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Biologist rebel with a cause

by Ari Levaux

Stephanie Seneff is a senior researcher at MIT. Based in the university’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, Seneff’s focus is, according to her web page, “the intersection of biology and computation.” She is also, according to many in the science community, a “quack.” Since she began publishing papers on biology, in journals considered fringe by the mainstream scientific establishment, Seneff has posited explanations for a host of disorders and drawn heated objections from experts in most every field she’s delved into. She is, in short, a controversial figure in the scientific community, which is an unusual position for someone with three degrees from MIT.

In recent months, Seneff co-authored two papers proposing a connection between the herbicide glyphosate and gluten sensitivity. This idea has sparked a lot of buzz. I spoke with Seneff by phone about this hypothesis.

Q: How is it that, in your opinion, glyphosate causes gluten sensitivity?

A: What we argued in the paper is that glyphosate binds to the gluten. Gluten usually forms cross-mesh connections between different amino acids, and glyphosate would prevent the cross-mesh by binding to the gluten and causing it to stay in the form that is known to be more allergenic.

Q: So you think this applies to celiac disease and gluten sensitivity?

A: Gluten sensitivity ... shares the same features with celiac disease, but it’s not as extreme. But these things also have a host of other pathologies that are associated with gluten sensitivity, which is what’s so fascinating. All of these risk factors that co-occur with celiac disease could be explained through other ways that glyphosate disrupts physiology. You can explain all of these other things, maybe not directly through the effect of gluten but through the effect of glyphosate on the body.

People who have celiac disease have increased risk for other things, for example non-hodgkins lymphoma, and they die earlier. They also have fertility problems, are more likely to produce children with birth defects, and are more likely to have depression and serotonin problems. All of these things that are connected to celiac disease, but also exist independently from celiac, are caused, in our opinion, by glyphosate.

Q: Your paper discusses the reason that glyphosate is being sprayed onto wheat. Could you explain.

A: Glyphosate is sprayed on wheat right before the harvest. This has become more and more popular among farmers. We found specific data in the UK showing a dramatic increase in the practice of spraying wheat with glyphosate three or four days before they harvest. You can’t imagine that glyphosate has disappeared in those three or four days. The intent is to kill the plant. Wheat of course is not GMO, it’s not Round-Up ready. They probably don’t want it to be Round-Up ready because then they couldn’t do this anymore. This is a very convenient practice. It reduces the effort involved in the combine.

Q: If glyphosate were causing these problems, wouldn’t we see higher incidence of these diseases?

A: One thing we certainly see in Sri Lanka and in El Salvador is agriculture workers who are working in sugarcane fields that are sprayed with glyphosate ... dying at a young age from kidney failure. And people with celiac disease are at a high risk of kidney failure. And we can see how glyphosate would kill the kidney, because you get into an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria that produces p-cresol, which is very toxic to the kidney. And that’s just one example of how glyphosate would cause kidney problems. Sri Lanka and El Salvador have both, within the last year, banned glyphosate on farms because of what they’ve seen happening to these workers.

Q: You began your career at MIT in artificial intelligence. How and why did you transition to biology?

A: I’m a computer scientist. I do natural language processing. I’ve done that for many years, we’ve built dialog systems that allow people to interact with information on the web through natural language, and I’ve transitioned to applications in biology over the past six or seven years. I’ve published over a dozen papers in that space. Part of what we do is analyzing drug side effects and providing an interface that can allow people to find out if other people have experienced similar symptoms to certain drugs.

Recently, I’ve gotten really interested in processing the literature. Take the research on some topic, for example glyphosate. You can let the computer use NLP (Natural Language Processing) to help you organize the information and help you figure out the story. I think it’s a very powerful method for understanding biology, biochemistry and medical literature. n

and interpret it.

Q: Does MIT support you in your biology research?

A: I have been gradually transitioning more and more toward doing biology. So far MIT has been supportive and has continued to fund this work.

Q: Do you have a biology lab?

A: No. It’s all computer science. It’s all synthesis. So basically what I do is I read papers and I process them with the computer to help me understand them and interpret them and generalize and build a story. So it’s really a matter of studying. Mostly what I do now is study, and then write. Trying to understand biology. I have an undergraduate degree from MIT in biology, and I also spent one year in graduate school in biology before switching over to computer science. And my PhD was on an auditory model for the human processing of speech. So that also involved biology. Neurology. I’m not a complete ignoramus in the field of biology.

Q: If you had a lab, what experimental research would you do to test your theory on glyphosate and celiac disease.

A: Take people with celiac disease and put them on an organic diet. Or take people with inflammatory bowel disease, because that’s sort of related – in fact a paper was just published where they put people with inflammatory bowel disease on an organic wheat diet. This wheat was an ancient, heirloom wheat. The theory in this paper is that it’s the new forms of wheat that are causing inflammatory bowel disease, because the wheat itself has evolved. We’ve been genetically modifying wheat, through the traditional, evolutionary process that we’ve used in the past. Not the GMO but other ways of manipulating the genes. So wheat today is not the same as the original, ancient wheat.

With this paper, they weren’t thinking about glyphosate, but I suspect that what they ended up doing was showing that glyphosate is causing the inflammatory bowel disease because they used organic ancient wheat compared to non-organic modern wheat.

You’d have to measure the glyphosate in the food, obviously, to see if it was there. And you could do some kind of controlled dietary experiment on humans. Or you could do something like that on rats, too, where you could be less ethical, I suppose.

Q: Looking back on your recent work in biology, what are your biggest successes and failures?

A: My biggest excitement in terms of what I’ve discovered is the idea, which I’ve published in a paper with co-authors, that sulfate is synthesized in the skin in response to sunlight. Sunlight catalyzes the synthesis of sulfate in the skin by an enzyme that’s called endothelial nitric oxide synthase. If true, it has tremendous impact on health.

Q: Is there anything you think you may have gotten wrong?

A: My thinking keeps evolving. I’m still searching. What I wish is that more people would be allowed to be bold about hypotheses because I think biology is rather straight jacketed right now and most people are feeling they’re required to show restraint in how they interpret things and I’m sort of being what they would call bold and adventuresome. I mean, basically, proposing things, trying them out, turning them over, synthesizing, trying to understand, because I think that we poorly understand a great deal of what’s going on in biology today... for example, cardiovascular disease, I think is extremely poorly understood. I have my own theories about it, and I would say that it’s actually a cholesterol sulfate-deficiency problem, which is of course a very radical point of view. And in fact the build up, the excess of cholesterol you see in the blood is a direct response to that deficiency in cholesterol sulfate, and the heart actually needs more cholesterol, not less, and the LDL builds up because it gets gummed up with sugar and it can’t deliver its goods. If you’ve got mailmen that are really slow you’ve got to have more of them or the mail won’t be delivered.

Q: You’ve been called an anti-vaxxer for your views on autism. Do you believe that vaccines cause autism?

A: I took on the task of trying to figure out autism six or seven years ago because I got concerned about the rising incidence of autism in our country, which I think is very disturbing. It’s risen alarmingly since then. Now it’s one in 50, which is the latest number, which is very frightening to me. So I was looking at all of the environmental toxins, because there has to be an environmental factor, or a combination of environmental factors.

Aluminum is one that I picked up on quite earl, because aluminum is very toxic, and many of the vaccines contain aluminum. And it’s injected directly.

Ordinarily the body is quite good about keeping aluminum out. The gut will absorb very little of what’s in the diet, assuming you have a healthy gut. Glyphosate produces a leaky gut, and that’s going to help the aluminum get in. What I believe now is that the aluminum in the vaccine is far more toxic as a consequence of the glyphosate. The two of them are synergistic, because the glyphosate forms a cage around the aluminum and keeps it from getting expelled. The aluminum ends up accumulating and ends up in the pineal gland, and messes up sleep, and causes a whole cascade of problems in the brain. The glyphosate and aluminum are working together to be much more toxic than they would acting alone.

So yes, I do believe that that aluminum in vaccines is a contributing factor in autism.

Q: How does glyphosate create this cage around aluminum?

A: Glyphosate cages all kinds of things ... it cages all the minerals, like iron and manganese and even sulfur, so it prevents the gut bacteria from gaining access to really important micronutrients, even things like molybdemum, which we only need in small amounts, but if there isn’t any we’re in trouble, because certain enzymes critically depend on these minerals.

Q: The journals you’ve been writing for, such as Entropy and more recently Interdisciplinary Toxicology, have been labeled by your critics as “pay to play journals,” with “zero impact factor.”

A: I will agree with them that the impact factor of these journals is low. I am very excited about the opportunity for someone like myself to be able to publish at all. Because I am, as you know, a Johnny-come-lately to the field. People don’t view me as an expert on biology. It’s a new career for me. That’s one of the problems. Another problem is that I’m writing things that the main journals don’t want to publish, so I think there’s an uphill battlen