[Vaccines/Junk Sciences] “Murine hypothalamic destruction with vascular cell apoptosis subsequent to combined administration of human papilloma virus vaccine and pertussis toxin” (Aratani et al., Sci Rep 2016 – RETRACTED) Lesson from a paper that went completely fritz on the scientific method

You maybe heard about the recent retraction notice of a study published in Scientific Reports that raised concern about the safety of Gardasil(R) (HPV vaccine) and got retracted this week. Another anti-vaccine paper that bit the dust. I would have say, I am not surprised at all. Anti-vaccine studies have this very annoying habit of either being a proven fraud (remember the latest Shaw paper?), botching the experimental protocol with omission of proper controls (thats the Exley paper I have reviewed) or conveniently sweeping under the rug some data that are not fitting the narrative (that goes for one recent paper published by Gherardi).
But this one is interesting at several levels, because there is a bit of blood-brain barrier in  it, and also adds to the list of papers retraction in Scientific Reports and recent threats by scientists in the editorial board to resign from their positions due to ambiguous and unjustified decision on a flawed paper (Disclaimer: I have a study authored in this journal and I have peer-reviewed for them a couple of times).

To be honest, I only heard about this paper during the last weekend and took some times to read the paper. I will be honest, I don’t see any scientific fraud in the sense of data manipulation. What concerns me is how such a botched study could even pass through peer-review process? Considering I self-impose a quality of standard in my manuscripts and still get challenged by peer-reviewers, seeing such junk studies getting a free pass is a bit vexing. I agree that open-access may not have the same stringency in terms of peer-review filter but considering Scientific Reports as part of Nature Publishing Group, you expect a rigor found for any Nature-related journals applied in this journal too.

But lets go through the paper, it is retracted but you can still access it here.

What is the wrong with this paper?

1. The experimental design in terms of groups

The first problem arises from Figure 1.


We have six groups: vehicle (PBS), pertussis toxin (PTX), Gardasil(R) (MSD, HPV vaccine 4-strains) (G), G+PTX, EAE and EAE+PTX. Let’s breakdown first these oddities.  Why the author has included a PTX group, even more adding PTX with Gardasil? There is not much explanation in the text explaining the rationale (also the writing style is odd, very odd. I completely understand that the first author is not a Native English speaker. As an ESL myself, I completely understand that). Also, I am not aware about a higher risk on contracting pertussis upon vaccines.
The second aspect is the use of the EAE mouse model. EAE stands for experimental autoimmune encephalitis. It is the “gold standard” for a mouse model of multiple sclerosis (MS). The idea behind is to inject a brain protein (myelin basic protein or MBP), which will trigger an immune reaction (as the brain is a immune-privileged organ) and result in symptoms similar to MS. I would understand to compare the incidence of Gardasil(R) on MS patients by comparing EAE mice versus non-EAE mice but that is never the case (they even administer PTX to a sub-group).
So here we already start with a wrong experimental design: it just make no sense. A more rationale approach would have been the following:
Vehicle (PBS), Gardasil (G), EAE, EAE+G. That would have saved two groups and precious lives sacrificed in another useless study.

2. The experimental design in terms of statistics and power of analysis

Another important issue is the blatant dismissal of consideration of biostatistics and the power of analysis in the experimental design. For those that are not familiar with scientific research, you have to ensure you have a statistical meaning to your data to ensure the effect observed is real and not due to simple coincidence. This statement is especially true when working with vertebrates animals. Any animal experiment has to be approved by the institutional IACUC that ensure you have a clear idea of what are the purpose of your experiments, how you will ensure a humane treatment to animals and also have an optimal number of animals to achieve a statistical significance.
An important aspect for in vivo (animal) studies is to achieve at least a sample size of 8 or more animals per group (n=8). From Figure 1a, we have already a violation of this as only the G and the G+PTX have enough animals (n=14 and 21 respectively). All other groups are below the n=8 threshold. In addition, you have very different number of animals per groups (control has n=6, EAE has n=5) making the statistical power weak and also restricting the use of common statistical methods such as the use of ANOVA (ANOVA recommends that all groups have an equal number of samples).

3. The experimental procedure and treatment

This is where the firestorm came in: the experimental data. So lets bring this to the table: “Groups of 11 week-old female C57BL/6 mice were intramuscularly administrated 100 μ l of Gardasil or phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) for a total of five times. Ptx was intraperitoneally administrated 2 and 24 hours after immunization. The Gardasil vaccine or Ptx were administrated at 2- weeks or 4-week intervals“.
A key element in a paper is the methods section and this one utterly failed. Based on this information I have absolutely no idea why they injected five times (Gardasil immunization is maximum 3 times), why they injected the PTX right after the immunization (2 and 24 hours, suggesting a double-induction) and when they injected the Gardasil and PTX (how do they separate the 2-weeks versus the 4-weeks? When did they started?).
Also the use of 11 week-old female is not reflective of a human case scenario. If we approximate 1 human year to about 3.6 mice-days, you would expect to use young mice (males and females, to have a gender-balanced study) that are about 6-weeks old (~43.2 days). That would be about 12 years, the age of puberty.
Here we are basically injecting HPV to adult females, which is known to not provide an additional benefit as such population may have already been exposed to HPVs.
The next problem is the injection dose. It is 100microL, thats the equivalent of 0.1mL. A single dose of HPV is 0.5mL. Lets ignore the scale law and assume a mouse is an equivalent to a human. A 50th percentile weight at age 12 is about 40kgs. Lets assume a 6-weeks old mice to be about 20g.
If we assume 0.1mL injection to a 20g mouse, then the human dose-equivalent would be about 200 dose-equivalent injected at once! This is a serious issue because there is absolutely no chance that such things to happen in a lifetime (at grand maximum you may have 3-4 HPV injections, spaced in time). Also, if we assume the age scale, we are expecting to have mice receive their two doses within 48 to 96 hours, not 2 to 4-weeks.
I am not even entering the rationale to inject PTX right after immunization, which is utterly no-sense and just scramble defining the effect of HPV versus the effect of PTX. Another disastrous example of how this paper was flawed from the beginning.

4. Failure to report weight and clinical score

If we want to follow an EAE protocol, it is important to show the evolution of animal weight over a period of times (up to 15-21 days) as well as a clinical score. The clinical score is a well-described protocol in which features found in EAE mice are score from mild (tail flaccid) to severe (inability to move hindlimb or complete immobility).
These two graphs are almost present in any EAE paper outside in the literature.
I assume this is what Figure 1b and 1c wanted to show but very poorly. Indeed Figure 1c does not really show up anything. We dont know when these data have been taken, we have no idea about the onset time of symptoms and furthermore we have no indication of a statistical differences. This is already a waste of data.

5. The constant cherry-picking of the data and incomplete picture

The methods used are honestly laughable: some hematoxylin-eosin staining (a common histological stain that does not tell much unless you have massive brain damage or the growth brain tumor),  Kluver-Barrera staining (for myelin staining), TUNEL stringing (for apoptosis), a behavioral test relegated in Supplementary Figure S1 (in which the author thinks that a P-value of 0.1 has a statistical meaning).


Where is the Evans blue extravasation staining to show a disrupted BBB? Where are the GFAP staining to show astrocytes activation? Where are the CD11b and F4/80 staining to show microglial cells activation and macrophages infiltration? Nowhere to be seen. We have to comptent ourselves with some miserable histological staining in Figure 2 and 3. Also no-one of the data about EAE is never shown past Figure 1. Figure 4 is even more laughable as the author only shows the staining of the G+PTX, giving the middle finger to the reader to how such staining looks like in vehicle, or G.


How can the author be confident that it was the Gardasil treatment, not the PTX treatment (despite being mentioned as a BBB disrupting toxin) being the sole contributor of all this?

6. Conclusions

Another anti-vaccine study, another case of botched science resulting in a junk paper, the sacrifice of animals over a useless experiment. That should not have been passing through the peer-review filter at all because of its deficiencies, yet was able to go through. If I was the reviewer behind it, I would have been ashamed to have this paper not outright rejected for major flaws in the study. Should we assume that the author recommended some complacent reviewers  to this paper? Or should we question the integrity of the editorial board in accepting papers for publication that fail to address some scientific integrity? Again, anti-vaccine studies shows that they cannot challenge vaccine safety and can only make fool of themselves by producing junk studies like this time.

The first and senior authors of this paper produced a paper that is so bad, they should feel ashamed to even had published at first.



[BBB/Autism/Junk Sciences] Autism, bleach and the blood-brain barrier: how the CD/MMS cult is promoting child abuse on bogus scientific claims.

I have been blogging about quack medicine, charlatanisms and debunking claims about the blood-brain barrier for few years now. But nothing reach the level of indignation and anger than the treatment reserved for children diagnosed as “on the spectrum” (for autism spectrum disorder or ASD), especially those treated with the “CD/MMS protocol” aka “the bleach protocol”, as recently discussed in various blogs and in news outlet here and there.


“Autism spectrum disorders” that is an umbrella medical definition that is defining children presenting deficiencies in social skills, a particular focus on patterns or objects including certain rituals or organization (e.g. sorting toys by their colors, lining cars in a perfect order, bed linen to be perfectly folded), hyper-sensibility to environmental cues (sounds, light, colors….) and in some cases neurodevelopment or communication delays. Not all autistic children are equals, with very different types of syndromes or conditions (e.g. Asperger’s Syndrome, Rett’s Syndrome……).

Although the etiology of ASD is deeply anchored into genetics as a major risk factor (followed by neuroinflamamation during gestation due to infectious diseases), the diagnostic still remains flexible and have been standardized only recently through the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders”, currently in the fifth edition. Such standardization is as recent that a notable number of adults often get diagnosed “on the spectrum” late in their life, often during their adulthood.

Until now, there is no therapies to address such condition and mostly involves medication for treating other conditions associated with the disease (epilepsy is often diagnosed in children on the spectrum) or behavioral therapy (also known as applied behavioral analysis).

Because the diagnosis of autism is perceived and feared amongst parents and the lack of therapies are obvious, such environment creates a fertile ground for charlatans and snake oil seller preying on fear to make profit, selling parents a “cure-it all” potion or interventions, using these children as “guinea-pigs” by pushing protocols or treatment that are best have poorly fared in the scientific literature (most of the time published in low-impact factor journals) if not completely bogus.

A few example of such doubtful or quack remedies are dietary restrictions (gluten-free/casein-free diets), injection of biologics (GcMAF), if not dangerous interventions such as the use of hyperbaric oxygen treatment or use of chelation therapy. But amongst them reside one of the worst treatment: the CD/MMS protocol, or as we should call it the “bleach protocol”.

The CD/MMS protocol: a fancy name for a bleach protocol targeting autistic children

CD stands for chlorine dioxide (O=Cl=O) a bleaching agent used mostly for industrial purposes. CD shares similarities with the household bleach (O=Cl-) and both as referred as chlorinated bleaching agents.

Until recently, Kerri Rivera has been actively promoting the CD/MMS protocol as a “cure for autism” through her book co-authored with other charlatans named “Healing The Symptoms Known As Autism”. in this book, they promote the use of CD via ingestion of droplets or via enema administration. Such aggressive chemical is enough to damage the mucosal layer lining the luminal wall of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and its detachment. Such detached mucosal layer is often labelled as “parasites” which indeed any respected parasitologist will quickly debunk such fallacious claims.  Kerri Rivera promotes the use of this protocol to cure “autistic children” and up until recently was promoting such treatment in the Autism One conference. She discussed in details about this protocol on the Chapter 8 of her book and makes disturbing claims about the blood-brain barrier.

Fallacious things Kerri Rivera said about the blood-brain barrier in her book:

The first fallacious claim from Kerri Rivera appears on Chapter 3, pages 48 and 49. In this chapter, she promotes the gluten-free/casein-free/soy-free diet as a treatment for autism with the excuse of the “leaky gut syndrome” as the following: “This results in poor digestion, which facilitates the entry of these harmful proteins [gluten and casein] directly into the bloodstream, where they can cross the blood-brain barrier.“. I never heard about gluten and casein crossing the BBB, especially considering that these are large peptides and therefore have to use transporters and receptors. Of course, her claims is not backed by a reference to a study.
Then she refers to this ” Improperly digested gluten and casein fragments can both enter the bloodstream and cross the blood-brain barrier. Because of their opioid properties, these peptides can react with opiate receptors in the brain to cause effects similar to those of an opiate drug such as heroin or morphine.7 These opiates are called gluteomorphin (or gliadorphin) and casomorphin, and can react with some parts of the brain, for example, the temporal lobes, which are actively involved in the process of the integration of language and hearing. Interestingly, these are two of the areas most affected by autism.

She cites this page for her claims. Interestingly, if you look at the page this claim is based on making a parallel between celiac disease and a speculation and hypothesis as cited: “Now in terms of autism, the situation is somewhat different because children with autism generally do not have celiac disease and do not have the DQ2 genotype problem. Whereas the problem of celiac disease is well proven in scientific studies, the problem with gluten sensitivity in autism is less well studied. The autism hypothesis involves, like celiac disease, the toxic effects of small peptides, generally in the range of five to seven amino acids in length (termed casomorphin and gliadorphin, as noted below). It is believed that these peptides from gluten, as well as certain peptides from cow milk protein (casein), can somehow cross the intestinal microvillus barrier and reach the blood stream.”

In a previous edition, Rivera went further and cited two papers to back her claims (now this claims has been watered down and put in the FAQ section of this chapter):  a study from Reichelt1 and colleagues and a  review from Shattock and colleagues2. Firstly, the citation of Shattock review is outdated and only provide an exhaustive overview of published studies supporting or dismissing the theory of opioid-excess. It has no scientific value as it does not provide a direct evidence of such claim. More troublesome is the following study led by Hunter and colleagues published by Hunter and colleagues in 2003 investigating the presence of opioids mimetics in patients urine and published in Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology3, a journal with an acceptable impact factor (IF=3.29). Using liquid chromatography coupled with mass-spectrometry (a common analytical technique used for measuring metabolites in biological fluids), the authors have investigated the presence of opioids in a cohort of 10 children with ASD and used siblings as controls. Interestingly, the authors failed to notice notable differences (as defined by presence of unique peaks) in the urine chromatogram of ASD children compared to controls. The authors further investigated the presence of opoid peptides previously cited by Shattock, in particular beta-casomorphin (a peptide byproduct obtained from casein degradation) and alpha-gliadin (a peptide byproduct obtained from gluten degradation). The authors failed to identify the presence of both peptides, based on retention time compared to standard or based on the m/z index.  This publication irated enough Shattock to be followed  by a comment to Editor and a scientific joust between Shattock and Hunter4, however an  editorial published by John F Mantovani resumes well the context in which the initial statement of Shattock was published5. At this time, ASD etiology was completely unknown and remained highly speculative. The publication (and subsequent retraction) of the so-called “Wakefied study” 6 linking MMR vaccines to ASD cases, but also documenting the presence of inflammatory bowel disorder in ASD patients, such condition is known to triggered by gluten and casein in patients suffering from celiac diseases. As Mantovani mentioned, the adoption of the theory of gluten and casein was correlating with the same approach than the vaccine without any scientific rationale. The study from Hunter indeed showed the lack of evidence about the claim made by Shattock. The amount of studies linking autism and exorphin remains very low. A query on Pubmed (the database of the National Library of Medicine) using the keywords “autism” and “exorphin” results in only 7 publications with 3 publications from Reichelt, KL and two publications from Brudnak, MA.
This brings the concern of data reproducibility. In order to have a scientific claim that have strong significancy you need two factors: a significant number of publications that investigated such statement and the publications of findings from different research groups. Having the monopoly of such investigation solely on a single research laboratory raises the issue of data reproducibility and reliability.
In this case, the study of Reichelt is very interesting, as its publication quality appears dubious at different levels. The journal of Microbial Ecology and Health Disease has recently adopted the “open-access” policy. Prior its publication as open-access, the journal has an 2013 unofficial impact factor of 0.933. The “open access” and the low IF raise red flags: such journal may be a potential “predatory journal” (a term coined by Retractionwatch.org, a website tracking scientific articles retraction). In this model, the cost of open-access is levied by the payment of hefty publication fees ($3000-5000) usually higher than subscription-based journals. Because of such financial gain, the peer-review process may be altered and even may be completely omitted, removing the quality control accomplished by peer-review. This lack of peer-review process is particularly blatant by the absence of clearly structured “methods” sections, odd wordings for a scientific (“ELISA typed as Elisa, thaw over night, eight-hundred microliters”), the source of samples (Association Planet Autism (Italy), samples from Slovenia, Serbia and Australia) and the overall format of the paper figures with some appearing as a screenshoot of a Powerpoint presentation or from printed copies. It raises some skepticism about why the author (based in Norway) failed to collect samples from Norwegian ASD patients.

In the previous edition, Rivera linked these studies to a “leaky bowel syndrome”. A major flaw in this claim is the absence of citing the original publication for Hsaio and colleagues7 that have demonstrated the presence of a “leaky gut syndrome” in mice showing an ASD phenotype. Instead Rivera cites the Gluten Free Society webpage as a source of information (http://www.glutenfreesociety.org/gluten-free-society-blog/dr-fasano-on-leaky-gut-syndrome-and-gluten-sensitivity/).

Dr. Alessio Fasano is certainly a respected researcher in celiac diseases but as noted with pseudoscience and activists groups lacking the scientific knowledge, cherry-picking and extraordinary extrapolation. In particularly in this case by the Gluten Free Society, those as their Facebook webpage mentions, identify themselves as alternative and holistic health society. This is again a red flag on the mission and purpose of this society that have little or no scientific evidence to support their claims except deviating, cherry-picking and reformulating genuine studies to push for their agenda.

Under normal conditions, the intestinal and the blood-brain barrier (BBB) (Figure 1) provides a tight cell monolayer creating a gut-blood and a blood-brain barriers respectively. Under normal conditions, such barrier is achieved by the presence of tight junctions complexes stopping the diffusion of electrolytes and water between the two compartments. Only digestion byproducts such as amino-acids or glucose are transported through dedicated nutrient transporters or solute carriers, whereas bigger entities such as peptides, proteins and pathogens have virtually no diffusion). Only lipids (fatty acids, cholesterol…) and drugs (designed as lipid-soluble chemicals) can passively diffuse across the barrier by mixing themselves with the phospholipid bilayers making the cell membranes.


In the study from Hsiao, the authors demonstrated indeed the presence of a “leaky gut” as measured by an increase in FITC-dextran permeability with an estimated size of 4kDa (that’s about the size of a peptide of 36 amino acids). Even is such peptides can cross a “leaky gut”, they still have to cross the BBB. Some scientific studies have demonstrated the biological activity of opioids analogs obtained from digestion byproducts, including gluten and casein. Yet, a review from Lister and colleagues 8 denoted that a majority of these studies were based on intracerebroventricular (ICV) injections (or intracranial). This drug delivery approach allows to bypass the BBB but also is a very invasive approach that is used in clinical settings only for emergency and severe cases.

If such peptides were to cross the BBB and exert the biological activity discussed by Rivera, they have to have a dedicated peptide transporter that can deliver such peptides from the blood to the brain side. The number of peptides capable to cross the BBB has been recently reviewed by Banks 9, a well-established BBB scientist in the transport and delivery of peptides and inflammatory cytokines across the BBB. There is no mention about any of the opioids mentioned by Reichelt or Shattock publications. Furthermore, the increase in gut permeability appears unlikely or indirectly related to gluten or casein-sensitivity, as the authors demonstrated a change in the gut microbioma, in particular changes in Bacteorides fragilis as well as changes in metabolites discovered in serum plasma. However this study has to be taken with a lot of precaution due to the differences related to interspecies variation, the behavioral representation of mice to model ASD and more importantly, similar studies in human patients investigating samples from stools and plasma levels to observe if similar trends or biomarkers are noted in humans.

The next chapter that talks about the BBB is the Chapter 5, in which she discussed about the use of CD/MMS protocol, claiming to hunt their imaginary parasite inside the brain as mentioned by the following: ” In early 2011, we added enemas to the protocol to kill the pathogens causing dysbiosis in the large intestine (we didn’t know about parasites yet). We wanted to get the chlorine dioxide into the blood stream so it could kill the biofilm that exists in the blood. In this way, the blood can carry the CD past the blood-brain barrier to kill pathogens in the brain
When we are detoxing, it is absolutely critical to keep the colon moving and avoid the reabsorption of toxins through the intestinal walls. Enemas allow us to do just this. Some toxins can exit the intestine through the intestinal wall (more so if leaky-gut syndrome is present), and cross the blood-brain barrier, therefore affecting cognition and behavior. When we cleanse the colon, we get those out before they can cross into the brain, and we detoxify the lymphatic system, liver, and gallbladder.
The following argumentation of Rivera is very interesting as she is referring to Dr. Andreas Kalcker and the parasites at the base of her bleaching-based therapy. Let’s first identify Dr. Kalcker. According to his official biography (http://www.andreaskalcker.com/en/biography.html), he studied economics in Barcelona and has earned a Ph.D. in biophysics and alternative health without mentioning his alma matter. This is very puzzling, as any genuine Ph.D. holder will mention the institution that granted his/her degree. Furthermore, the deliverance of a Ph.D. in biological and biomedical sciences (and I believe in any scientific domains) requires the publication of at least one publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Notably, the search of Dr. Kalcker publication in either Pubmed (NLM) or in Sciencedirect (Elsevier) database leads to inconclusive results. At this stage, his Ph.D. degree claim is highly doubtful and raises concern about the credentials of Andreas Kalcker to hold such title.
The main question that can arise is on which expertise Dr. Kalcker discusses about autism, parasites, blood-brain barrier and nutrition? The author of this critique has 11 years of scientific research experience in the blood-brain barrier, 15 peer-reviewed publications.
The gut-brain axis is still a fairly new concept in the BBB field. Up to now, there is only one study that have demonstrated the beneficial effects of gut microbioma on the BBB development during gestation 10 and requires more studies to further confirm this single report. Furthermore, ASD diagnosis and mechanisms of disease have highly progressed since the original retracted publication of Wakefield and colleagues. It is now a consensus that ASD is triggered by two major factors: a genetic and an environmental factor11-14.
The current consensus is the predominance of the genetic factor that set the risk of ASD development and different factors in particular exposure to environmental toxins may trigger the onset of the condition. This second aspect is very interesting, as the penetration of such toxins across the BBB is poorly understood and believed that the presence of efflux drug transporters and phase II metabolism enzymes would void the penetration of such compounds across the BBB and target neurons. Such statement is supported by the ability of the BBB to act as a very strong barrier towards xenobiotic (drugs and toxins), we estimate than less than 5% of current drugs are capable to cross the BBB. The presence of such BBB is a main challenge for drug delivery 15, 16. However, scientific literature yet has to demonstrate how such environmental polluants mar the BBB and how they may affect brain development during gestation that leads to the ASD onset.
Therefore, we can reasonably ask the following question:

  1. On which scientific basis Kelly Rivera supports the claim of parasitic infection? There is no published scientific literature supporting her claim.
  2. Furthermore, under which expertise and scientific literature Dr. Kalcker built his theory on the improper digestion?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theory), the definition of theory is “the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another”. Neither Kerri Rivera nor Dr. Kalcker have the credential to set a theory because there is no scientific facts to support their theory.

Therefore their tentative to explain their rationale is deeply flawed and should be considered as wrong until a significant number of studies with the adequate scientific quality and neither Rivera or Dr. Kalcker have demonstrated the credentials to exercise a diagnosis or establish a treatment regimen and are legally unlicensed to practice medicine (diagnosis) or pharmacy (treatment) and may face severe legal issues to do so.

The most compelling fact of Rivera and Dr. Kalcker are their active participation in the sell of MMS and CD as a treatment from autism. Such behavior is a clear sign of conflict of interest, a modern form of snake oil sell and a deliberate act of poisoning. Such misuse of public trust and poisoning has lead to the arrest of Dr. Kalcker in Spain in 2014 as reported by the bancdmms website (http://www.bancdmms.com/#!about1/c157n) as well as pro-MMS groups.

In conclusion, until now there is not direct evidence of a gut-brain axis interaction triggering ASD is until now a fallacious statement. There is no clear evidence of such statement, only a series of meticulous cherry picking studies from predatory journals and retracted articles. The direct evidence of gluten and casein peptides in ASD patients is weak and doubtful and would requires a substantial re-evaluation of such claims until other independents research groups demonstrates similar outcomes under controlled conditions.

Furthermore, the etiology of ASD as presented by Rivera and Dr. Kalcker is pure fallacy as none of them have the expertise, credentials and the scientific evidence to make such claims but also have deliberately ignored a sustained and solid publication records concerning the diffusion of peptides across the BBB and the etiology of ASD as a neurological disorder with a high genetic background (supplemented by an environmental factors).

Because the etiology of ASD at this time remains elusive, the treatment of ASD by medication remains until now undocumented, even using pre-clinical models. Only an early diagnosis and intervention by behavioral therapy have been proven successful to improve behavioral and social outcome in ASD patients.

Using common tactics of pseudoscience to distract a non-scientific literate audience, Rivera shows her ability to build an argument on fallacious statements with a an obvious conflict of interest (the endpoint is to sell her MMS/CD cure), as well as a documented harmful outcome of such treatment.


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  2. Shattock P, Whiteley P. Biochemical aspects in autism spectrum disorders: updating the opioid-excess theory and presenting new opportunities for biomedical intervention. Expert Opin Ther Targets 2002; 6(2): 175-83.
  3. Hunter LC, O’Hare A, Herron WJ, Fisher LA, Jones GE. Opioid peptides and dipeptidyl peptidase in autism. Dev Med Child Neurol 2003; 45(2): 121-8.
  4. Shattock P, Hooper M, Waring R. Opioid peptides and dipeptidyl peptidase in autism. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology 2004; 46(05).
  5. Mantovani JF. Not knowing. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology 2003; 45(02).
  6. Wakefield AJ, Murch SH, Anthony A, Linnell J, Casson DM, Malik M et al. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 1998; 351(9103): 637-41.
  7. Hsiao EY, McBride SW, Hsien S, Sharon G, Hyde ER, McCue T et al. Microbiota modulate behavioral and physiological abnormalities associated with neurodevelopmental disorders. Cell 2013; 155(7): 1451-63.
  8. Lister J, Fletcher PJ, Nobrega JN, Remington G. Behavioral effects of food-derived opioid-like peptides in rodents: Implications for schizophrenia? Pharmacol Biochem Behav 2015.
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  10. Braniste V, Al-Asmakh M, Kowal C, Anuar F, Abbaspour A, Toth M et al. The gut microbiota influences blood-brain barrier permeability in mice. Sci Transl Med 2014; 6(263): 263ra158.
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  16. Abbott NJ. Blood-brain barrier structure and function and the challenges for CNS drug delivery. Journal of inherited metabolic disease 2013; 36(3): 437-49.


[Stroke/Junk Sciences] Does a needle can save you from a stroke injury? No! No! No!

Some of you have seen this video going around, claiming you can save someone suffering from stroke injury using a needle. The idea behind this video, according to HealthyChoices365, is that a Chinese “professor” claimed this will save the person’s life following a stroke.
This is kind of the thing that, as a basic scientist in the field, boils me for the last few days. First, it is plain quackery. The needle prick has nothing to do with the stroke event: it is distal from the site to have an effect. Second, using this technique on a patient has a direct impact on the patient’s stroke outcome and recovery. Let me explain why this is bullshit and should be called for what it is: A gazillion pile of bullshit that has much more weight that all the coal West Virginia has and had since the geological formation of that region (no pun intended, W. Va has one of the highest number of stroke per capita in the US, since it is Xmas season the lump of coal is simply appropriate).
In brief, stroke is the 5th cause of death in the US (3rd amongst women) and a leading cause of disability. We have two types of stroke: ischemic (85%) and hemorrhagic (15%) with the later accounting for 40% of stroke-related deaths. We estimate that about one US citizen will experience a stroke event every 5 minutes.

1. Stroke 101: Back to basics
In the ischemic stroke, we have a clot (usually formed at the carotid artery bifurcation) that is formed due to the presence of atherosclerotic plaques. These plaques can become unstable and crumble over time. These crumbles are made of clot that navigate through the carotid artery that irrigate the brain. Such clot will act as a plug or a cap, once it reaches a vessel with a diameter smaller than the clot, it will occlude it and block the blood flow.
This create what we call an ischemic situation. In such ischemic situation, the brain is deprived of both oxygen (20% of all oxygen is wired to the brain) and nutrient (in particular, glucose. The brain accounts for about 25% of the total glucose level utilization in the whole body). Neurons are the most sensible brain cells to stroke injury. They cannot adapt to hypoxia (lack of oxygen). Few minutes of hypoxia is enough to cause severe and irreversible brain damage. We estimate about 1 million neurons die every minutes that a stroke is left untreated.
Furthermore, neurons are post-mitotic cells. They cannot divide anymore. When a neuron is gone, it is gone, as well as its neuronal circuitry. You see, each minute matters because what is lost is lost.
Stroke signs can be resumed by the “FAST” acronym: Face droop, Arm weakness, Speech issues, Time to call 911. By the time you are showing signs, it has been already a couple of hours your brain has been starving off glucose and oxygen. It is important that once you have the signs to call 911 and asked the paramedics to direct you to the closest stroke center.
The most important thing to happen in stroke diagnosis is to determine which type of stroke the patient is undergoing: ischemic or hemorrhagic? These two are very different and confusing one with another can have a deadly effect. You don’t want to give a clot-buster to someone with hemorrhagic stroke because it will make the bleeding worse. You don’t want to give a clotting agent to a patient with ischemic stroke because you will increase the risk to develop a second stroke.
The current procedure is the use of endovascular intervention: the neurosurgeon insert a catheter in the femoral artery and using an angiography method to see blood vessels “live on screen” reach the site of stroke injury to either remove the clot or to put a stent in place to stop the bleeding process. From discussing with a physician, this takes about 10-15 minutes once the patient is in the OR.

2. Why this video is BS and should be called BS:
Now, lets see why I call this video BS.
First, the idea of finger prick to treat stroke is BS. We are trying to act on the stroke from a remote site. The thing is, the clotting process occurs in a very local fashion. So trying to act on a stroke with pricking a finger with a needle is mostly useless.
Second, as I said, it is important to know which type of stroke we are treating. You cannot identify which type of stroke is involved just by the clinical signs. You need imaging (CT scan or MRI) to be able to distinguish ischemic stroke from hemorrhagic stroke.
Third, this useless procedure is a formidable waste of time on the patient. As we said, each minute lost is a precious minute lost that will condition the outcome and the recovery. How long should we waste before calling 911 because we noted no improvement: 15 minutes? 30 minutes? 60 minutes? By the time the patient realized this intervention is bogus, his/her chance to survive and recover from the stroke injury are almost close to zero.

To conclude, let me finish this post with a call: PLEASE! PLEASE! PLEASE! Whenever you or a loved one is showing the FAST signs, CALL 9-1-1!!!! Know your nearest hospital with a certified Stroke Center and have the paramedics bring you there. THERE IS NO THERAPY FOR STROKE! OUR BEST BETS ARE PREVENTION (80% of stroke events can be prevented) AND INTERVENTION (by keeping the “door-to-bed” to a minimum).

[Neurosciences/Junk Sciences] Autopsy of a flawed study of aluminum and brain inflammation (Li et al., J Inorg Biochem 2017)

Note: This is a special blog post coauthored by The Mad Virologist and The Blood-Brain Barrier Scientist (this article will be co-published on both our blogs). Another post has already been published on this paper, but we wanted to take a deeper look at everything that is wrong with this paper.

[UPDATE2] The study in question got retracted according to RetractionWatch:

[UPDATE] I would strongly recommend the reader to look at the comments on Pubpeer about this paper. It is terrifying to think how it percolated through peer-review.

A recent paper by ophthalmologist Chris Shaw was published and immediately touted as being proof positive that the aluminum adjuvants found in some vaccines are responsible for causing autism. Before we get into the paper, I have a few choice things to say about Chris Shaw. Despite not being an immunologist, Shaw has ventured into studying how vaccines and vaccine adjuvants cause neurological disorders such as autism. Shaw made headlines in 2016 when a paper he co-authored that claimed to show a link between the HPV vaccine and neurological disorders was retracted after being accepted by the journal Vaccine. It turns out that the statistics used in the paper were completely inappropriate and there were undisclosed conflicts of interests for some of the authors, including Shaw.These issues should have prevented the paper from being accepted in the first place, but mistakes do happen and science tends  to be self correcting. More surprising is that Shaw claimed that he didn’t know why the paper was retracted and that the science was of the highest quality. Shaw’s previous work has also been described by the WHO as deeply flawed and rejected by that body. This isn’t being brought up to dismiss the paper out of hand but to help illustrate why Shaw’s work is deserving of additional scrutiny. Hopefully by the end of this post, the logic behind the need for additional scrutiny of anything Shaw publishes is abundantly clear. We’ll begin by examining the methods used by Shaw’s research group and point out some of the issues.

Background for experimental design flaws: PK and species issues

One problem that is recurrent with Shaw is his “vaccination schedule” tries to consider rodents, such as mice and rats, as humans in miniature. It is wrong to assume that rodent and human primate species are alike, they’re not and there are notable physiological differences between rodents and non-rodents. For example, there are a couple of studies by Terasaki and colleagues (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1471-4159.2011.07208.x/abstract) that have shown differences in the expression of solute carriers and drug transporters at the blood-brain barrier. We cannot exclude that such differences may bias the outcome observed in his studies, but this bias applies intrinsically to any in vivo studies based on a rodent model.
There is also the issue of brain development and mapping the vaccination schedule and the brain maturation. In this study (as well in the previous ones), Shaw and colleagues consider that applying vaccines from post-natal day (PND) 3 to 12 is representative of a human infant vaccine schedule. There is some differences in the literature, as previous studies from Clancy and colleagues mapped the PND12 to the 7th gestational months in humans (https://blogs.cornell.edu/bfinlay/files/2015/06/ClancyNeurosci01-17kkli7.pdf), some more recent publications map PND21 to 6th month post natal in humans, making the PND12 around the 3rd month infancy following full-term birth (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352154615001096). You can easily appreciate that by following Shaw flawed experimental design, the total amount of Al administered during a 2 year period has been indeed administered within 90 days of birth, whereas the vaccination schedule according to the CDC does not start before the 2nd month of infancy if we exclude the two injections of Hepatitis B vaccines at birth and after the first month respectively (https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/hcp/imz/child-adolescent.html).

In addition to a flaw in the experimental design, we cannot exclude some differences in the pharmacokinetic profile of Al adjuvants between mice and humans. The data available is fairly limited but a recent study from Kim and colleagues (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26437923) failed to show a significant brain uptake of Al compared to controls following the single oral administration of different Al oxide nanoparticles at a concentration of 10mg/kg. Furthermore, the approximation of Shaw in terms of total burden of Al from vaccines (550 microg/kg) is not an accurate metric as we have a dynamic process involving absorption, distribution and elimination to occur simultaneously. A daily burden of Al from vaccines is a much more reliable parameter to consider. Yokel and McNamara (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11322172) established it about 1.4-8 microg/day for based on 20 injections spanning over a 6-year period in a 20kgs individual.
If we consider Shaw calculation, then the total burden at age 6 would be 1650 microg/kg or 33’000 microg for a 20kgs 6-year old child. That’s about 15 microg/day of daily Al burden from vaccines, a value that is 2 to 10 folds higher than applied to humans. It makes therefore very difficult to compare apples to oranges, as Shaw experimental paradigm is flawed and not representative of a clinical scenario.

Selection of genes to measure:

Selecting which genes to measure is a crucial step in a study like this. If care is not given to ensure that the correct genes are selected, then the study will be a wasted effort. Shaw stated in the paper that they selected genes that were previously published. However, not all of the genes that they measured came from this paper. Only 14 of the genes were from this paper (KLK1, NFKBIB, NFKBIE, SFTPB, C2, CCL2, CEBPB, IFNG, LTB, MMP9, TNFα, SELE, SERPINE1, and STAT4). This leaves 17 genes the were measured but not found in the paper. Two of these can be explained. One gene, ACHE, was mentioned as having been selected because of other work, so it is sourced. The second gene, is the internal control gene beta-actin. This is a housekeeping gene that is often used as an internal control to provide a relative expression from. This leaves 15 genes unaccounted for. We suspect that these genes were selected because they are involved in the innate immune response, but no reason is stated in the paper.

The way these genes were selected is problematic. Because half of the genes seemed to be selected for uncited reasons, this study is what is known in science as a “fishing expedition.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with this type of research and indeed it can lead to new discoveries that expand our understanding of the natural world (this study that increased the number of sequenced viral genomes by nearly tenfold is a good example of this). But what fishing expeditions can show is limited. These types of studies can lead to other studies but they do not show causality. Shaw is claiming causality with his fishing expedition here.

There is also the problem that they used old literature to select their gene targets when much more recent research has been done. By happenstance, they did measure some of these same genes in their study. However, their results do not match has has been measured in children that have been diagnosed with autism. For example, RANTES was shown to be decreased in children with autism. In Shaw’s work there was no statistical difference in RANTES expression between mice given the aluminum treatment and those receiving saline. Likewise, MIP1alpha  was shown to be decreased in developmentally delayed children but was shown to be increased in the aluminum treated mice. This was also the case for ILIb which was found to be elevated in children with moderate autism yet there was no statistical difference between the mice receiving the aluminum treatment and those receiving saline. In fact IL-4 was the only gene to follow an expression pattern similar to what was found in children with severe autism (elevated in both cases). However, there is something odd with the gel in this case. This was the image for figure 4 that was included in the online version of the paper (we have not altered the image in any way). Look closely at the top right panel at the IL-4 samples and the IL-6 samples. You’ll notice that the bands for the control and the aluminum treated mice have different color backgrounds (We enlarged the image to help highlight this but did not adjust the contrast). If these came from the same gel, there would not be a shift in color like this where the treated bands have a lighter color encircling them. The only way this could happen is if the gel was assembled in photoshop. The differences could be real; however, since this image was modified we do not know for sure and this is scientific misconduct. Papers get retracted for this all the time and people have lost their degrees for doing this in their dissertations. These gel results cannot be trusted and the paper hinges on them. The Western blots and issues with them will be discussed below.


The unaltered figure 4.


A close up of the panel with the regions in question highlighted.

Semi-quantitative RT-PCR:

In order to quantify the gene expression levels of the genes that Shaw’s group selected, they used an older technique called semi-quantitative RT-PCR. This technique uses the exponential increase in PCR products in order to show differences between expression of a gene under different conditions. There’s nothing wrong with the technique provided one understands what the limitations are. Let’s say you have a large number of genes that you want to measure expression of, but you aren’t sure which genes are going to be responsive and you have limited funds. Semi-quantitative RT-PCR is a good method to screen for specific genes to be examined further by more precise techniques, such as Real-Time RT-PCR, but it’s not appropriate to use this technique and then make statements about precise quantification. Where semi-quantitative RT-PCR excels is with genes that are normally not expressed but can be expressed after some sort of stimulus, such as terpene biosynthesis genes that are induced by insect feeding.

To put it bluntly, semi-quantitative RT-PCR was not used properly in the paper by Shaw. The way that it was used implied that it would be quantitative when the technique is not that precise. Without verification by another method, ideally Real-Time PCR which can determine what the exact abundance of a given target is, these results should be taken with a grain of salt. This would still be the case if there weren’t irregularities in the gel images. With those irregularities, this is absolutely essential and should have prevented this paper from being accepted.

Western-blots and data manipulationPCR and Western-blots data: the owl is not what it seems
As The Mad Virologist mentioned, the semi-quantitative PCR is an old-fashioned RNA quantitation method, with the use of Real-Time quantitative PCR (that quantifies the amplification product at each cycle, using a fluorescent dye as an indicator) is a much more accepted method nowadays (see his section for more details). For Western-blots, the semi-quantitative approach is more accepted but it is important to show data that are consistent between what you show (qualitative) from what you count (quantitative). In Western-blot analysis, we measure the relative darkness of a protein band (the black lines that you see in papers) between treatments and controls. Because you cannot exclude some errors due to the amount of protein loading, we also measure the band intensity for proteins that are very abundant, usually referred as housekeeping proteins (because they play essential functions in cells). In this case, beta-actin (named ACT in the paper was used).
Once you normalize to beta-actin, you can compare the effect of a treatment by comparing the relative band intensity ratios. In both cases (semi-quantitative PCR and Western-blots), “what you see is what you measure” or you have to show a “representative Western-blot” alongside a quantitative data to demonstrate that your quantification matches with band densities. The common practice is the use of image acquisition software like ImageJ to determine band density. Showing Western-blot is nice, but not foolproof. Indeed, Western-blots data (with fluorescence images) is amongst the most common method by which some researchers can manipulate or even falsify data but also the most common type of data that spark a paper retraction. Someone notice something fuzzy on a Western-blot data, creating some questioning reaching to the editors and asking access to the full dataset (usually the X-ray film or the original full scan of the blot). Often, the author will use the excuse “the dog ate the flash drive” or “the hard drive containing the data crashed” if they cannot provide such data.
There are some methods to spot some image manipulation on Western-Blots and include playing with the brightness/contrast, requesting the presence of quantitative data in addition of a representative blot, samples must be coming from a same gel (you cannot use a cookie-cutter and build-your-own perfect gel). There is an excellent article that describe the pitfalls and cases of bad Western-blot data representation if not image manipulation. (https://www.elsevier.com/editors-update/story/publishing-ethics/the-art-of-detecting-data-and-image-manipulationThere are, at this time, different issues raised both in the Western-blots pictures and their subsequent analysis raising the reliability of the data presented in this study.

In this post, we have used the full-resolution pictures provided by the journal website (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0162013417300417), opened just pictures in ImageJ to convert such pictures into 8-bit format, invert the lookup tables (LUT) and adjusted the brightness and contrast. We have exported such pictures in Powerpoint to ease the annotation and comments. We recommend the reader to judge by himself/herself and download the full-resolution images as well.

The first concern is by looking at Figure 1C. First, this is the original Fig.1.


Then, this is the close-up analysis for Fig.1C


There are several issues. First there are some bands that appears as band splicings, in which the author create a custom blots by assembling different bands from different gels. This is a no-no in Western-blots: all bands showed in a blot should come from the same gel. This is why Western-blot is a torture for graduates students and postdocs, you need to show your best blot with all bands showing the same behavior for your quantitative analysis.
Second, the presence of a rectangular grey piece that was added on the top of control 3 TNF band. This is a possible data manipulation and fraud, as you are voluntary masking a band and hiding it. Thats a big red flag on the paper. The third issue of Fig.1C is the consistent feeling of seeing bands either cropped on a grey rectangle or what I call a “Photoshop brushing” in which you brush off using the brush function area of the gel you consider not looking good enough. You can clearly see it with actin as we have a clear line between the blurred blot and a sharp and uniform grey in the bottom half of the blot, compared to the wavy top of the blot. This a grey area that I am not familiar with Western-blot but this is a no-no for any immunofluorescence picture. Any image manipulation that goes beyond the brightness/contrast adjustment and involves alteration of the acquired picture is considered as data manipulation. If you analyze the data upon correcting for the inconsistency of Figure 1C, the graph looks much more different and failed to show any differences between Al-treated and control, when you restrict yourself in over-normalizing it and plot straight the protein/actin band density ratios.

What is also concerning and surprising is the conclusion from the authors that males, not females, showing an inflammatory response. Of course, the authors failed to show the same outcomes from female animals and expect us to trust them on this. The problem is that such conclusion is in direct contradiction with the literature. There is a solid literature supporting the presence of a sexual dimorphism in terms of inflammatory response, in particular in terms of neuroinflammation and autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28647490; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27870415). There is also a growing call to the scientific community to provide results for both sexes (males and females alike). Although Shaw reports the study was performed in both males and females, he gives us this explanation at the end of section 3.1: Taken together, a number of changes indicative of the activation of the immune-mediated NF-κB pathway were observed in both male and female mice brains as a result of Al-injection, although females seemed to be less susceptible than males as fewer genes were found altered in female brains.

Yet the interesting part comes when Shaw try to compare ikB phosphorylation between males and females following Al injection (Fig.3C). When you analyze the data, you are raising concerns very rapidly. First, we have a possible case of cookie-cutter band in which you just paste a band that seems nice enough in a blank space. This is a very suspicious activity as you can make up data as easy as this. Second, there is again this “Photoshopping brushing/erasing” taking place in that figure, in which I suspect a case of fraudulent activity. As you can see in female, it is as if someone tried to mask some bands that should not have been here. Remember when he said that males but not females showed an inflammatory response? Is it trying to dissimulate data that contradict his claims?


Again, lets bring up Figure 3 at its full resolution.

Finally, the same issues are persistent and even more obvious in Fig.5A. Again, we have a mixture of different Western-blots image manipulations including bands splicing, Photoshop brushing, cookie-cutter bands……

First, the unedited picture:

And below the close up of Fig.5A


These are some serious concerns that raise the credbility of this study and can only be addressed by providing a full-resolution (300dpi) of the original blots (X-ray films or the original picture file generated by the gel acquisition camera).  There has been a lot of chatter on PubPeer discussing this paper and many duplicated bands and other irregularities have been identified by the users there. If anyone is unsure of how accurate the results are, we strongly suggest looking at what has been identified on PubPeer as it suggests that the results are not entirely accurate and until the original gels and Western blots have been provided, it looks like the results were manufactured in Photoshop.


Long time followers know that I tend to go right to the statistics that are used in papers to see if what they are claiming is reasonable or not. Poor use of statistics has been the downfall of many scientists, even if they are making honest mistakes. It’s a common problem that scientists have to be wary of. One easy solution is to consult with a statistician before submitting a paper for publication. These experts can help point out if the statistical tests that were run are the correct or not. The Shaw paper could have benefited from this expertise. They used a Student’s T Test for all of their statistics comparing the control to the aluminum treated. This is problematic for a couple of reasons. These aren’t independent tests and the data likely does not have a normal distribution, so a T Test isn’t appropriate. Better statistical tests would have been either Hotelling’s T-squared distribution or Tukey’s HSD.  Another issue is how the authors used standard error (SE) instead of standard deviation (SD). To understand why this matters, it helps to understand what the SE and what the SD measure and what these statistics show. The SD measures the variation in samples and how far the measurements are from the mean of the measurements. A smaller SD means that there is low variability in the measurements. The SE measures the likelihood that a measurement varies from the mean of the measurements within a population. Both the SE and SD can be used; however, using the SE is not always appropriate, especially if you are trying to use it as a descriptive statistic (in other words if you are trying to summarize data). Simply put, the SE is an estimation and only shows the variation between the sample mean and the population mean. If you are trying to show descriptive statistics, then you need to use the SD. The misuse of SE when the SD needs to be shown is a common mistake in many research publications. In fact, this is what the GraphPad manual has to say about when to use the SD and when to use the SE:

If you want to create persuasive propaganda:
If your goal is to emphasize small and unimportant differences in your data, show your error bars as SEM,  and hope that your readers think they are SD. If our goal is to cover-up large differences, show the error bars as the standard deviations for the groups, and hope that your readers think they are a standard errors.” This approach was advocated by Steve Simon in his excellent weblog. Of course he meant it as a joke. If you don’t understand the joke, review  the differences between SD and SEM.” The bottom line is that there is an appropriate time to use the SE but not when you are trying to summarize data.

Another issue is the number of animals used in the study. A consensus in published study is to provide a minimal number of animals (usually n=8) needed to achieve statistical significance but also maintain to a minimum to ensure proper welfare and humane consideration for lab animals. In this study, such number is half (n=5). Also the authors are bringing some confusion by blurring the lines between biological replicates (n=5) and technical replicates (n=3). By definition, biological replicates are different organisms that are measured and are essential for statistical analysis as these replicates are independent from each other. Technical replicates are dependent on each other as they come from the same biological samples and are repeated measurements. By considering the latter as statistical relevant, you are biasing yourself to consider a fluke as a biological phenomenon.


Based on the methods that were used in this paper, Shaw et al. went too far in declaring that aluminum adjuvants cause autism. But there are six other key points that limit what conclusions can be drawn from this paper:
1) They selected genes based on old literature and ignored newer publications.
2) The method for PCR quantification is imprecise and cannot be used as an absolute quantification of expression of the selected genes.
3) They used inappropriate statistical tests that are more prone to giving significant results which is possibly why they were selected.
4) Their dosing regime for the mice makes assumptions on the development of mice that are not correct.
5) They gave the mice far more aluminum sooner than the vaccine schedule exposes children to.
6) There are irregularities in both the semi-quantitative RT-PCR and Western blot data that strongly suggests that these images were fabricated. This is probably the most damning thing about the paper. If the data were manipulated and images fabricated, then the paper needs to be retracted and UBC needs to do an investigation into research misconduct by the Shaw lab.

Maybe there’s a benign explanation for the irregularities that we’ve observed, but until these concerns are addressed this paper cannot be trusted.

[Sciences/Junk Sciences] Remember the deadly turmeric IV infusion done in a holistic clinic? Lessons from the FDA report

You have remember this story of this young woman that died shortly after recieving an IV infusion of turmeric acid (aka curcumin, a bioactive compound found in Curcuma) in a holistic clinic in California few months ago (http://www.10news.com/news/team-10/encinitas-woman-dead-after-i-v-infusion-of-turmeric).
This story baffled me for many reasons. First, it was really puzzling me on how quack medicine (rebranding itself as “holistic” and “integrative” to appear more sciencey) have been moving slowly but surely into medical procedures normally held by medical staff, with some dubious claims of “IV therapy” in which the onset of an IV line and pumping up vitamins straight into your systemic circulation will help you “detox” or “rejunevate”.
Second, how turmeric acid that have been bounced by some “health/food gurus” as superfood (move on kale and quinoa, you are so 2015!) quickly moved on as therapeutics without even having the right science to back it up (until now only preclinical studies done in cells grown on Petri dishes and in rodents), with the glittery “cures-it-all” sticker all over it.
You see, turmeric acid is way far from being the next wonder drug as sold by woo peddlers. Why? Lets see some of its features (https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/curcumin#section=Top).
First thing, turmeric acid has a problem. A huge problem. This problem is solubility. It has a calculated xLogP of 3.2, this is already telling us this compounds is lipophilic (likes fat). It will dissolve well in oil, but not well in water (less than 0.1mg/mL according to Santa Cruz Biotechnology data sheet). If you try to go beyond that value, you will have a saturated solution with turmeric acid precipitates. These precipitates can have serious effect if injected into an IV line, if these particles are big enough to clog some capillaries.
You can circumvent things around by tweaking nanoparticles carriers. Still, even from food intake, turmeric has a very low bioavailability. From 100g of pure turmeric acid swallowed, only 1g will effectively reach the circulation and circulate through your body.
The second problem with turmeric is its pharmacokinetic profile. According to the reference cited by the FDA report, turmeric is highly unstable at physiological pH (7.4). According to this review, the elimination half-life (t1/2) for turmeric is very low (1.7+/-0.5h). By 6 hours, most of the turmeric injected via IV route will be gone. Therefore, if turmeric was considering for therapeutic, it would require multiple dosing that are either ridiculous (Dosing interval of about ~2 hours, therefore swallowing a pill every two hours) or being on a constant IV infusion (that is not realistic for everyday life).
Third problem with turmeric? Its pharmacological activity. Two important parameters have to be accounted for a drug candidate: its selectivity (does the drug targets one or several proteins?) and IC50 (what is the concentration needed to achieve 50% inhibition).
The problem with turmeric is that it is considered as a “dirty” molecule because it hits a bit of everything, with many signaling pathways affected by it. The second problem is its very high IC50. Anti-cancerous activity of turmeric swings around 10microM in various cancer cell lines in a Petri dish and have other targets at higher doses. This is not a horrible value, not a good value either. Usually we want to reach an IC50 in the nanoM range (10’000 less concentration than 10µM). Thats not the case for turmeric. Maybe by tweaking the chemical structure we may improve its IC50, but since the compound itself has so many targets trying to optimize it for therapeutic purposes maybe simply a waste of time.
If we stick to the 10µM concentration and an average molecular weight of 328g.mol-1 for turmeric, we need a concentration of 3mg/L or (0.003mg/mL) to expect some biological activity. Now the problems come in with the FDA report. There are two reported cases of adverse events, including the fatal cases. In both cases, patient had an IV line of turmeric acid. In both cases, both patients were mentioned an IV infusion of turmeric acid at 10mg/mL. First, this concentration would have made no sense. It is 300 times higher than the hypothetical dose needed to achieve a biological activity in vivo. Second, the final concentration in the IV bag was much less than this concentration, as the FDA reported only 1% of the prescribed concentration was found in the IV bag (0.00235mg/mL).
Someone has been not only been deceiving their customers by selling you less product than advertised (1% net content is honestly a huge rip-off) but also had absolutely no clues on what they were injecting. So we can blame two actors: either the compounding company that prepared the turmeric or the holistic clinic (I guess you can point who is the crook in the story).
Both cases involved ImprimisRX, a compounding pharmacy. These are laboratories under the responsibility of a pharmacist holding a specialization in compounding. He or she has to follow established rules and protocols, adhere to good manufacturing procedures in compliance with the FDA. It seems there is no wrongdoing from the compounding. The compounding produced an emulsified form of turmeric (to increase its solubility). Yet, the final concentration in the vial was about 0.205mg/mL or about 2% of the amount put on the label. Since turmeric is highly unstable under aqueous solution (even in its emulsified form) we cannot exclude a degradation of the product from the time it got compounded to the time it was administered. In aqueous protein-free solution, 90% of turmeric acid is degraded within 30 minutes (https://www.fda.gov/downloads/AdvisoryCommittees/CommitteesMeetingMaterials/Drugs/PharmacyCompoundingAdvisoryCommittee/UCM466380.pdf).
Now comes an another problem: was there any deception between ImprimisRX and the holistic clinic? One of the reason is the use of polyethylene glycol 40 (PEG40) castor oil in the compounding process. PEG40 may contain traces of diethylene glycol (DEG), a very well known toxic compound if ingested, with a toxicity of about 1mg/kg. DEG is a byproduct of PEG production, therefore the FDA has different quality grades of PEG whether it is destined for non-medical usage or for human consumption. DEG was found at a concentration of 0.21% (0.21g pure DEG in 100g of PEG40). The PEG40 used for the compounding was 1.25% with the clear label “CAUTION: For manufacturing or laboratory use only.” Why the compounding pharmacy used that ungraded PEG40? We don’t know yet.
PEG40 oils are used for cosmetics and considered safe for cosmetics usage  because the bioavailability of this compound is small and suited for topical application (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4505343/). But you have to remember that a product that is considered safe in an administration mode is not in another administration route. This is probably explaining the adverse effect observed.
The second possible issues is a possible allergic reaction to PEG40, as the FDA cited previous reports of allergic reactions of patients exposed to PEG formulations following IV infusion of anti-cancerous agents.
By now, your enthusiasm for cur turmeric should (rightly) wind down. Turmeric is certainly great for spicing your food, not much for your health. But most of all, don’t let a “holistic clinic” perform any type of IV infusion.
IV infusion is a very delicate procedure, used for restricted applications (chemotherapy, anesthesia, infectious disease……) by a trained personnel in a medical environment (hospital or medical clinic).

[Sciences/Junk Sciences] How the recent AHA recommendation on coconut oil is making many getting nuts (and why coconut oil is not an healthy choice)!

Coconut oil. Coconut oil. Yep, that same coconut oil that (almost) nobody knew about a couple of years ago and suddenly became the next big thing in fad diets. Some claimed it is healthier than vegetable oil (http://pilatesnutritionist.com/why-coconut-oil-is-better-than-vegetable-oil/; which turned out is not true), other claimed it can help you loose weight (https://authoritynutrition.com/coconut-oil-and-weight-loss/; that is also hard to imagine how to loose fat by keeping an high-fat diet) or even use it as a natural sunscreen (http://thecoconutmama.com/coconut-oil-sunscreen/; which of course will more likely help you roast like a rotisserie chicken).
You see the fad went a bit crazy with the habitual “wellness” bloggers making miraculous claim. The fact is coconut oil is no better than any oil and indeed maybe as bad as any saturated fats.
The only thing that I would say coconut oil is good, is giving you some tasty and crunchy fries that are not too greasy. Any French household know the “Vegetaline” brand (basically solid coconut oil that you mix with half sunflower oil to get a frying oil).

What is (in terms of chemical composition) coconut oil?

Coconut oil is extracted from the inner side of the coconut. It is also called copra oil. Some coconut oil are referred as “organic coconut oil” and even some referring as GMO-free coconut oil (you know the GMO-free project sticker that have no sense except operating as a form of racketeering? There are been never any GM-coconuts that hit the market. http://www.zebraorganics.com/organic-virgin-raw-coconut-oil-1-gallon-tub-zebra-organics.html?gclid=Cj0KEQjwyZjKBRDu–WG9ayT_ZEBEiQApZBFuK3KbEfSPhyNyx9z9eNUIwAmd6OwcxTWJUYKADA_fhEaAnvd8P8HAQ). Therefore, we consider all coconut oil equals (maybe slight variations between cultivars but this should not affect much the overall composition to be considered significant).

Before we discuss about the composition of coconut oil, it is important to know what a fatty acid is. Fatty acids (FA) are hydrocarbon chains (made of carbons and hydrogens) that are very similar to molecules belonging to alkanes (these are the molecules such as propane, butane and octane that are present in your propane gas tank right now fueling your grill, fueling your gas stove or fueling your SUV).
In contrast to alkanes, FA have a carboxyl (-COOH) “head” denominated and seen below:

We have two type of FA: saturated FAs (fully loaded with hydrogens) and unsaturated FAs (that have one or several C=C double bounds). Saturated FAs are usually found in fat products from animal origin (lard, butter, ghee…) whereas unsaturated FAs are usually found in plants (olive, rapseed/canola, corn, sunflower…) and in fish and seafood (usually polyunsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs aka omega- fatty acids). Unsaturated FAs either show a cis-form (like the oleic acid depicted, in which the two carbon branches are in the same side) or a trans-form (in which the two pieces of the carbon branches are opposing each other). Trans unsaturated FAs (aka trans-fats) have been already a bad rep because of their detrimental effects on the cardiovascular system (they are suspected to increase LDL levels which are known to contribute in the atherosclerotic plaques formation). Saturated FAs are also having a bad rep because they are also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, whereas unsaturated FAs (commonly found in “the Mediterranean diet”) are considered healthier.
FAs composition are usually denominated as the following: Cn:m with n referring to the number of carbons (usually an even number), m referring to the number of C=C. In our cases, stearic and oleic acid share the same number of carbon (C18) but the former has no C=C bounds (C18:0) and the latter has a C=C bound (C18:1).
Based on this table, you can see how coconut oil fares to other oils (https://www.chempro.in/fattyacid.htm)
It contains 90% of saturated FAs and 10% unsaturated FAs, whereas most of other oils commonly used in Western countries have at least 50% or more of unsaturated FAs. To give you an idea lard, tallow (beef) and butter contains 40%, 37% and 41% respectively.  You can see how coconut oil is exploding the chart.

But, but this is coming from one study and science has been wrong all the time

If you stick to mainstream media, you will get this impression right. News outlets like to sell single studies as sold and irrefutable evidence and often oversell the claims of that study. Science is never settled, especially on a single study. Many things can go wrong that result in bias. Sometimes, scientists even cut the corners and publish fraudulent data to support their claims (thats what you see a lot with anti-vaccines, anti-GMO papers, climate-deniers, creationism……).
Science build a consensus on the amount of publications and their robustness in their experimental design. When you have an overwhelming majority of papers show you a same trend, arrive to same conclusion on a phenomenon using different approaches and different observations by different groups, you reach a conclusion and set a consensus.
A consensus is only broken once you have new studies that refute the existing claims with more robust and more precise data than the existing literature. This happens very rarely as you have to being in a weight of evidence bigger than the existing literature.

The science on FAs and their effect on cardiovascular diseases is not new, this have been known for over 50 years and keep refining. This consensus built on the detrimental effects of high-fat diet is well-known and served to establish guidelines and public health recommendations. The American Heart Association, the leading association worldwide gathering both basic and clinical scientists as well as any healthcare actors establish guidelines.

The AHA has a clear statement, visible here:
Replacing saturated fats may help to reduce your risk of cardiovascular events, in addition to an healthy (balanced) diet and physical activity.

The study that made the uproar is available here and comes from the scientific board of the AHA. You can download it for free and you can see another fat composition of different oils:

As you can see, coconut oil tops the list of saturated oils and fats, followed by butter and lard. Saturated fats consumption are clearly associated with increased risk of coronary heart diseases (CHD, aka heart attack), replacement with unsaturated fats reduce such risks. Replacement with PUFAs appears even more beneficial. Such effects is not limited to CHDs, but appears involved in other diseases as well (see Figure 4).

In conclusion, dont ditch your coconut oil yet. As small amount, coconut oil is fine. What is not fine was the fad diet that was basically pushing you to switch everything to coconut oil. In my personal opinion, I would say that butter (real unsalted butter like the French “President”, Irish “Kerrygold” or Danish “Lupak” butters; not the things called margarines that were at the basis of the trans-fat problem),  was even a better alternative  than coconut oil.

In conclusion, keep your peanut oil for your deep-frying cooking, keep your canola oil for your dressings and use olive oil for cooking instead of lard and coconut oil. If the taste of coconut oil is good, just add the minimal amount needed to taste.


[Sciences/Junk Sciences] Essential Oils: The good, the bad and the ugly science behind some claims

Essential Oils (EOs for simplicity). These little bottles are almost everywhere. Advertised as “natural”, “pure”. Some even are trying to sell them as the next big fad. as the next “miracle cures all” remedy.

Everybody swears by EOs, giving them some curative properties despite the lack of evidence backing such claims. Their therapeutic activity is far from being demonstrated, but their ability to siphon wallets and fill bank accounts of those selling them is as efficient as  the Bernouilli’s principle.

The problem with EOs is to sort the good, the bad and the ugly science behind them.

@MommyPhD recently pointed this out in a nice chart taken from a company making a living on EO.

What I can tell, as the pharmacologist that I am, I was not only perplexed but mind-blown by this chart. It was not a nice mind-blowing effect. It was more like a trigger that turned into a “ballistic mode”.

Just see by yourself the chart below:


What is wrong? Well, all the claims from the original infographic (left) are wrong! It just simply no sense if you have any basic in pharmacokinetics. Its time for the BBB scientist to deflect such woo with some science deflector shields.

First, in order to understand EOs, you have to understand their origin. To understand their origins, you have to have some basic understanding of pharmacognosy.

Pharmacognosy and EOs:

Pharmacognosy is the science that studies the chemical and biological properties of substances produced by plants and fungi. They are seasoned experts in botany, plant biology and analytical chemistry. Their main interest is to extract chemicals from different part of the plant (stem, sap, roots, leaves, flowers, fruit….), identify the substances present in such extract and identify their possible biological properties (this is often linked with ethnopharmacology, in which scientists are trying to identify the potential of some medicinal plants with their use from healers and shamans).

Plants and fungi synthesize two major classes of molecules: those involved in the primary metabolism and those involved in secondary metabolism.

Primary metabolism mostly aimed to ensure growth plant and reproduction. You can consider it as the core chemical plant. These are chemicals important for the plant function.

The second metabolism is on its own very interesting. At first, these compounds have no role in plant growth and therefore may appear useless. Indeed compounds produced from secondary metabolism are very important for the plant because these are essential for its survival. Plants evolved to have limited mobility and therefore are easy target for predators. But what plants traded out for limited mobility have indeed traded in one of the most sophisticated chemical warfare. Plants have evolutionary developed one of the most advanced and versatile chemical warfare aimed to control and deter any dangerous entities that may compete for limited resources (water, minerals, oxygen, light, CO2…).

Here are some examples of chemicals synthesized by plants secondary metabolism: Caffeine, atropine, cocaine, morphine, tetrahydrocannabinol, strychnine, nicotine, digoxin, ouabain, terpenes, cyanide, colchicine, vinblastine, paclitaxel, acetylsalicylic acid, phalloidin, forskolin, turmeric acid…….these are all products from the secondary metabolism. Many of them sounds like “poisons” and they are rightly called poisons because they can kill you at the right dose. But if you use these compounds at the right dose, these compounds can also be used to treat cancer, heart failure, glaucoma……..considering the dose makes the poison.

EOs are a particular class of chemicals, because they harbor particular chemical features. They are volatile (they belong to the superclass of volatile organic compounds or VOCs), lipophilic (soluble in fat and oils) and are odorant (this is why we can smell them). They are also capable of some biological activity.

These EOs have to be extracted from the plants via the use of organic solvent. One of the most common solvent is ethyl alcohol or ethanol (CH2OH), that is convenient organic solvent. Ethanol can help dissolve both lipophilic and hydrophilic substances. It is also has a low evaporation temperature (78ºC), allowing it to dissipate fast once on skin contact.
Another property of these compounds contained in EOs is their ability to become volatile. We can refer these compounds as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This is why we use them as fragrance. Because they are volatile, these compounds are spread in the air and can be caught by our olfactory receptor neurons (ORNs), making what we refer a smell a smell. Smells are very powerful stimuli, even for humans. This is why we are all fond of “eau de toilette”, “eau de parfum” and all these molecular cues that can turn our reptilian brain upside-down.

EOs are very diverse by their origin and their composition. For the simplicity of this article, I will focus on the major source of EOs by their production: Citrus sirensis (sweet orange) and Mentha arvensis (mint) EOs. These are the two most prevalent sources of EOs worldwide.

Two studies that I have found listed the EO composition from these two plants.  C. sirens is  has about 50 different compounds identified, mostly classified as terpenes. M. arvensis  have about 30-40 compounds including terpenes and other organic compounds (http://www.ifrj.upm.edu.my/18%20(04)%202011/(10)IFRJ-2011-062.pdf and http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

EO composition vary between cultivars, between crops, between extraction procedures. …..It means that EO by nature are anything but “pure”. EOs are therefore impure because you have a mixture of different compounds at different concentrations. It also means  that such EOs are setting the perfect storm for some drug interactions and some toxicity due to photo activation (some terpenes like limonene are know to become phototoxic following exposure to light)  or induction of an allergic reaction.

Pharmacokinetics and EOs:

In this second part, we will refute the claim brought about the penetration and tissue targeting mentioned in the infographic. The infographic have it wrong at so many different levels but two are striking: firstly, the sequence of events followed the extent of these events.

In order to understand the rebuttal, we have to understand some basic aspect of pharmacokinetics (PK). PK is the science that will tell you the fate of a chemical in your body. It will tell you how it is absorbed, how much reach the bloodstream and the tissue, how it gets detoxified and finally how it gets eliminated.
PK focuses on the fate of drugs inside our body, whereas toxicokinetics (TK) focuses on the fate of poisons and toxins inside our body.

Both follow the ADME acronym: Absorption (tegumentary/skin, intestinal/gut….), Distribution (bloodstream, tissues and brain), Metabolism (“detoxification” via chemical transformation and inactivation by the liver) and Elimination (via the liver and kidneys).

This is where the infographic has it completely wrong. It makesthe assumption that the EOs enter the brain, then the bloodstream and finally cells is just what I call “bullshit” and simply a reflection of a sheer ignorance of human anatomy and physiology. I dragged a small sketch to described the EOs ADME profile.

EssentialOilFirst, EOs have to pass the skin (or gut) barrier and diffuse all the way through the bloodstream. This operate through a passive gradient that result in the progressive loss of EOs compounds during the diffusion (depicted by the yellow arrow) into the bloodstream. This phenomenon is called “bioavailability” and investigate how much of a compound can reach the bloodstream following an administration route that is not obtained via direct injection into the bloodstream (intravenous or intra-arterial).

At the end of the day, this is the appropriate order of sequence: skin->bloodstream->brain (if you are lucky enough).

The amount of compounds contained in the EOs reaching the blood circulation remains unclear and poorly understood. But we can use some analogies with known chemicals. We will discuss the case of hydrocortisone (a topical steroid) and nicotine (a known compound capable to cross the BBB and act on the central nervous system).

Hydrocortisone is commonly used by practitioners to treat skin rashes and other irritations with a cream. The good thing about it is that such cream act topically. A thesis has documented previous studies that estimate about less than 5% of the amount of hydrocortisone applied to the skin was able to get a full ride into the kidneys (https://www.unispital-basel.ch/fileadmin/unispitalbaselch/Bereiche/Querschnittsfunktionen/Spital-Pharmazie/Diss_Pellanda.pdf). It is also telling you that a topical administration is probably not the best option for administration of a drug.

Now, there are other cases of topical administration that result in brain delivery. This is the case for nicotine and nicotine patches. These delivery systems are good in giving a good bioavailability, but yet these compounds will take some time to reach the brain. Considering the tmax (time by which a compound reaches a maximum plasma concentration), such delivery systems can only deliver nicotine with a tmax of 5-6 hours following patch application (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1364642/?page=4). You can understand that the probability of compounds contained in EOs to reach the brain within 30 seconds is impossible, unless you perforate the skull and perform an “intraventricular injection”. This is a very invasive procedure requiring a brain perforation and the insertion of a canule deep inside the brain.

Now we can argue that some drugs can reach the brain within minutes following injection. This is true for anesthetics like propofol. However propofol administration route and chemical properties are very different from EOs: they are injected via IV infusion and propofol penetration across the blood-brain barrier (BBB) is known and documented. Yet, it still takes about 4 mins for a IV infusion of propofol to achieve tmax , making the alleged claims of 22 seconds in the infographic completely bogus (https://www.fda.gov/ohrms/dockets/ac/08/briefing/2008-4354b1-01-FDA.pdf).

Even if your compounds can diffuse the skin barrier at the speed of light (100% absorption and bioavailibity) and have no metabolism (0% loss in EO compounds), you still have to demonstrate that such compounds can cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The BBB  blocks about 95% of chemical compounds known by humans. Therefore it is very unlikely that all these EO compounds magically fall within the 5% range.

In addition, analyzing the fate of every single chemical compound present in one EO can be an analytical nightmare even for the most seasoned analytical chemist. @SciBabe can explain you that in more details.

In conclusion, the ability of EOs to exert their biological activity beyond their skin application is simply “dead in water” and subsequently the claims posted in the infographic.

EOs and their “therapeutic claims”: the FDA warning letters
EOs may smell good but they have no scientific basis to support their claims of therapeutic use as depicted on their website. This is why the FDA has decided to enforce its authority via warning letters to two companies.

In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent two warning letters to Young Living (https://www.fda.gov/iceci/enforcementactions/warningletters/2014/ucm416023.htm) and DoTerra (https://www.fda.gov/iceci/enforcementactions/warningletters/2014/ucm415809.htm) noticing them of the violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act by advertising therapeutic claims that have not been asserted. Unless you file an application in which you document with a great care the safety and the efficacy of a therapeutic agent, you have no rights to make a claim that compound X will prevent or cure cancer or other illnesses. What was true for these two companies also applies for any companies selling EOs.

Do not use EOs to treat or cure any illnesses because their therapeutic activity have not been proven by scientific methods. Worse, if misused these EOs can become dangerous poisons if swallowed  (http://www.poison.org/articles/2014-jun/essential-oils). You have been warned.

In conclusion,  EOs make great scents and fragrances to make your house smell nicely. But that should be their only application. Use them as personal fragrances with extreme precautions and avoid their swallowing and use as medicines.