Flash in the Pan 

Celiac science

Stephanie Seneff is a senior research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Based in the university's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, 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, Seneff has posited explanations for a host of disorders, and drawn heated objections from experts in most every field she's delved into. In short, she's controversial.

In recent months, Seneff co-authored two papers proposing a connection between the herbicide glyphosate and gluten sensitivity. Like her other work, this idea generated a lot of discussion. I recently spoke with Seneff about her hypothesis and her reputation in the scientific community.

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

Stephanie Seneff: What we argued is that glyphosate binds to the gluten. Gluten usually forms cross-mesh connections between different amino acids, and glyphosate would disrupt that because it would prevent the cross-mesh by binding to the gluten and causing the gluten to stay in the form that is known to be more allergenic. So we believe glyphosate causes the gluten to assume the form that is more allergenic.

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

SS: Gluten sensitivity by itself doesn't necessarily have the transglutaminase immunogenicity of celiac. It 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 this particular condition of gluten sensitivity, which is what's so fascinating to me. All of these risk factors that co-occur with celiac disease could be explained through other ways that glyphosate disrupts physiology. That's the most fascinating thing to me, is that 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.

Your paper discusses the reason that glyphosate is being sprayed onto wheat. Could you explain this practice?

SS: Glyphosate is being sprayed on wheat right before the harvest. This has become a more and more popular practice among farmers. We found specific data in the UK showing a dramatic increase in the practice of spraying the wheat with glyphosate right before the harvest. This is three or four days before they harvest the seed. You can't imagine that 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 Roundup ready. They probably don't want it to be Roundup ready because then they couldn't do this anymore. This is a very convenient practice. It reduces the effort involved in the combine when you're harvesting the wheat.

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If glyphosate were causing these problems, wouldn't we expect to see higher incidence of these diseases that are supposedly caused by glyphosate?

SS: 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 right before the harvest, just as wheat is. These workers are 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.

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."

SS: 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 battle.

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

SS: 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.

Is there anything you think you may have gotten wrong?

SS: 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 straitjacketed 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 it's 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. 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.

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