Back in September, I merrily applied a little not-so-Respectful Insolence to the service of deconstructing the overwhelmingly silly fear mongering by a group known as SANE Vax over the alleged discovery of HPV DNA in the HPV vaccine. SANE Vax, as you may recall, is a group founded by a woman named Norma Erickson dedicated to spreading misinformation about the HPV vaccine. If you peruse the SANE Vax website, you’ll see that the common antivaccine tropes are all there; they’re just directed mainly at the HPV vaccine. The hysterial fear mongering over the alleged discovery of DNA fragments of HPV in Gardasil was, as I described, massively overblown. The full explanation is in my post from September. The CliffsNotes version follows.
Basically, a pathologist by the name of Dr. Sin Hang Lee, who appears to have drunk at least a little of the antivaccine Kool-Aid, was hired by SANE Vax to test Gardasil for the presence of HPV DNA. Dr. Lee apparently made his name by developing exceedingly sensitive nested PCR assays to detect various DNA sequences. It was impossible to tell if his methods were valid, if Dr. Lee controlled adequately for the potential of false positives (which increase rapidly with the sensitivity of a test), and if his analysis was convincing because in September he had not published his results in the peer-reviewed literature. A quick search of PubMed the other day failed to find any publications on the topic since September.
In any case, even if Dr. Lee’s analysis was correct and his new, allegedly more sensitive methodology had picked up previously undetected traces of HPV DNA from the plasmids used to make the HPV vaccine, it is still incredibly unlikely that such tiny amounts of DNA could cause problems because, as I explained, it’s incredibly difficult to get naked DNA into cells and making the proteins it normally makes, and, even if Dr. Lee were 100% correct about there being undetected HPV DNA in Gardasil, the quantities involved are many orders of magnitude less than what would be needed to have even a whiff of a wisp of a hope of the DNA getting into cells and making its protein. That’s even assuming it could pass the blood-brain barrier or that the DNA fragments were large enough to contain whole coding regions of genes with a proper promoter in front of them to drive their expression. Ultimately, Dr. Lee’s pursuit of pseudoscience apparently got him into a bit of trouble with the new chairman of the Department of Pathology at Milford Hospital, which is where Dr. Lee worked. Correction: Where he used to work. Basically, he was canned.
Even more basically, the fear mongering about the potential for minute quantities of HPV DNA being in Gardasil was nonsensical and not based on science.
On some level, I rather suspect that even Dr. Lee, Norma Erickson, and Leslie Carol Botha, host of a radio show known as Holy Hormones and, judging by her prominent association with SANE Vax, apparently also a die-hard antivaccinationist, have some inkling how utterly implausible their fear mongering about HPV DNA fragments in Gardasil was. The reason I suspect this is that they’ve latched on to Dr. Hanan Polansky and his “microcompetition” idea as a means of salvaging their fear of the evil HPV DNA that’s supposedly in Gardasil, waiting to make your little girls sick.
With the Oil of Aphrodite and the Dust of the Grand Wazoo
Dr. Hanan Polansky’s apparent coming to the rescue of SANE Vax began two weeks ago, when his Center for the Biology of Chronic Disease issued a press release:
Dr. Hanan Polansky, Director of the Center for the Biology of Chronic Disease, will discuss his discovery of Microcompetition with Norma Erickson, President of SANE Vax Inc. Dr. Polansky will use Microcompetition to explain the biological mechanism underlying the Gardasil adverse events. Leslie Carol Botha will host the event on the Holy Hormones Radio Show. The show will be broadcast on the community radio station KRFC FM in Fort Collins, CO, Monday, February 6, from 6 to 7pm MST.
Dr. Hanan Polansky is the author of the highly acclaimed “Purple” book, entitled Microcompetition with Foreign DNA and the Origin of Chronic Disease. In his book he explains how foreign DNA fragments can cause many major diseases without damaging (mutating) the human DNA. The book has been read by more than 5,000 scientists around the world, and has been reviewed in more than 20 leading scientific journals.
I’ll get to Dr. Polansky’s radio interview and “purple book” a little later. In the meantime, let’s take a look at Dr. Polansky’s background and what he might mean by “microcompetition.” To do this, it doesn’t help to go to the medical literature. A quick search of PubMed this weekend for works by Dr. Polansky reveals only one publication in Acta Oncologica entitled Gene-Eden, a broad range, natural antiviral supplement, may shrink tumors and strengthen the immune system. Remember what I said about how low a bar it is to get a paper published somewhere in the peer-reviewed literature? Let’s just say that this paper is evidence of that. It’s a case report of the use of a supplement called Gene-Eden published as what appears to be a letter to the editor describing how Gene-Eden plus chemotherapy shrank a pancreatic cancer. (Obviously, it must have been the Gene-Eden that worked.) But what is Gene-Eden? According to the Gene-Eden website, Dr. Polansky’s Gene-Eden-VIR supplement contains “five natural ingredients” (Camellia Sinensis Extract, Quercetin, Licorice Extract, Cinnamomum Extract, and Selenium) identified thusly:
Gene-Eden-VIR the the first product of our Science-Based approach. To identify the Gene-Eden ingredients, the scientists at polyDNA used the scientific method developed by Dr. Hanan Polansky. We scanned the scientific literature, analyzed thousands of papers using our proprietary bioinformatics-based computer program, and identified the most effective and safe natural ingredients. Some of the laboratory and clinical studies, which were published in scientific journals, and show that these natural ingredients have a strong antiviral effect, are described here.
The studies listed are, as you might expect, a bunch of cell culture and animal studies. Amusingly, on the Gene-Eden website there is also a table boasting between 913 and 6,753 publications for each ingredient, depending on the specific ingredient. (Take that, skeptics!) There’s that, and, in addition to Dr. Polansky’s single publication listed in PubMed, lots of press releases, for instance about how Gene-Eden-VIR can treat cervical cancer, prevent swine flu, and treat a whole host of viruses.
In any case, besides apparently shrinking pancreatic cancer, according to Dr. Polansky his Gene-Eden supplement can also help insomnia (which Polansky attributes to “latent viruses”), chronic fatigue syndrome, and a host of other diseases. In fact, Polansky attributes many diseases to “latent viruses,” reminding me of how many supplement hawkers justify the ingredients in their supplements. They cherry pick the literature to find suggestive preclinical or correlative studies for each ingredient that might indicate usefulness for the purpose claimed, with nary a convincing clinical trial to justify the combination of ingredients used at the dose used, because, well, latent viruses cause every chronic health problem known to humans, apparently.
And the rationale for Gene-Eden is based on something that Dr. Polansky refers to as “microcompetition” or the “starved gene hypothesis.” This brings us to how Polansky’s ideas can serve the agenda of a crank organization like SANE Vax. But what is “microcompetition”?
Microcompetition? More like a microhypothesis!
Now here’s where things start to get all “sciencey.” A trip back to the website of Dr. Polansky’s Center for the Biology of Chronic Disease soon leads one to a link to his free book, Microcompetition with Foreign DNA and the Origin of Chronic Disease. It even has an ISBN and everything! But what about Dr. Polansky’s Center? Its address is listed on the website; so I did a bit of Google Maps fun. Even though it’s on a major road, the Center for the Biology of Chronic diseases sure looks as though it’s housed in a private residence to me. Shades of Mark and David Geier doing their antivaccine research in the basement of Mark Geier’s house as part of their “Institute for Chronic Illnesses” (which sounds eerily similar to the Center for the Biology of Chronic Disease)! How well I remember the Geiers’ basement lab, given that shortly after I started blogging for Seed, I came across an issue (back when Seed was actually published in dead tree form) with a credulous “brave maverick doctor” spin on the Geiers (part I and part II, thanks to the all powerful Wayback Machine), complete with pictures of Mark Geier’s basement laboratory, complete with a fume hood. Talk about embarrassment!
Still, just because Dr. Polansky isn’t affiliated with a university or research institute doesn’t necessarily mean his ideas aren’t worth considering. After all, Albert Einstein did some of his best work when he was still a patent clerk. True, Polansky’s selling of a dubious supplement and his apparent belief that latent viral infections are the cause of most chronic illnesses suggest he might be a few bases short of a full coding sequence, but let’s see what he says. Back to the press release about his appearance on Holy Hormones:
The FDA and Merck admit that Gardasil contains foreign DNA fragments. However, the FDA asserts that these foreign DNA fragments pose no risk. In contrast, Dr. Hanan Polansky, in his highly acclaimed “Purple” book explains how certain foreign DNA fragments, at high concentrations, cause major diseases, such as, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and even obesity even when the DNA is broken and not functioning.
Note: “…at high concentrations.” (Emphasis mine.) It’s half tempting to stop right here, point out that, even if there is a tiny amount of HPV DNA left in each Gardasil vaccine vial, it isn’t “at high concentrations” and couldn’t possibly get into any cell in the human body at high enough concentrations to induce microcompetition, thus making Dr. Polansky’s ideas about “microcompetition,” right or wrong, completely irrelevant to SANE Vax’s fear mongering, and leave it at that. However, by agreeing to be interviewed it was Dr. Polansky who voluntarily offered up his idea as tactical air support for the SANE Vax campaign of fear mongering about the HPV vaccine. Besides, you come to SBM for more than that; so more than that I will try to deliver. To do that, let’s head to the source:
Dr. Hanan Polansky discovered that fragments of DNA, called N-boxes, can be very dangerous. When foreign N-boxes enter the body (naturally, or artificially, like through an injection of some treatment), they end up in the nucleus, where they attract scarce genetic resources. It is interesting that many common dormant (latent) viruses have strong N-boxes in their DNA. They include the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), Cytomegalovirus (CMV), Herpes Simplex virus (HSV), Varicella Zoster virus (VZV), Hepatitis B Virus (HBV), Hepatitis C Virus (HCV), Human Papillomavirus (HPV), and others. In fact, the CMV virus has the strongest N-box known to science. This N-box is so strong that human genes cannot compete with its power to attract the scarce genetic resources.
Sometimes Dr. Polansky compares these fragments of DNA to magnets. Imagine introducing a powerful magnet into the nucleus. What will be the effect of this powerful magnet on the allocation of genetic resources in the nucleus? The weak human N-boxes have no chance. Poor human genes. Poor host.
In the nucleus, “microcompetition” between the foreign N-boxes and the human N-boxes in the human genes can lead to disease. When the foreign N-boxes belong to a virus, microcompetition between the viral DNA and the human DNA can lead to disease even when the virus is dormant (latent), or the viral DNA is broken into pieces and cannot express proteins. As predicted by Dr. Hanan Polansky, many studies found fragments of DNA that belong to these viruses in tumors, clogged arteries (arterial plaque), arthritic joints, and other diseased tissues.
What might come as a surprise to SBM readers is that this is not an entirely implausible hypothesis, at least for some viral infections. What makes it implausible is how Dr. Polansky links it to latent viral infections. Be that as it may, back in the day, way, way back when I used to do a lot of plasmid transfections, we knew about microcompetition, only we didn’t call it that. Plasmids, for those not familiar with them, are DNA circles in which scientists can place whatever genes they want under the control of whatever promoter (DNA sequences that control how much a gene is transcribed into RNA) they want. “Transfection” is a process by which scientists can introduce this foreign DNA into mammalian cells and thereby drive expression of an exogenous gene. For purposes of this discussion, it’s not really that important how the plasmid DNA gets into the cell, only that it gets into the cell.
In the cell, the transcriptional machinery is made up of a number of proteins, among which is a class of proteins known as transcription factors. Transcription factors bind to specific DNA sequences on promoters and activate the transcription of the gene into messenger RNA, which is then used as a template to make protein. The key concept to understand here is that the supply of transcription factors and their protein co-factors in the cell can be limited, which means that there are only so many binding sites that the cell can accommodate. It is possible to “sop up” all of the cell’s supply of a specific transcription factor (or set of transcription factors) by flooding the cell with short length oligonucleotides that contain the correct sequence of nucleotides to bind to the transcription factor. When this happens, the transcription factor supply is tied up and these transcription factors can’t activate transcription of the cell’s DNA. It’s all a matter of chemical equilibrium; if the amount of exogenous DNA binding sequence introduced into the cell is very large relative to the amount of endogenous DNA binding sequences in the genome and the sum total is much larger than what the cell’s transcriptional machinery can accommodate, the transcription of the cell’s genes controlled by that sequence will plummet. This concept is illustrated in a figure from a paper published 12 years ago (click to enlarge).
Note that in this figure a specific sequence of DNA is acting as a “decoy” to tie up the E2F transcription factor. This oligonucleotide decoy strategy is a strategy that’s been studied for at least a couple of decades for shutting down gene activity, with mixed results. It is, however, not a new idea. Nor is it a new idea that certain viruses can do exactly the same thing by flooding the cell with copies of themselves, including sequences that can “sop up” specific transcription factors. This appears to form the basis of Dr. Polansky’s “microcompetition” idea. Indeed, in his book, Dr. Polansky goes way back to the very beginnings of molecular biology and gene transcription assays and points out well-known observations that I was taught in graduate school 20 years ago showing how investigators using pSV2CAT in 1984 showed that two plasmids could compete with each other for the cell’s transcriptional machinery: “taken together, our data indicate that a limited amount of the cellular factors required for the function of the SV40 72-bp repeats is present in CV-1 cells. Increasing the number of functional SV40 enhancer elements successfully competes for these factors, whereas other elements necessary for stable transcription did not show such an effect” (quoted from Scholer et al, 1984). My PhD thesis advisor did studies of this type studying transcription in muscle in the late 1980s.
Right here I should admit that I didn’t read all–or even most–of Dr. Polansky’s book. It is, after all, 427 pages long, not counting indices and the list of references (the latter of which numbers well over 1,000, demonstrating that the number of references doesn’t necessarily correlate with the quality of the science). Much of it is also painfully tedious reading. I’ll do a lot of things for a blog post, but even I have my limits, and trying to slog through 427+ pages of snore-inducing prose prose about a mildly interesting but outdated idea is beyond my limits. That’s why I found this review of Dr. Polansky’s book rather useful, coupled with some careful “cherry picking” of chapters discussing topics about which I’m knowledgeable. Basically, Dr. Polansky zeros in on a DNA sequence known as an N-box, which is also known as the ETS binding site and has a motif that looks like this: (A/C)GGA(A/T)(G/A). This is the core binding sequence of a transcription factor known as GA-binding protein transcription factor (GABP), which is involved in the regulation of transcription of a lot of important genes that regulate important cellular processes. It turns out that some viruses, including the HPV virus, have N-box sequences. Dr. Polansky claims that these N-box sequences in latent viruses compete for GABP and cause disease.
There are, as you might imagine, a lot of problems with this concept, and that’s even before we get to discussing whether this concept has any relevency whatsoever to HPV and its vaccine. For one thing, latent viruses are by definition latent. That means that, although they might still be making some transcripts and proteins, they are not replicating. Remember, the concept of “microcompetition” means that the N-box DNA must be present in high concentrations in order to compete with the N-boxes in the cellular DNA. They aren’t. Yet Dr. Polansky seems to think that this N-box in some viruses has some sort of magical powers to attract all the transcription factors in the cell to them. He uses terms like “magnet” and in his interview with Leslie Carol Botha approves of Norma Erickson’s referring to them as “vampires.” In fact, he more than just approves of the term, he even says, “I love the word ‘vampire'; it adds a lot of flavor to it.” Erickson then carries the analogy one step beyond into the ether when she then refers to the cells as functioning like “zombies.”
He analogizes to sucking the nutrients out of cells (hence the “starved gene hypothesis.” In reality, even if it occurs in reality, microcompetition is nothing more than a chemical equilibrium. For “microcompetition” to be the cause of disease, these latent viruses would have to be churning out N-box sequence at prodigious levels, which latent viruses don’t do because, well, if they were replicating themselves they wouldn’t be latent anymore.
None of this stops Dr. Polansky from saying this about N-box sequences in his interview:
At the end of the five years, we had found something pretty amazing, that many of the major diseases originate from the same source, and the source is basically foreign fragments of DNA and specifically one segment of DNA that’s causing all the trouble. This fragment of DNA is called an N-box, that is basically operating as a magnet and competing with human genes for scarce genetic resources available in the nucleus. Once these foreign DNA fragments are found in the nucleus, then as they arrive in high concentrations [difficult to understand], a disease will start and we see all the symptoms that today are recognized for all these major diseases.
Erickson helpfully chimes in later that this is “starvation at a cellular level,” and Dr. Polansky agrees. If this guy can’t even understand the difference between transcription factors and nutrients, I have a hard time taking him seriously. Even as a metaphor, Polansky’s analogy fails. It gets worse than that, though. Later in the interview, Polansky goes on and on about how regular drugs are “synthesized from scratch” and biologicals (like vaccines) are not, but are rather made using plasmids and recombinant genetic technology. This leads Botha and Erickson to gasp in terror at “genetically modified” treatments. Scary! This is followed by an anti-pharma rant about how much money drug companies make selling…drugs! And they’re shocked–shocked, I say!–that Gardasil, being a vaccine, is classified as a “biological.” Run for the hills!
But how does all of this relate to HPV and Gardasil? I think you know. I’ve already alluded to it, but just for the heck of it, let’s take a look at what Dr. Polansky has to say:
In my book, these DNA fragments are dangerous. They are the cause potentially–it has to be investigated further. But potentially, they can be the source of all the adverse effects, side effects, or diseases that we see with the injection… after the the injection, with the woman being vaccinated.
After Botha expresses her gratitude at having “found” Dr. Polansky (the two deserve each other from where I stand), she rants a bit about how many girls are allegedly sick from Gardasil, regurgitating various antivaccine tropes. The discussion (such as it is) then continues and goes beyond Gardasil, with Dr. Polansky opining:
All the modern vaccines are basically sharing the same process and therefore all of them will have DNA or fragments of DNA that are being injected into the people getting the vaccines. Autism, for instance, was linked recently with the MMR and a lot of debate about it, meaning you can read opinions on this issue. I read somewhere recently that MMR was also discovered to have foreign DNA fragments in it. So that’s the way it’s being done. That’s the manufacturing process and the purification pricess. And the limits of the purification process result in DNA residuals in the vaccines. As I said, the dispute is not whether there are DNA fragments in the vaccine, because nobody will argue that. You go online, you check on Google, and you’ll see that the debate is whether these DNA fragments cause disease. And if you ask the maintream scientist or doctor or pharmaceutical officer whether these DNA fragments cause any harm, they’ll say no. My book argues otherwise. So in a way my book is flying in the face of the entire traditional mainstream biology.
Except that it’s not. As I’ve described before, microcompetition is not a new concept, nor is the concept that viruses can cause chronic diseases. All Dr. Polansky has done with respect to this is to repackage old ideas in a not particularly exciting way. Hilariously, even the die-hard antivaccine Australian Vera Schreiber stated this in the comments of one of the SANE Vax posts about Dr. Polansky. He’s also way behind the times when it comes to genomics and molecular biology in that he doesn’t even consider microRNAs as a mechanism that could explain some of the “anomalous” observations he describes in his book about BRCA1 and breast cancer linked to low BRCA1 in women without BRCA1 mutations.
In fact, as ERV describes, there are a lot of things that Dr. Polansky apparently doesn’t understand about virology and biology, among other things.
Now I understand where microcompetition came from!
Microcompetition as a concept has a modicum of plausibility in a limited fashion for some aspects of cellular behavior. It has not to my knowledge been directly linked to any specific diseases in the 9 years since Dr. Polansky first wrote his book. Certainly Dr. Polansky hasn’t published anything supporting his idea, nor has anyone else as far as I’ve been able to ascertain in my multiple searches of PubMed. As speculation, Dr. Polansky’s concepts are somewhat interesting, but he takes their potential implications far beyond what the evidence can support. Normally, this wouldn’t necessarily be such a horrible thing if it were done as an intellectual exercise. After all, I didn’t mind, for example, the speculative fiction that was Medical Hypotheses until it started providing a platform for quacks to give their ideas a patina of seeming scientific respectability, as it did for Mark and David Geier and their ideas that led to their use of chemical castration with Lupron as a treatment for autism. Besides, sometimes outlandish ideas actually go somewhere.
I consider it higly unlikely that Dr. Polansky’s idea will.
The reasons are numerous. First, his idea isn’t all that new, as much as he tries to labor to represent it as some radical new breakthrough. Yes, I know he’s managed to impress a few doctors and scientists, but that was eight years ago, back when his idea actually seemed mildly innovative. Science has moved on, particularly virology and genomics, the two most relevant scientific disciplines to Dr. Polansky’s ideas. Second, nine years after he proposed it, it hasn’t really gone anywhere. Neither Dr. Polansky himself nor any other scientist that I’ve been able to locate has published any reports linking the concept of microcompetition definitively to a human disease.
Worse, however, instead of doing research to determine whether his idea has experimental evidence to back it up and, more importantly, whether that experimental evidence can suggest strategies to use the concept of microcompetition to intervene in the pathophysiology of any disease, instead Dr. Polansky has devoted himself to selling a supplement that he made up by cherry picking some natural compounds for which he could find a bit of in vitro and animal data supporting antiviral effect and using them to make a supplement that he sells to treat “chronic viral infection.” There’s no clinically acceptable evidence that his supplement works in humans as advertised or that it impacts microcompetition in any way. Not only that, but he’s been warned by the FDA about at least one of his claims for his supplement.
Worst of all, though, now Dr. Polansky appears to have hitched his horse to the antivaccine movement. I don’t know who contacted whom first, SANE Vax or Dr. Polansky. It might have been either. Perhaps the brain trust at SANE Vax saw Dr. Polansky’s website and thought it a perfect way to slap a veneer of plausibility on their utterly ridiculous fear mongering about minuscule bits of DNA in the HPV vaccine, or maybe Dr. Polansky sought out SANE Vax because of their recent “revelation.” Who knows? Does it really matter? Either way, what we have is a crank organization teaming up with a crank to link their respective crank ideas in the service of spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt about vaccines. They’re two nasty crank ideas that taste cranky together.
There’s still one final question, though: Where did he get this idea? The answer to that question, my friends, is perhaps the silliest aspect of this entire sordid story. Although Dr. Polansky explains how he came up with his idea in his interview, it’s easier to go to another of Dr. Polansky’s websites for the skinny:
Wouldn’t you wish to have Einstein working on your medical problem? Imagine someone with his ability to choose the right direction to work on, his talent to recognize meaningful findings, his genius to leap from old concepts to new and more promising ideas. Think how much you would accomplish with Einstein on your team.
Einstein and other great scientists had one overwhelming talent, their superb intuition. This talent led them to discover pathways not charted on any map, and ensured that these pathways would become highways traveled by generations of scientists in their expeditions to uncover the secrets of nature.
We believe that the above proposition is not merely wishful thinking. Our sophisticated computer program, called Computer Intuition, was modeled to show the characteristics of genius intuition, and therefore, to turns us into “Einsteins.”
The basic premise of the Computer Intuition program is that every future event is preceded by hints, and that the key to realizing these events is recognizing the future significance of these hints.
In 1996, Dr. Hanan Polansky completed a prototype of a computer program that analyzes scientific text and assigns a rating to all ideas found in the text. The rating can be interpreted as intuitive intensity, (or psychological intensity, hence, psytensity). The higher the intuitive intensity, or psytensity, of an idea, the more it hints on future discoveries or future treatments. Dr. Polansky modeled the program after the intuition of the greatest minds in science such as Einstein, Newton, Edison and Tesla, and called it Computer Intuition.
Yes indeed, you read it right. Dr. Polansky wrote a “computer intuition program” and used it to scan the medical literature. In his interview with SANE Vax, he stated that he had used his computer program to scan 500,000 publications. This microcompetition idea is what he came up with. I kid you not. You’d think such a seemingly awesome algorithm could come up with something better, but apparently you’d be wrong. I think he needs to hire some decent coders.