Do genetically modified foods or glyphosate cause gluten allergies?

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The Internet is exploding with stories about the supposed dangerous link between one disease or another and genetically modified foods. One of the more intense debates revolves around what appears to be a recent surge in gluten allergies. Merely typing in “GMO and gluten” into Google yields more than 500,000 mentions, with most of those generated by various “green” and anti-GMO groups.

The claims can be traced to an obscure essay, “Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance,” published in 2014 in a Slovakian predatory ‘pay for play’ journal by two scientists—MIT computer researcher Stephanie Seneff and Anthony Samsel, who identifies himself as an “independent scientist and consultant”. Neither has any known expertise in genetics or toxicology. They speculated that trace exposures to the common herbicide glyphosate, which is used in conjunction with some GMOs, could account for what they claim is a rise in celiac disease and gluten intolerance.celiac-incidence-as-a-factor-of-glyphosate-application-to-wheat

The essay, which received no attention in the mainstream science community when it was first released, was then circulated far and wide in a press release issued by the Institute for Responsible Technology, a one-person NGO founded by Jeffrey Smith. Before becoming an anti-GMO activist, Smith studied business at Maharishi University of Management in Iowa, which bases its curriculum on transcendental meditation. He has developed an international following promoting two self-published books and multiple appearances on the Dr. Oz show criticizing crop biotechnology as dangerous.

Do GMOs or the herbicide glyphosate create gluten allergies, as these scientists and many green groups allege?

bread-gluten-food-warning-735-350To investigate these claims, it is necessary to understand the difference between gluten sensitivity and Celiac disease, and to determine whether there has been an increase in the incidence of these conditions. Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat and other grains. It helps dough rise and gives it that delicious chewy texture, and has been in our diet for over 10,000 years. Individuals who have autoimmune reactions to gluten have Celiac Disease, which is characterized by irritation in the small intestine. Over time, the condition leads to the loss of the lining of the gut and patients may lose the ability to absorb nutrients. There are both environmental and genetic factors that play a role in susceptibility to the disease.

There are two additional categories to gluten allergies: allergies to wheat, and the newly labeled “gluten sensitivity”. The former is what you might consider a “standard allergy”: skin reaction, wheezing, etc. The latter consists of cases in which there is neither an allergic nor an autoimmune reaction, but individuals experience “distress” when eating wheat and other grains. They might have some of the symptoms of celiac disease (such as bloatedness or diarrhea) and feel better when they cut gluten out of their diets. A key distinguishing characteristic is that their small intestine is usually normal. It’s difficult to diagnose because there’s no real immune response and it’s subject to a placebo effect. In addition, there’s a whole slew of symptoms for “gluten sensitivity” (also known as “non-celiac gluten sensitivity“), including eczema, headaches, fatigue, depression, anemia, joint pain etc.

The stats for Celiac disease seem to be scattered. Two decades ago, it was considered to be extremely rare in the United States (1:10000). But more recent studies, with more accurate methods of detection, place the incidence rate as high as 1:33 or 1:57. So, it seems like the increase in incidence may have to do with our methods for diagnosis and definition of the disease. Additionally, and as mentioned above, “gluten sensitivity” is a category that has only recently been added to the medical lingo. Its diagnosis is most accurately done through a “double-blind, placebo-controlled gluten challenge test“, which is not easy to do, so it’s possibly being over-diagnosed (and in many cases self-diagnosed). In a double-blind test, 68% of patients receiving gluten had clinical symptoms, versus 40% of those receiving the placebo.

A review last fall in Nature pointed out that our change in diet may also be a cause for the increase in gluten-related disorders. The authors note that the spread of the Mediterranean diet, increase in the amount of gluten used in the production of bread, mechanization of farming and overall increased use of wheat, may all be contributing to “gluten-related pathology”. A paper published in 2010 in Theoretical and Applied Genetics identified that the variety of wheat we use today has more gluten than varieties that were cultivated over 100 years ago. As such, traditional plant breeding may be a contributing factor to the increase in gluten-related sensitivities.

So now we get to the key question: do GMOs have anything to do with the “increase in gluten allergies”?

screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-8-34-01-pmDespite the sheer volume of hits on Google, a search in PubMed found zero studies linking the two. Anti-GMO campaigners postulate two primary hypotheses as to how GMOs cause gluten sensitivity. The first is that glyphosate may kill the healthy bacteria in the gut, leading to a bacterial imbalance. The second is that the Bt-toxin, found in Bt-resistant GM crop, punctures holes in human cells (in this case, the gut), leading to a leaky gut.

The Celiac Disease Foundation (CDF) challenged the hypotheses propagated by the Institute for Responsible Technology, stating that it was speculation. The scientists at CDF pointed out that patients with Celiac Disease or gluten-sensitivity feel better when they cut gluten out of their diets. If the cause of their sensitivity were GMOs or glyphosate, then they’d have to cut out a lot more than just gluten.

Cherry picking data

But in my mind, the greatest evidence that GMOs are not tied to gluten allergies is that GMO wheat is not on the market. Seneff and Samsel’s paper shows a graph in which an annual increase in the rate of Celiac Disease since 1990 loosely correlates with increase in the amount of glyphosate applied to wheat. However, wheat is not a glyphosate resistant GMO.

wheat_field_with_clouds_70226983Genetically modified wheat has never been commercialized. Seneff and Samsel postulate that the increase in glyphosate use on wheat is due to pre- and post-harvest uses of glyphosate, but the authors cherry-pick data from global statistics to support their claims and to ensure that the numbers match their model.

The Seneff and Samsel paper was hyped in a credulous report by Reuters by former reporter Carey Gillam, who subsequently was forced out at the news service; she now writes for the organic industry-funded US Right to Know, which attacks scientists and journalists engaged in the crop biotechnology debate. But because Reuters is perceived as a credible news outlet, the Gillam puff/scare piece led to thousands of additional web stories, before mainstream scientists began to weigh in. Many scientists and journalists have since highlighted additional flaws in the paper–which really isn’t a paper since it lacks any real data.

If I write an article suggesting how a unicorn could arise, would anyone state that a unicorn exists? In fact, here’s my hypothesis: “The evolution of species suggests that mammals arose through a common ancestor forming the basis of the Laurasiatherian clade. Due to the commonality of their lineage, the narwhale (Monodon monocerus) and the horse (Equus ferus caballus) possibly share over 80% of their genes. We propose that the mythical Unicorn (Unicornus ficticious) may arise through the in vitro fertilization of an equine egg and a narwhale sperm.” My paper will have a lot of information on how whales and horses are related and even show an amazing graphic of a gene where nearly 100% of the amino acid sequence is conserved, and it will be brimming with information from papers that have tried interspecies in vitro fertilization.

An interesting side tidbit is that if the gluten-free trend continues, there may be financial reasons to produce low-gluten GMO wheat. According to gmoanswers.com, there are two papers that have been published where they’ve managed to decrease the amount of gluten produced in wheat (one in 2010 and the second in 2011). It would be a crazy random happenstance if we had to turn to GMOs to address an issue that may have arisen through traditional plant breeding.

Layla Katiraee (@BioChicaGMO) holds a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto and is a Senior Scientist at a biotech company in California. All opinions and views expressed are her own.

  • Neil

    “But in my mind, the greatest evidence that GMOs are not tied to gluten allergies is that GMO wheat is not yet on the market.” It boggles my mind that this statement is not enough to convince people. When I’ve pointed it out, I’ve been told that GM wheat IS on the market.

    The weird thing is that the two hypotheses you list have nothing to do with somebody eating wheat – they are more about making the gut more susceptible to *wave hands around* “something”. And I don’t think they make sense. For example the “glyphosate kills bacteria” hypothesis: I thought the entire basis of glyphosate resistant crops what the fact that they have a bacterial version of the ESP synthase gene? Is that correct? If so, how would glyphosate kill intestinal bacteria?

    And the second hypothesis seems pretty weak when you consider that organic crops are sprayed with Bt bacteria…

    • BioChicaGMO

      Hi Neil,
      Good question. It appears that the EPSP synthase gene that is in GMOs was specifically selected because it has variants that make it resistant to glyphosate (these two papers provide good background http://www.pnas.org/content/103/35/13010.full and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3411725/). There are quite a few studies on pubmed examining the effect of glyphosate on different types of bacteria, particularly those in soil. As with many compounds, I think it’s a matter of dose, and Seneff’s paper fails to address this. If the hypothesis is that intake of glyphosate kills the bacteria in our gut (which hasn’t been directly studied to the best of my knowledge) how much does it take? How much glyphosate is actually in our bread and other grain-based foods, and is it enough to do anything? How come I don’t have Celiac Disease, given the amount of grains I eat? Or are the bacteria in my gut somehow more resistant than the bacteria in other people’s guts? – Layla

    • crush davis

      Yes, crops are sprayed with Bt and have been for years. It’s one of many inconvenient truths for the anti-GM toolbags–who have probably eaten more Bt spray residue than Bt from GM corn. So, they just ignore it. Easy enough. Moreover, Bt requires the lepidopterans’ alkaline gut conditions for activation. You don’t have to be a know-it-all talking online trash to the anti-GM folks to figure out why that’s another inconvenient truth.

  • In my opinion, the Samsel/Seneff article is deeply flawed: despite over 280 references, it fails to mention the available literature that would contradict their ideas. The authors also fail to validate their speculative mechanisms with the ACTUAL levels of human exposure to glyphosate. I am at a loss to know why the editors of a Toxicology journal seem to be unaware of the fundamental principal that “the dose makes the poison”.

    Layla, in the most accurate, random, population study of U.S. celiac disease, a prevalence of 0.7% was found. True gluten allergy is less well studied, but is probably somewhat rarer. No firm data are available for “non-celiac” gluten-sensitivity, but in contrast to the wild speculations on the Internet, the best published estimate suggests that the prevalence may be similar to that of celiac disease. Strangely, Samsel/Seneff seem to confuse “prevalence” with “incidence”, which is very important, since the most recent population study indicates that only about 15% of cases of celiac disease have actually been diagnosed.

    Curiously, the versions recently circulated on some activist websites is different from that on the actual Journal website, dated last November, even though their first pages look identical.

    Dr. Seneff has some unorthodox views on environmental safety: for example, in a recent interview on glyphosate and celiac disease, she stated that, “You wonder, if you were smoking organic tobacco, it might not be so bad for you.”

    More details can be found at: http://ultimateglutenfree.com/2014/02/does-glyphosate-cause-celiac-disease-actually-no/

  • Marc

    What are your thoughts on the documentary “genetic roulette”. It was pretty convincing for me. Particularly the farmers who stopped using GMO’s for feed and saw their cattle’s overall health drastically improve. Also there is so much “unknown” when it comes to the bacteria in our bodies and DNA overall, therefore it is better to be safe then sorry. I personally believe allergies are closely related to our bacteria. We should not be genetically altering bacteria that we consume before we have discovered the bacteria we are composed of. (we are more bacteria then cells right?) So maybe there is no solid evidence that GMO’s are causing gluten allergies yet, but the more we learn about bacteria, allergies, our gut, and the food we eat, the more we discover how closely related all these categories are. Regardless, the possibility of this connection deserves a great deal of attention and more research. I also think you should elaborate more on why you don’t believe there is a connection.
    Also the food/(big) farm industry is in it for the $$. Just like big tobacco they could care less about our health and they pay for “studies” to skew information on extreme scales in order to sell their product. Instead of figuring out what is causing this gluten allergy epidemic, they would rather use GMO’s to make gluten free food, and just wait for the next medical trend/tragedy to emerge so then they can profit even more…. remember the whole “fat free” craze. They knew fat didn’t make you fat… but marketing “fat free” was to tempting as a slogan.

  • oplix

    GMO fruit such as cherries cause agitation to my immune system. A telltale sign that whatever was done to modify even the slightest genetic footprint of the real thing can become highly toxic/poisonous to a human body. Also avoid soy milk like the plague. Just because your body isn’t experiencing devastating immediate effects does absolutely not mean in any shape or form that it is 1. healthy and 2. will not have long term effects.

    • agscienceliterate

      Almost no fruit is genetically modified. There are no GE cherries.

      Your agitation is caused by something else. Probably your adherence to some fairy belief that there are foods you believe meet some woo woo definition of “healthy” and that you believe for some reason “will not have log term effects.” (like what?) Just reading your confusing and misguided post causes agitation to my immune system.

      I’m wondering if you eat organic food produced with mutagenesis. You can research that for yourself. Of course, that fits into quite a bit more than the “slightest genetic footprint of the real thing” (again, what a confusing statement that is; what is a genetic footprint? What is the “real thing”? You are very confused.)

    • agscienceliterate

      Almost no fruit is genetically modified. There are no GE cherries.

      Your agitation is caused by something else. Probably your adherence to some fairy belief that there are foods you believe meet some woo woo definition of “healthy” and that you believe for some reason “will not have log term effects.” (like what?) Just reading your confusing and misguided post causes agitation to my immune system.

      I’m wondering if you eat organic food produced with mutagenesis. You can research that for yourself. Of course, that fits into quite a bit more than the “slightest genetic footprint of the real thing” (again, what a confusing statement that is; what is a genetic footprint? What is the “real thing”? You are very confused.)

  • Layla, by using that unicorn analogy above are you therefore also saying or implying that it would be ridiculous to think that it would theoretically be possible for GM scientists to use the Narwhal genes that are responsible for growing their single spiral tusks to genetically modify a horse to produce a similar spiral tusk and then look like a unicorn? If we can take genes from fish and insert them into tomato genes then why can’t we do the same with these animals? The narwhal photo below was taken from the world wild life website and is called ‘unicorns of the sea’.

  • Thorsten Arnold

    The core argument of this blog that “wheat is not a GMO” is an invalid statement. First, wheat is often sprayed heavily with glyphosate (RoundUp) directly before harvest and may contain residues of RoundUp. Second, glyphosate may enter the digestive tract through other GMO food and then active within the gut, potentially causing gluten sensitivity.
    I cannot validate that Glyphosate (“RoundUp”) causes gluten sensitivity, but there are good arguments for it that deserve further investigation. This “invalidation” that Layla Katiraee attempts is definitely invalid due to logical fallacies.

    • @Thorsten—
      1. Can you share where you got your information about glyphosate treatment of wheat? Pre-harvest spraying of wheat is uncommon in the U.S. http://ultimateglutenfree.com/2014/02/does-glyphosate-cause-celiac-disease-actually-no/

      2. Can you explain why you believe that glyphosate is active in the human gut (or any other mammal, for that matter)?

      3. What are the typical levels of exposure to glyphosate—have they changed?

      4. Why do you select glyphosate rather than all the hundreds of other things that we are exposed to?

      5. What kind of gluten sensitivity are you referring to: celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity? These two conditions have completely different mechanisms.

      You mention that there are good arguments: great, let’s hear them, so that we can discuss. I’m always open to being persuaded by a good argument.

  • @Layla—

    You can be forgiven for trusting that the Samsell/Seneff actually showed celiac disease prevalence over time. Too bad that that plotted data was for a completely different condition, NOT celiac disease! This boo-boo would easily have been avoided if they had involved someone with knowledge of the field as a co-author (or even a med. tech. with a basic knowledge of medical codes).

    Samsell/Seneff appear to rely heavily for their dramatic charts on unpublished data “analysis” by Nancy Swanson, a retired physicist. They would gain greater credibility if they did a little more fact-checking. On the other hand, I suspect that their papers are not actually directed towards members of the scientific community, but instead to unsuspecting members of the public who will blindly believe the text of their abstracts, and be impressed by pretty colored charts.

  • aab

    “The scientists at CDF pointed out that patients with Celiac Disease or gluten-sensitivity feel better when they cut gluten out of their diets. If the cause of their sensitivity were GMOs or glyphosate, then they’d have to cut out a lot more than just gluten.” If there’s already damage done, cutting out “a lot more” than just gluten might make them being able to consume gluten….cutting gluten out of their diets might make them “feel” better but they still can’t consume much gluten like normal people can.

  • Douglas

    Please provide the historical facts and information links that we have been eating gluten for 10,000 years. The Bible timeline places humans at about 6000 years, while goofy evolutionists place us on the random unverified timeline of 100’s of thousands to millions of years in the making. What type of food supposedly sustained us through this evolutionary journey? Why don’t we take a common sense approach and realize that the health of our country, along with the obesity rate, cancer increase, must have a direct link to the GMO foods we are digesting, as well as all of the chemicals we are exposed to topically. But of course, unless we have a 30-50 year study that proves any correlation, we must endure the scientific communities nonsensical studies as law.

  • And they’re “just talking” about geoengineering… that’s not SAG you’ve been seeing since 1997.

  • Tae Koepke

    You guys are pro-GMO so of course this article is completely biased towards GMO. You guys have just as much authority as Seneff and Samsel.

  • Dr_Snooz

    Let me make sure I have this straight. An MIT scientist and independent researcher publish an article in a scientific journal not controlled by Monsatan demonstrating a causal link between GMOs, glyphosate and celiac. That study is cited by the leading anti-GMO crusader Jeffrey Smith, who has an enormous audience because he’s demonstrated himself to be accurate and circumspect.

    But…

    because you call them names, they are discredited.

    Then you finish the article with a bunch of possible alternative explanations, none of which is backed by any scientific study at all. All are pure speculation by establishment-controlled whores.

    Wow. If they had a Goebbels prize, you’d win it.

    My only question is, how many people are you expecting to fall for this?

    • JoeFarmer

      I pity your credulity.

    • I can almost guarantee that you didn’t actually read this paper—it’s a monumental Gish-Gallop. In my opinion, it ranks with Seralini 2012 as one of the worst papers in the past decade. I have studied the field of celiac disease for a number of years, and the causal connection with celiac disease is a joke:
      http://ultimateglutenfree.com/2014/02/does-glyphosate-cause-celiac-disease-actually-no/

      But I’d be more than glad to discuss the specific details, if you wish. Was there anything that you found particularly persuasive in the Samsel/Seneff article?

  • CS

    “Layla Katiraee, Senior Scientist ins Product Development at a biotech company” – this categorically disqualifies her writings on the subject because of the inherent bias she has.

    • Why? That makes no sense. She works in the human biotech field, which has no relationship to food. And even if she worked in food biotech, what would be your reasoning to “disqualify” her? There is absolutely no evidence that she has any “bias” other than a commitment to empirical data and the scientific method.

      If we used your “standard”–disqualify anyone from the public discussion if they have a none bias–then no NGO or anti-GMO scientist would be “qualified” to engage on the issue. In other words, that would eliminate the entire anti-GMO industry…all the scurrilous websites, all the Seralini and Judy Carman nonsense, the crazy Chensheng Lu ramblings…all of it. No more Just Label It. No more Center for Food Safety.

      There is zero evidence that Layla has any bias other than toward good science, while all of the above have perpetrated bad science. Should they automatically be excluded from the debate? Not in the opinion of more science-minded people. As dumb and anti-science as their diatribes may be, no one should be automatically “disqualified” from expressing their analytical viewpoint.

      The beauty of science is that the data are value neutral. Does an analysis make scientific sense? What does the data show?

      The fact is even hard edged anti-GMO activists may actually say something of value. The power of scientific thinking is that ideas stand or fall on the basis of empirical data and weight of evidence.

      Now, see if you can engage on her ideas and facts instead of just conveniently ignoring her analysis because you believe she is biased. Think like a scientist and not like an ideologue. It might surprise you where you come down on controversial issues. Data matter.

      • CS

        Jon, what you say makes no sense. She is writing about food. You say her work in the human bio tech field has no relationship to food. If you are correct then she has no expertise to write on the matter. I believe you are wrong on that count anyway. Human bio tech has to do with humans. Humans consume food. You say data is important. Here’s some data for you. Asian men in Asia statistically don’t get prostate cancer. Transport that Asian man to the US and they as all other men in the US can expect to get prostate cancer in their lifetime if they live long enough. Something is causing this. The science stating Roundup Ready GMO crops are safe all all coming from studies from non-independent short term studies paid for by the companies who profit from the industry. Two more data points: I changed my diet to exclude any GMO impacted food and my blood became normal as viewed under a microscope and as measured by my cholesterol levels and blood pressure. The FDA is corrupt. High fructose corn syrup is ubiquitous in our food supply and aspartame only was approved after then FDA head Rumsfeld ignored the data. The sad truth is that pure science may be unbiased but scientists are human and are purchased. Let’s call them prostitute scientists.

        • agscienceliterate

          CS, what food do you now NOT eat? And do you eat cheese? (genetically modified, FYI)
          Your data points about your own blood (“becoming normal” — what the heck do you mean by normal blood?” ) deserves a “good for you” but has nothing to do with any link to GE foods. Fatty foods and lack of exercise? Cutting those out and exercising more helping you? Yeah, probably.
          Your one sentence indicating your paranoia about “corrupt” agencies says it all about the foundation of your beliefs. All the rest of what you say is pretty much nothing.

          • CS

            Only organic dairy, no poultry because they are fed genetically modified food. Only grass fed beef. No farm raised fish but wild fish. Have you nothing to say about the prostate cancer fact? You say that is nothing? Go research that fact. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that there’s something in our food causing this. As for normal blood – saw the chart at my PHD Bio/Chemist friends home and looked at my own under a microscope. When you get cancer and your kids are sick you may rethink your position.

          • CS

            Only organic dairy, no poultry because they are fed genetically modified food. Only grass fed beef. No farm raised fish but wild fish. Have you nothing to say about the prostate cancer fact? You say that is nothing? Go research that fact. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that there’s something in our food causing this. As for normal blood – saw the chart at my PHD Bio/Chemist friends home and looked at my own under a microscope. When you get cancer and your kids are sick you may rethink your position.

        • agscienceliterate

          CS, what food do you now NOT eat? And do you eat cheese? (genetically modified, FYI)
          Your data points about your own blood (“becoming normal” — what the heck do you mean by normal blood?” ) deserves a “good for you” but has nothing to do with any link to GE foods. Fatty foods and lack of exercise? Cutting those out and exercising more helping you? Yeah, probably.
          Your one sentence indicating your paranoia about “corrupt” agencies says it all about the foundation of your beliefs. All the rest of what you say is pretty much nothing.

      • CS

        Jon, what you say makes no sense. She is writing about food. You say her work in the human bio tech field has no relationship to food. If you are correct then she has no expertise to write on the matter. I believe you are wrong on that count anyway. Human bio tech has to do with humans. Humans consume food. You say data is important. Here’s some data for you. Asian men in Asia statistically don’t get prostate cancer. Transport that Asian man to the US and they as all other men in the US can expect to get prostate cancer in their lifetime if they live long enough. Something is causing this. The science stating Roundup Ready GMO crops are safe all all coming from studies from non-independent short term studies paid for by the companies who profit from the industry. Two more data points: I changed my diet to exclude any GMO impacted food and my blood became normal as viewed under a microscope and as measured by my cholesterol levels and blood pressure. The FDA is corrupt. High fructose corn syrup is ubiquitous in our food supply and aspartame only was approved after then FDA head Rumsfeld ignored the data. The sad truth is that pure science may be unbiased but scientists are human and are purchased. Let’s call them prostitute scientists.

    • Why? That makes no sense. She works in the human biotech field, which has no relationship to food. And even if she worked in food biotech, what would be your reasoning to “disqualify” her? There is absolutely no evidence that she has any “bias” other than a commitment to empirical data and the scientific method.

      If we used your “standard”–disqualify anyone from the public discussion if they have a none bias–then no NGO or anti-GMO scientist would be “qualified” to engage on the issue. In other words, that would eliminate the entire anti-GMO industry…all the scurrilous websites, all the Seralini and Judy Carman nonsense, the crazy Chensheng Lu ramblings…all of it. No more Just Label It. No more Center for Food Safety.

      There is zero evidence that Layla has any bias other than toward good science, while all of the above have perpetrated bad science. Should they automatically be excluded from the debate? Not in the opinion of more science-minded people. As dumb and anti-science as their diatribes may be, no one should be automatically “disqualified” from expressing their analytical viewpoint.

      The beauty of science is that the data are value neutral. Does an analysis make scientific sense? What does the data show?

      The fact is even hard edged anti-GMO activists may actually say something of value. The power of scientific thinking is that ideas stand or fall on the basis of empirical data and weight of evidence.

      Now, see if you can engage on her ideas and facts instead of just conveniently ignoring her analysis because you believe she is biased. Think like a scientist and not like an ideologue. It might surprise you where you come down on controversial issues. Data matter.

  • CS

    “Layla Katiraee, Senior Scientist ins Product Development at a biotech company” – this categorically disqualifies her writings on the subject because of the inherent bias she has.