Saturday, July 27, 2013

Monsanto Develops Kitten-Eating Cows

My first review request!! YAY!! So, someone sent me an article entitled "This Food Knowingly Causes Cancer in Rats - Are You Eating it?" It starts with a scathing review of Monsanto. A few people have asked me for my opinion on the company and whether "Monsanto is evil". Do I believe that Monsanto works out of the goodness of its heart to create food that will make puppies cuter? No. I think that Monsanto is the same as any other global corporation: Apple, Samsung, Toyota, McDonald's. Their motivation is money. That being said, I also believe that Monsanto adheres to the same principle that all these other conglomerates follow: that selling a bad product can be costly. Also, I don't think that there's a boardroom where a bunch of scientists are strumming their fingers a la Mr Burns-style saying "Excellent" when they hear of rats getting cancer. Monsanto scientists are probably just the same as me: they want to do something useful and productive, while making a lot of money. But of course, that's not the point of my blog. Let's get back to rats getting cancer :)

I'll go through all the health impacts listed on the page, where a study is cited and is not a result of an interview/opinion:
  • Bt toxin has appeared in maternal and fetal blood. The paper looked at levels of proteins and pesticides/herbicides associated with GMOs. They examined 30-40 pregnant and non-pregnant women. The only statistically significant difference between the two groups was the presence of the Bt toxin, meaning that pregnant women had more of the toxin than non-pregnant women. The authors don't draw any conclusions, but state that more studies are needed to determine what it means. I think it's a pretty interesting finding that needs to be replicated, and the proper controls need to be added. For example, we don't know that the Bt toxin came from GMOs. It could have come from household pesticides, as reviewed in previous blogs.
    • Will I stop feeding my family GMOs over this? Not yet. Here's why. Mammals lack the receptors for the Bt toxin. To explain this, let me give you an example: I did my 4th year honours thesis on a disease called Sitosterolemia, which is an extremely rare genetic disorder. You end up with uber-high cholesterol levels and ultimately heart failure, and your cholesterol spikes from eating plants. That's right. Not Big Macs or delicious recipes from The Pioneer Woman, but from plants. By definition, cholesterol is found in animal cells, however, plants have a very similar molecule called sitosterol. The vast majority of people on the planet don't absorb sitosterol because we don't have receptors for the molecule. However, patients with the disorder have mutations and their cells lose the ability to distinguish between plant and animal cholesterol-like molecules. I think of the Bt toxin in the same way as sitosterol: it's a toxin/molecule found in nature that I ingest, but my cells lack the receptors to do anything with it. I think that it's for this reason that the authors didn't come to any meaningful conclusions or a substantial discussion: they just made an observation.
    • That being said, it doesn't explain why the authors found higher levels of the toxin in pregnant vs non-pregnant women. I'll keep this one on my radar.
That's the only point on the page that has a citation and is related to health impacts of GMOs. Everything else links to opinion/interview pieces, the evils of Monsanto, or articles from the site or Institute for Responsible Technology (which I'm still in the process of reviewing...). As for the article's title, the only sentence I found was "GM potatoes may cause cancer in rats", linked to an article on the same website and is strangely behind a password. I did a pubmed search for "rat + cancer + potato", found 36 articles, but none of them were about GM potatoes. Even without reading the article, GM potatoes possibly causing cancer is a far cry from "knowningly causing cancer", don't you think? Seems like a bit of fear mongering.

If I give you two statements: "Monsanto is developing mutant cows that feed on kittens" and "Monsanto finds a cure for cancer", which are you more likely to believe? The answer should be "neither one", because you should look it up yourself. But I think that there's so much fear mongering today, that you'd likely believe statement #1 because we're so skeptical and biased against big corporations. Particularly if I include a picture of mutant cows. Look at that cow... Those poor kittens don't stand a chance.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Autism and GMOs - From

I know I'm supposed to be reviewing all the health risks from the Institute for Responsible Technology's webpage, since I keep getting referred to the page by many anti-GMO organizations. But this week I took a break to review an article on, whom my twitter feed referred me to.

I first went to their "Get Informed" section and saw a link entitled "Poor Gut Health And Autism Linked Through GMOs". Having worked in a lab that did Autism research (although I never worked on autism-related projects), I've always tried to follow news and studies on the disorder and thought it would be a good read.

The article, originally published in "Health and Wellness Magazine", had no references and most of the arguments presented were people's opinions or interviews. The author refers to a talk given in Germany in 2011, where a research scientist presented information on physiological, neurogical and behavioural symptoms of livestock animals which were remarkably similar to those in autistic patients. I looked up the name of the speaker (Don Huber from Purdue University) and only found two papers that he's published, and neither one of them was about GMOs. I went to his page on the Purdue website, but he doesn't have any publications listed about GMOs or autism. Here's why this matters: talks, posters, and workshops are not peer reviewed. There's no vetting process, so you could talk about anything you wanted, even if the information is incorrect.

The author goes on to state that 20 years ago, autism was rare. Now, it's found very frequently in the population and a large number of these patients have digestive ailments. Animals fed GM feed also have gastrointestinal ailments. The author sites one Dr Snow, a veterinarian, who has noted that since GMOs were introduced in the '90s, he's seen an increase in small intestine irritation. Then the author mentions a mysterious Dutch farmer, whose animals got diarrhea when he switched them to GM feed. Autistic patients also suffer from diarrhea. Autistic patients have unbalanced gut bacteria, and the author is willing to bet that GM-fed livestock do, too.

Believe it or not, that's as strong as the evidence gets. The rest of the article has nothing to do with autism and I felt that the purpose of the additional info was to instill fear.

I went into the pubmed database to search for papers linking autism to GMOs. I searched to "GMO + autism", "genetically modified + autism", and "Bacillus thuringiensis + autism", and didn't find a single paper. I couldn't find a single published paper on the topic.

Just because two seemingly related items change during the same time period does not mean that they're related. For example, polio rates decreased over the course of the last century while the production of televisions increased over the same period of time. If you look at the map, polio is currently found in nations where they don't have many TVs per capita: Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. So polio is being irradicated by television appliance sales. I should make a donation to Samsung.
TV Manufacturing Causes a Decrease in the Incidence of Polio

There's a limitless number of examples: I bought more shoes in the past 2 years and my son has been growing an average of 2 lbs per month over the same time period. Therefore the increase in the number of shoes I own is caused by my kid's growth.

In conclusion, I could not find a single peer reviewed article about autism and GMOs. But if you go into google, you'll find 853,000 results (a quick scan revealed things such as "the amish population doesn't have autism and they don't eat GMOs"... really??). If you visit the Autism Science Foundation, you'll see that there are a few featured papers about nutrition and autism, but none of them are about GMOs. I also checked Autism Speaks and the National Autism Association's webpages, and didn't find any information on genetically modified organisms. I would suggest that the gmoinside organization take down this article as being misleading.

Now, I'm off to buy shoes. After all, the kid's going through a growth-spurt :)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Allergic reactions to GMOs (or not)

I continue the review of the Institute for Responsible Technology's (IRT) claims of the health impact of GMOs. In my last post, I left off with a promise to look into whether mice fed Bt have powerful immune responses against the toxin. As a refresher, companies that use Bt claim that it only affects insects (please see my last post or Wikipedia for more information on Bt. If you choose to use Wikipedia, please think about giving a donation to the organization).

So, there were 3 papers linked to this specific claim about the health impact of GMOs. Since they were all written by the same authors and had similar titles, I picked the latest one to read, but also flipped through an older paper. The paper was published in 2000 and is very immunology heavy. I'll be honest. I struggled to keep my eyes open and have a whole new level of respect for immunology researchers. But I think I got the gist of it. The authors prepared different forms of the toxin, administered it to mice, and saw that the mice began making antibodies against the toxin. Although I don't know if the response qualified as "powerful" or not, there definitely seemed to be a response of some sort. A few things struck me as odd: one, despite what is implied by the IRT's webpage, the authors didn't make an immediate link between their conclusions and GMOs. Also, the 2000 paper and the older paper were pretty similar, but the 1999 paper didn't mention GMOs at all and they stated that the reason for looking into the antibody responses was to determine if the toxin could be used to produce a vaccine. So the second part can easily be explained: often times, after you finish writing a paper, you add a few interesting facts that are loosely related to your findings in order to make your paper "sexier". I've been guilty of this myself. I clearly remember writing "human chromosome 7 has been associated with numerous parent of origin disorders, including autism". Why would I throw in "including autism"? Because it made my paper seem more interesting, even if it had nothing to do with autism (which it didn't). So it seemed to me that the GM link was thrown in afterwards. But I still felt like I needed to understand if the paper was conclusive evidence of an immune response to Bt in a mammal. As a reminder, we're talking about Bt here, whether it's within the context of a GMO or not.

From what I understood, the study seemed OK: they had controls, they tried two different ways of getting the purified toxin into the mice, and they had done very basic stats showing an immune response. But they didn't come to the conclusions that IRT wanted me to get to. So, I started to look for more recent papers that had cited the paper above to find out if the results had ever been replicated. I found a paper published 10 years later in PLoS (2010). This paper actually looked at the immune impact towards the purified protein and as well as the GMO corn. I started reading it and... snore... another immunology paper. Sheesh... I'm never going to finish this blog post.

The 2010 paper was much more thorough, looked at many additional variables, and was actually about Bt GM corn. As controls, they used proteins with various degrees of allergenicity. I was fascinated to learn that the first paper I had read (the one cited by the IRT) hadn't studied the Bt toxin found in GM corn (which confirmed my theory that the GM-tie was thrown in). As I noted in my previous post, there are various strains of Bt, and each one has different properties. However, the authors note that the toxins produced are similar enough that if you have an immune response to one, you should have an immune response to all. And they hadn't gotten the immune response seen in the first paper. The authors suggest that the first paper had generated a contaminated protein due to their methodology.

They go on to state that although they hadn't seen the specific immune reponse documented in the first paper, they had seen a different immune response. Mammals produce different types of antibodies (that much I DO remember from Immunology 301), so you can have a specific category of antibodies react against a substance. They go on to state that the antibody response that they saw against the Bt toxin, was the same response seen against their negative-control. They conclude that the strain of mice used in their study just seems to be pretty sensitive to protein extracts. Basically, they had zilch.

Finally, they looked at the different immune responses to GM corn vs standard corn. Again, zilch. 

They also provide their funding list. No agribusinesses were listed.

So, I have learned a few things here:
  1. Any future papers that I read where immune responses are examined in mice, I should pay close attention to the strain used. Mice strains seem to be scientists' undoing, as previously reported.
  2. I should also pay attention to the type of Bt toxin examined, since it may not be the same one used in GMOs
  3. I have yet to confirm a single health impact from the IRT's webpage, who proclaims itself as being "The most comprehensive source of GMO health risk information on the web." I'll continue next week with the next reference.
  4. I didn't know that there were so many papers that had examined the issue of allergies against GMO. I guess that they're ignored since the results are not controversial.
  5. I need to take a course in immunology. Or hire an immunology grad-student. The latter is probably cheaper.
To wrap up here, I wanted to add a more personal note. The spouse asked me the other day how I can be so calm and collected when I read a sentence such as "GM corn causes cancer". To tell you the truth, there are often times when I'm not. But I always have to tell myself to think with my mind and not my emotions, even though I often fail. I'm trying to go about this with my feet firmly planted on our organic lawn and let science be my bioluminescent flashlight through this murky controversy (that reminds me of the bioluminescent fish that Sheldon made).


Monday, July 8, 2013

A look into the Institute for Responsible Technology - Second Act

Hello dear readers,

As promised, I continue examining the "Health Impact" section from the Institute for Responsible Technology's webpage. I'm picking up where I left off last time: on the section about Bt corn and allergens.

I can hear my husband right now telling me "BioChica, you've got to explain what Bt is". OK, voice in my head. I'll listen to you. Here's my feeble attempt: Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a naturally occurring bacteria that produces a protein that acts as an insecticide. There are various strains of the bacteria, and the protein that is produced by each strain has variable insecticidal properties.  Scientists have taken this protein and inserted it into different commercial crops. If a pest who is sensitive to the Bt endotoxin starts chewing on the GM crop, then its gut gets blown up. Not literally, but it's a close figurative approximation. As an FYI, you can also buy Bt sprays to kill insects that chomp on your garden plans, so the Bt toxin doesn't necessarily have to be genetically engineered into a crop: it has been used for decades as a pesticide.

The voice in my head has now quieted down, allowing me to resume my review of the Institute for Responsible Technology's section on Bt corn and allergens. The first argument is "hundreds of people exposed to Bt spray had allergic-type symptoms". This is linked to an article published in 1990 in the American Journal of Public Health, looking at the health implications of the Bt pesticide. In 1984, there was an infestation of gypsy moths in western Oregon and helicopters sprayed Bt over a populated area. The study looked at cultures obtained from human specimens in 4 clinical labs in the area to determine if the Bt bacteria was present. I read the complete study, and the only sentence that I could find that could be related to hundreds of people having allergic-type symptoms was the following: "Many of the complaints from the public received by the Lane County Health Department were related to skin rashes, angioedema, eye irritation, and respiratory involvement. It could be argued that these symptoms are more consistent with diseases caused by the insect itself rather than B.t.-k. There have been reports of major outbreaks of dermatitis in the NE US involving thousands of persons exposed to gypsy moth larvae. Dermatitis in these outbreaks was attributed to irritation by ... hairlike projections of the gypsy moth caterpillar". Wha-a-a-a-at? In case you didn't catch that, the paper states that these allergic-type symptoms were most likely due to the pest itself, rather than the treatment. Despite what the Institute for Responsible Technology implies in their webpage, the authors are concluding that it's unlikely that the Bt spray has anything to do with the symptoms. The study concludes that Bt should be examined in lab cultures, and not ruled out as a contaminant. Additionally, it states that Bt has the potential for causing disease in immunocompromised individuals, and such patients should be given advice on how to use biopesticides and how to protect themselves. I think it makes perfect sense and is a reasonable recommendation.

Can someone remind me what any of this has to do with GMO?

The next section states: "...mice fed Bt had powerful immune responses and damaged intestines", linked to several papers published. Unfortunately, they're immunology-heavy papers and although I did pretty well in my intro to immunology courses, I don't remember much at all. In fact the only thing I remember is that my prof spoke like Antonio Banderas. I have a feeling that I'll spend a lot of time with Dr. Wikipedia this weekend...

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A look into The Institute for Responsible Technology

I know I promised to review the European Commission's response to Seralini's article. However, I feel that I've made up my mind about Seralini's 2012 article and think I should move on to something new. Don't you?

One of the anti-GMO sites that I frequently see links to in Facebook is The Institute for Responsible Technology. They specifically have a page dedicated to health risks of GMOs, so I thought I'd go through their information to find a new article to read.

Regarding the website itself, I found that the first half of the Health Risks page didn't have any health information at all. It was critical of the FDA, the lab techniques used to generate GMOs, and the potential risks. A lot of "can"s, "may"s and "might"s. Quite a few statements have no references at all. As I read this, all I could think about was why it should matter if scientists use "gene guns" or another method? Frankly, I think it's because "gene guns" sound scary. Otherwise, why aren't they telling you about pipettes or centrifuges? It's because the latter are boring. Anyway, I digress.

It isn't until citation #8 that I got to the first health impact: "Soy allergies skyrocketed by 50% in the UK, soon after GM soy was introduced". The citation is from an article written by Mark Townsend in the Daily Express from March 12, 1999. The paper's archive is locked, but I did a websearch and found the statistic on many, many sites despite the fact that the reference is to an opinion piece. I finally found the article and apparently, the number of allergies "skyrocketed" from 10 in 100 to 15 in 100 individuals. For the life of me, I can't seem to find the original paper by York Nutritional Laboratory and am not sure if it was even published (additionally, page 58 of this book creates doubt around the whole thing). Without information on statistics and significance, one cannot really determine the validity of the statement.

Citation #9 was linked to "A skin prick allergy test shows that some people react to GM soy, but not to wild natural soy". The citation was to an article in Allergy and Asthma Proceedings which I had no access to. However, a lot of interesting info was in the abstract: they performed skin tests on 49 patients with 13 showing positive results to wild soybeans and 8 positive to GMO soybeans. One patient had a positive skin test result to GMO soybeans only. One. One patient. The conclusion of the paper is that more research is needed. But, the Institute for Responsible Technology fails to mention this conclusion. At the same time, without appropriate stats and full study, you could reach the conclusion that more individuals were allergic to wild soybeans vs GMO soy beans based on the numbers above.

So, I decided to take a look at the whole allergen issue with soya. With a quick look in NCBI, I found a paper where they looked at 1716 individuals and found no difference in allergic reactions between GM and non-GM soya. In an additional paper, they looked at 106 allergy-sensitive individuals and didn't find any difference in reaction between GM and non-GM crops, including soya. Those were the first two I found. Neither study was funded by an agribusiness, although the second paper acknowledged a scientist from Monsanto for sending them a protein sample and seeds for the study, which is pretty harmless.

Moving on to citation #10: "Cooked GM soy contains as much as 7-times the amount of a known soy allergen". This citation is linked to a chapter in a text book, which again, I do not have access to. It's bad form to list a text book as a citation, because text books are reviews and very seldom have novel findings. Again, I digress. I can't verify this citation, but the abstract for the chapter seems pretty neutral about GMOs and indicates that recommended testing protocols have already been built in to world food safety standards.

So the last citation is linked to "GM soy also contains a new unexpected allergen, not found in wild natural soy". This finding was from the same paper as citation #9. I don't think this really matters, because they did the allergy tests (as I pointed out earlier) and there was no significant difference in allergic reactions between GM soy and wild type soy. Oh yeah... except that one patient. One patient. Let me point out again that this one paper which is cited 2x by the Institute for Responsible Technology clearly states that more studies need to be done in order to reach a conclusion. And there have been several studies published since then. The paper with the single reactive patient was written in May 2005. The two papers that I cite above were written in August 2005 and June 2006.

This is getting long. I'll pick up next time with the section on "Bt corn and cotton linked to allergies" on the Institute's webpage. I hope it's better than what I've read so far...

I want to finish off by saying that I may sound critical of the Institute for Responsible Technology, but in all honesty, I can only form a semi-informed opinion about them because I can't access half the material they cite. But if I can't access the material with the resources I have at hand, then the vast majority of people on this planet can't either. Yet that hasn't stopped literally hundreds of webpages from reusing the same statistics over and over. From the second half of material that I CAN access, the health impact of GMOs seem to be vastly overexagerated, which is why I've been growing increasingly skeptical of the webpage as my analysis progresses.

BioChica out.