Meet the Controversial MIT Scientist Who Claims She Discovered a Cause of Gluten Intolerance
Stephanie Seneff is a senior research scientist at MIT. 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,” meaning a poseur at the business of science, and a practitioner of pseudoscience.
Since she began publishing papers on biology, in journals considered fringe by the mainstream scientific establishment, Seneff has posited explanations for a host of disorders, and drawn heated objections from experts in most every field she’s delved into. She is, in short, a controversial figure in the scientific community, which is an unusual position to occupy for someone with three degrees from MIT.
In recent months, Seneff co-authored two papers proposing a connection between the herbicide glyphosate and gluten sensitivity. I spoke with Seneff by phone about this hypothesis, her transition from computer science into biology, and her reputation in the scientific community.
Ari LeVaux: How is it that, in your opinion, glyphosate causes gluten sensitivity?
Stephanie Seneff: What we argued in the paper is that glyphosate binds to the gluten. Gluten usually forms cross-mesh connections between different amino acids, and glyphosate would 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.
ALV: 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.
People who have Celiac disease have increased risk for other things; for example, non-hodgkins lymphoma, and they die earlier because of these other risks. They also have fertility problems, they are more likely to produce children with birth defects, and are more likely to have depression and serotonin problems. All of these things that are connected to Celiac disease, but also exist independently from Celiac disease, are also caused, in our opinion, by glyphosate.
ALV: 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 Round-Up ready. They probably don’t want it to be Round-Up ready because then they couldn’t do this anymore. This is a very convenient practice. It reduces the effort involved in the combine when you’re harvesting the wheat.
ALV: 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. Sri Lanka and El Salvador have both within the last year decided to ban glyphosate usage on their farms because of what they’ve seen happening to these agricultural workers.
ALV: You began your career at MIT in artificial intelligence. How and why did you transition to biology and toxicology?
SS: I’m a computer scientist. I do natural language processing. I’ve done that for many years, we’ve built dialog systems that allow people to interact with information on the web through natural language, and I’ve transitioned to applications in biology over the past six or seven years. I’ve published now over a dozen papers in that space. Part of what we do is analyzing drug side-effects and then providing an interface that can allow people to find out if other people have experienced similar symptoms in responding to certain drugs that they’re taking.
Recently what I’ve gotten really interested in is processing the literature. So if you take the research literature on some topic, for example glyphosate, you can let the computer use NLP [Natural Language Processing] to help you organize the information that’s in the articles, and help you figure out the story. I think it’s a very powerful method for helping a biologist understand the biology, biochemistry and medical literature, and interpret it.
ALV: Does MIT support you in your biology research?
SS: I have been gradually transitioning more and more toward doing biology. So far MIT has been supportive and has continued to fund this work.
ALV: Do you have a biology lab?
SS: No. It’s all computer science. It’s all synthesis. So basically what I do is I read papers and I process them with the computer to help me understand them and interpret them and generalize and build a story. So it’s really a matter of studying. Mostly what I do now is study, and then write. Trying to understand biology. I have an undergraduate degree from MIT in biology, and I also spent one year in graduate school in biology before switching over to computer science. And my PhD was on an auditory model for the human processing of speech. So that also involved biology, neurology. I’m not a complete ignoramus in the field of biology.
ALV: If you had a lab, what experimental research would you do to test your theory on glyphosate and Celiac disease?
SS: Take people with Celiac disease and put them on an organic diet. Or take people with inflammatory bowel disease, because that’s sort of related—in fact, a paper was just published where they put people with inflammatory bowel disease on an organic wheat diet. This wheat was an ancient heirloom wheat.
The theory in this paper is that it’s the new forms of wheat that are causing inflammatory bowel disease, because the wheat itself has evolved. We’ve been genetically modifying wheat, through the traditional evolutionary process that we’ve used in the past. Not the GMO but other ways of manipulating the genes. So wheat today is not the same as the original ancient wheat.
With this paper they weren’t thinking about glyphosate, but I suspect that what they ended up doing was show that glyphosate is causing the inflammatory bowel disease because they used organic ancient wheat compared to non-organic modern wheat.
You’d have to measure the glyphosate in the food, obviously, to see if it was there. And you could do some kind of controlled dietary experiment on humans. Or you could do something like that on rats, too, where you could be less ethical, I suppose.
ALV: 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.
ALV: Is there anything, looking back on your career in biology, that 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 is extremely poorly understood. I have my own theories about it, and I would say that it’s actually a cholesterol sulfate deficiency problem, which is of course a very radical point of view. Cholesterol sulfate deficiency. And in fact the build-up, the excess of cholesterol you see in the blood is a direct response to that deficiency in cholesterol sulfate, and the heart actually needs more cholesterol, not less, and the LDL builds up because it gets gummed up with sugar and it can’t deliver its goods. If you’ve got mailmen that are really slow you’ve got to have more of them or the mail won’t be delivered.
ALV: You’ve been called an "anti-vaxxer" for your views on autism. Do you believe that vaccines cause autism?
SS: I took on the task of trying to figure out autism six or seven years ago because I got concerned about the rising incidence of autism in our country, which I think is very disturbing. It’s risen alarmingly since then. Now it’s one in 50, which is the latest number, which is very frightening to me. So I was looking at all of the environmental toxins, because there has to be an environmental factor, or a combination of environmental factors.
Aluminum is one that I picked up on quite early. Because aluminum is very toxic, and many of the vaccines contain aluminum. And it’s injected directly in, past all the barriers.
Ordinarily the body is quite good about keeping aluminum out. The gut will absorb very little of what’s in the diet...assuming you have a healthy gut. Glyphosate produces a leaky gut, and that’s going to help the aluminum get in. What I believe now is that the aluminum in the vaccine is far more toxic as a consequence of the glyphosate that’s also in the blood. The two of them are synergistic, because the glyphosate forms a cage around the aluminum and keeps it from getting expelled. The aluminum ends up accumulating, getting trapped with the glyphosate, and then the aluminum ends up in the pineal gland, and messes up sleep, and causes a whole cascade of problems in the brain. The glyphosate and aluminum are working together to be much more toxic than they would be, acting alone.
So yes, I do believe that aluminum in vaccines is a contributing factor in autism.
ALV: How does glyphosate create this cage around aluminum?
SS: Glyphosate cages all kinds of things. One of the things it does in the gut that’s bad is it cages all the minerals, like iron and manganese and even sulfur, so it prevents the gut bacteria from gaining access to really important micronutrients, even things like molybdenum which we only need in small amounts, but if there isn’t any we’re in trouble, because certain enzymes critically depend on these minerals. Glyphosate builds a cage around them and it builds a cage around aluminum as well. There’s a nice paper on that with beautiful pictures of glyphosate caging aluminum.
ALV: 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.