first, leading to insulin resistance, a state where the body just does not respond to the hormone and blood sugar levels remain high. Eventually type II's do not produce enough, so they need to control blood sugar with drugs, or in some cases administer insulin injections to manage their levels. 

Insulin for human use used to be purified from the pancreas of slaughtered animals.  The preparations obviously would contain other potentially reactive proteins, which presented an attractive solution for recominant DNA technology.  Recombinant insulin was first generated way back in the 1970's, and today is generated in yeast or E.coli in massive fermeneters.  The recombinant (GMO) insulin is infinitely more pure, safe and available. 

So why would the bone-heads at GMO Free USA make this claim?  They are not alone- the same claim was also shown over by the guy with minimal scholarly chops, Sayer Ji.  I'm pretty sure he read the headline and didn't even read the paper (I did).  It is not the first time, as he also reported on the title of the Glyphosate in 75% of Water Samples paper that was not even out, and I got the first copy from the authors. 

GreenMedInfo once again shows that the truth shall not stand in the way of agenda, 
even if people die in the process. 

They may be dead wrong on this one, but at least they are being intellectually consistent. If a bacterial gene in plants is magically dangerous, a human gene in yeast must be one of the most poisonous concoctions on earth. Of course, we all know that it is beyond perfectly safe when used correctly.

What did the paper really say? 

Well, that would require reading it, which I did.  Here's the scoop. First, it does not mention "GMO Insulin" or even compare recombinant insulin to non-recombinant. 

Is that what GreenMedInfo and GMO Free USA say? Absolutely not!  They should be admonished for their scare tactics.  This crosses a line. 

The gist of the paper is simple. If you give insulin to someone that is not diabetic, the body reacts to the improper presence of insulin, which is a reactive hormone.  After prolonged administration of insulin symptoms of Type 1 diabetes can be observed in some genetic backgrounds.  The study by Nishida et al., 2014, in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism is a short report that expands previous observations to a set of six individuals that were being tested for this response.  The interest was to determine if there was a genetic component that could be isolated in this short pilot study. 

The report does state that the individuals that have a specific HLA Type (a collection of blood cell surface antigens) are more susceptible to the insulin-triggered development of Type I diabetes.  They link this to specific genetic markers that are present in Japanese populations.  It is much more complex than this, but in a nutshell... 

A Dangerous and Deadly Agenda
Even Health Ranger Mike Adams is not stupid enough to touch this one. Once again, anti-GMO activists like those at GreenMedInfo and GMOFreeUSA rub their crystals and align their shakras in a message that stands to strike fear in those using safe and dependable insulin therapies.  This kind of fear mongering is just an extension of their normal routine-- condemning good technology and products to fit their own agendas, even if it causes harm or death to others in the process. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Predicting the Future -- Seralini Rat Paper Redux

"I don't need a crystal ball; I have a crystal brain."
--Adam Carolla

Today the famous Lumpy Rat paper was published by Seralini and colleagues.  I should say RE-published because it is basically the same content published in 2012, that was later retracted from the journal.  Personally, I was glad to see him attempt to publish it again.  The literature is where the conversation should happen, and if the work is of good quality it will be reproduced and expanded upon. 

If the work is of poor quality it will die a scientific dead end, cited only by the same authors in future papers with no additional progress.  Kind of like the rest of the Seralini work. 

Unfortunately the general public doesn't follow the scientific conversation. People only pick the monologues they agree with, and a single flawed study from a biased lab carries as much weight (or more) than a thousand agreeing reports from 800 different groups. 

It was disappointing to see that Seralini's group didn't even try to fix the obvious and egregious errors and omissions.  They even took on a snarky commentary in their Competing Interests section, stating, 

"The author(s) declare that they have no competing interests, and that, in contrast with regulatory assessments for GMOs and pesticides, they are independent from companies developing these products."

... which is amazingly unprofessional, off base and not scientific.  It is a political statement.  The journal and the editors should be ashamed. 

However, all of this comes as no surprise, as back on March 3, 2014 I wrote in this blog: 

"It is conceivable that the data may find publication in a smaller low-impact title, like Carman's article in the Journal of Organic Systems, an apparently online only journal with no impact factor and limited editorial rigor.  The credulous anti-GMs don't understand science, let alone what the quality of the venue means." 

Some may consider this prophetic, but it is easy to see the future when the future is painfully obvious.  Seralini appears to have quite an ego to sustain, and the retraction from an okay journal must have hit pretty hard.  It was almost certain that he'd attempt to republish the work-- but it isn't going to a decent journal.  Today it came out in Environmental Sciences Europe, a journal with a less-than-rigorous grasp on reality, a clear anti-biotech slant, and the journal that has published such duds as Benbrook's famous paper on increasing pesticide use that used interpolated and extrapolated data (because actual numbers didn't exist).  

It boils down to this-- if these data were significant, if the experiments were good, and the interpretations sound, this would not be buried in the depths of a crappy journal.  If there was hard evidence that our food supply truly caused tumors, it would be on the New England Journal of Medicine, Science, Nature, or maybe Cell if he wanted to go slumming.  But it's not there.  It is in a tiny, obscure journal that has quite a visible agenda, and that's the only thing visible about it. 

And that's where it belongs.  Let him have his day in the sun.  History will not remember him for his science. It will remember him as a disgraceful hack that let personal agenda affect adoption of safe scientific technology.  He'll be the guy that fooled millions with low-quality data.  

It is very sad, because I'd rather be writing blogs about exciting science and new findings.  Instead we're back to this nonsense.  Luckily, it will slowly disappear into time, like Puzstai's lectins, Huber's mystery organism, and the rest of the alarmist junk never published or never reproduced. 

It does not take a crystal ball to see that. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Voyager's Gold Record- Vintage Technology for Extraterrestrial Audiophiles

I'm a huge Sagan fan, and even today I am surprised at how well his words and the 70's series resonate gloriously.  But WTF is with the Gold Record on Voyager? 

The records were constructed of copper with a gold plating and contain Sounds of Earth.  They were placed on both Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 and now are somewhere out past Pluto.  Sagan noted, "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space (that have a turntable)." 

Shot into space, any extraterrestrial can enjoy "Sounds of Earth".
If they have a good thrift shop they might find a way to play the damn thing.

Of course, back in the 70's we were pretty sure that the LP was here to stay.  I remember thinking they should have shot the KISS Alive II double album into space too. The problem of launching an LP into space is that the receiving party has to figure how to use it.  If such a thing were to land from space in some random locale in the USA, the finder would either grill it, rape it or pawn it. Unfortunately the utility of a 1970's style LP record is highly dependent on the sophistication of the receiver. 
On our next space probe we should include a turntable, one of those cool ones with that arm that drops a stack of records one-by-one.  Include that weird plastic swastika-thingy that you had to use to play 45's in case they find one on another space probe that liked a few Sounds of Earth but didn't want to commit to the whole album. This is a great idea for a Kickstarter campaign.

The B side is the lousy sounds of earth, like the kid screaming behind you in the airplane, that clicky noise your car makes when you turn the key and the battery is dead, and the noise the dental drill makes when it really starts to dig in. 
We also need to include a dime for them to put on the needle in case it skips. Nothing worse than the Sounds of Earth with an annoying "ka-thunk" every revolution. 
The whole thing is kind of charming in that it was the best we had at the time, and kinda cute that we'd see the LP record as a durable technology that might transcend the ages. It was gone in a decade. It is a reminder of how far we have come in a short time, and a prelude to how exciting our future must be. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

DNA Damage and Glyphosate? Critical Evaluation of a 2007 Report

A question appeared over on and I thought I'd take a stab at it.  I remember looking at it briefly awhile ago, but it didn't stick in my brain.  Maybe because it was not worth sticking there.

Last night I took a critical look at this work.  If you take the time to read it you find that even the authors have many mundane explanations for the results.  However, the title becomes a headline and is part of the glyphosate=danger mantra repeated by low-science-resolution readers that seek confirmation of their biases.  Judging by the capitalization in the question, the person with the question even cut-n-pasted the title. Not too many calories being expended to sort out this mystery!  However, education is my goal, so here goes... 

Question on GMOanswers:  Can you comment on this study about DNA damage due to Roundup Evaluation of DNA damage in an Ecuadorian population exposed to glyphosate?

The report you refer to is Paz-y-MiƱo et al., (2007), a "Short Communication" published in the journal Genetics and Molecular Biology, a small Brazilian journal (Impact factor 0.73, so not a well-recognized journal). So we're starting with a Short Communication in an obscure journal. 

As usual, opinions formed from reading titles are not terribly accurate, and don't match the data within the report.  As evidenced by my analysis here, a conclusion from a title takes a lot of time to address!

Ceasar Paz-y-Mino has an okay publication record and studies a number of regional issues using his expertise as a cell biologist. This report tests assesses "DNA damage" using what's called a "comet assay", an assay where cells are placed into an agar matrix, lysed and subjected to an electric field.  DNA is charged, so large DNA pieces move to the positive pole.  Damaged DNA moves faster because it has greater mobility- that's the basis of the assay. The DNA smears out as a blob with a streak after it, resembling a comet. 

In this report 24 people from an ag intensive area where glyphosate was used were compared to 21 in an area 80km away.  Blood was drawn "between 2 weeks and 2 months" after glyphosate application to the crops. There is one table of data showing that the DNA from those living near the farm (50% tested were 200m-3km). 

The results show consistently higher migration in the "exposed" group, suggesting more damage, according to the authors. 

Before we get too excited about the results:
1.  Glyphosate moves quickly from the body.  After two weeks there would be negligible effect, if any, from acute exposure. The samples could have been from people tested two months after exposure, the authors don't specify. 

2.  The authors say that the "exposed" group had sprays directly over the homes in 50% of cases, and that applications were "20 times the maximum recommended application rate for the formulated product, which may explain our comet assay results"

If there's one thing we can learn from this paper it is that someone is not reading a label very closely before firing up the crop duster. 

So directly spray the homes of the workers with 20x the normal concentration, and then measure if there's something screwy going on.  Hmmm.  I wonder. 

3.  But all that is likely a moot point.  Glyphosate is rapidly removed from the body and in no cases has it been demonstrated to damage DNA or even carcinogenic (it is classified as "not carcinogenic" even by the strictest standards).  What is happening? 

Here are additional considerations and interpretations: 

First, if these workers were tested 14-60 days after being sprayed with 20x glyphosate, what else are they spraying down there imprecisely and at levels far above recommendations?  Are these chronically ill people from prolonged exposures to 20x ag chemicals sprayed on their homes?  This would be a better explanation, unless the authors knew that the occupational exposures were purely glyphosate.

But the best explanation--  "Blood samples (from the unexposed group) were collected and processed as for the exposed group, but not concomitantly."

Bingo.  The authors counted on one single replicate that was processed at different times. How the blood was handled, how it was prepared... all could easily account for the results seen.  The fact that it was one replicate is also quite telling.  I'd never publish with fewer than three on this kind of test. 

The best thing that could be said is that the data show a potential starting point.  It would have been good to see the data and have the controls and treatments collected and processed blindly and at the same time.  

Conclusion:  Maybe good work, maybe not. Maybe trustworthy data that are a hint of things to study further, maybe not.  The methods and data presented do not rigorously support the authors' conclusions.  It has been seven years since this study and no further evidence to support the DNA damage conclusion.  In a 2011 report by the same authors, glyphosate showed no effect in DNA damage in a larger test with greater resolution in Colobmian/Ecuadaoran populations.

The most likely explanation of the findings is that the cells in one group broke down or had some other damage during handling leading to the results observed.  That's why there has been no additional follow up on this study. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Biotech Literacy Day Talks!

For all of you that could not see the Biotech Literacy Day talks in real time- here are the links! 

If they don't work on the click, cut and paste!

You may have to download the small SilverLight Plugin!

1. Dr. Kevin Folta  UF/IFAS Horticultural Sciences Department
2. Dr. Bruce Chassy  University of Illinois@Urbana-Champaign         
3. Dr. Val Giddings  Innovation Technology & Information Foundation 

4. Tamar Haspel  The Washington Post 
5. Robert Wager  Vancouver Island University 
 6. Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel  University of Wisconsin � Madison
7. Jon Entine, Moderator  Genetic Literacy Project 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Can't Get Seeds for Independent Research?

One of the most lame complaints levied by those opposed to trangenic technology is that scientists just can't get seeds to do the independent research.  I've noted 3-4 ways that seeds may be obtained in this blog over time.

It is the laziest complaint- a sure sign of people not even willing to do cursory leg work, and simply parrot the junk people tell them.  I can get seeds in a few days- they are as close as your local seed catalog.  Just for fun, I looked in Hummert's catalog today.

The 2014 catalog has transgenic seeds for sale.  

They only sell 'roundup ready' sweet corn, but that's still something.  Anyone wanting to seriously examine the product certainly could, and any of the half-dozen or so scientists that claim that this is evil technology could do it too-- if they wanted to. 

Top of page 16- Oh, I guess it is pretty easy to get. 

Of course, there are a few technical issues at play.  First, you'll have to sign a contract to buy them that will keep you from propagating them and even doing research.  We'll come back to that.  Second, there is no comparable isogenic line (the line without the transgene) so it is hard to make a direct comparison.

These are the two goalposts that will be moved here. 

What about the contract?  Here's what I'd do if I had some evidence of GM harm from preliminary experiments.  I'd buy a few different lines, but a few non-GM lines and do the experiments.  When the results came back, I'd publish them.  Then I'd get my Nobel Prize! 

Afraid of being sued for researching the seeds?  Well, GE Seralini's famous lumpy rat retracted paper claimed to use Monsanto GM corn.  Even after that debacle there's no news that he has been sued for using the seeds off of contract (in a way, BigAg probably doesn't mind giving them enough rope). 

So why hasn't there been any independent research?  Because any scientist that looks at this issue does not see any evidence of harm.  What scientist is going to dedicate time, money and resources to test a hypothesis that makes no sense?  What postdoc or grad student is going to actually want to do this kind of work?  What funding organization is going to support it?  

The bottom line is that seeds can be obtained and tested.  Nobody wants to do it.  Nobody except for the armchair internet scientists that know more than the rest of us. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Teaching Children to Love Science

One of the most important parts of my job is connecting science to the children of our community.  I was fortunate to have parents and teachers that fostered and encouraged my participation from the beginning, and some of the most memorable times in school were based on a simple experiment with curious results. 

Here's a video of one of my visits to a local elementary school with two PMCB graduate students.