Aluminum adjuvant in vaccines – let’s go cherry picking

With the success of California’s vaccination law, SB277, there appears to be a trend to increase vaccination uptake among school-aged children. And it’s a great thing that we protect our children from vaccine preventable diseases. Yet, the anti-vaccine crowd is still looking for lame excuses to not vaccinate – today, it’s the aluminum adjuvant in vaccines.

The anti-vaccine crowd has a tendency to ignore the vast and powerful scientific consensus on vaccines. Instead, they prefer to cherry pick research, often from biased “scientists” who publish in the lowest quality journals. That cherry picking is a form of confirmation bias – the individual seeks evidence that supports their a priori conclusions rather than letting the robust body of evidence point them to a conclusion.

Generally, these myths, based on cherry picking, are debunked. But the anti-vaccine cult is nothing if not creative. They just move on to a new boogeyman. This time, it’s aluminum adjuvants in vaccines. To be honest, anti-vaccine tropes are zombies, so we think we destroy those tropes, but they rise again, fed by new cherry picking. And debunking the danger of aluminum in vaccines has been an age-old discussion amongst the pro-science crowd.

Today, we’re going to look at one of those articles which was recently published. If one accepted this research, while ignoring critical analysis and the body of other science, then it would be a great one to confirm one’s own pre-conceived beliefs. But that’s not how we do science, so let’s take a look.

New aluminum adjuvant article

The article, “Insight into the cellular fate and toxicity of aluminium adjuvants used in clinically approved human vaccinations” (full article) by Mold, Shardlow and Exley, was recently published in Scientific Reports. It’s a complex and photo-filled article, but that doesn’t mean it gets a pass on a critical examination. We’ll do that below.

But here’s the key point the researchers make:

We demonstrate that not all aluminium adjuvants are equal neither in terms of their physical properties nor their biological reactivity and potential toxicities both at the injection site and beyond. High loading of aluminium oxyhydroxide in the cytoplasm of THP-1 cells without immediate cytotoxicity might predispose this form of aluminium adjuvant to its subsequent transport throughout the body including access to the brain.

That’s essentially the authors’ conclusion. And if you were cherry picking and quote mining to “prove” vaccines are root of all evil, then you’d jump on this article.

You might ask, why have an aluminum adjuvant in vaccines? An adjuvant is a component of vaccines that increases the immune response to an antigen. Aluminum phosphate and aluminum hydroxide are the most common forms of adjuvants used in commercial vaccines. So that’s why – it makes the immune response better.

But, let’s take a critical look at this paper and the research behind it. Because there’s more here than what meets the eye.

I’m going to look at this article in two ways. First, I’m going to look at the meta – no not a meta-review or analysis, but what’s behind the article. And second, we’ll look at the science.

Who? What? Where?

Let me start with one key point – this article was published in a relatively high impact factor journal (5.228), Scientific Reports. The journal is owned by Nature, one of the most respected and high impact factor journals in science. Frankly, once I knew it was published in a Nature owned journal, I was thinking that this was going to be some good science. I fell for a trap.

Scientific Reports is an open-source, fast publication, peer-reviewed journal. It was probably launched to compete with popular open-sourced journals, like PLOS. Being fast or open-sourced does not mean it’s bad, but it does mean that some bad research can sneak through the cracks.

But there are some other points that need to be addressed. The authors are in residence at the Lennard-Jones Centre,  a UK-based research foundation that focuses on physics, quantum mechanics and chemistry.

However, as far as I can tell, there isn’t a single researcher with significant credentials in immunology, neurobiology, or almost any important aspect of vaccine research. This lack knowledge of basic biomedical science seems to be apparent in the article. Now, one does not have to be a biologist to become a great biologist – but if you’re going to publish a paper that condemns one of the basic principles of vaccines, I want to see researchers who actually are experts in vaccines.

Admittedly, the three authors seem to have a lot of published research in environmental aluminum – that’s a key point. They seem to have an obsession with aluminum toxicity and Alzheimer’s disease – something that has been utterly dismissed by the scientific community.

In fact, the Alzheimer’s Society does not mention aluminum once in their discussion of risk factors for dementia. Maybe Big Aluminum is in control.

The reason why aluminum isn’t linked to neurological disease is that in huge epidemiological studies, no correlation was found between environmental aluminum and neurological diseases. None. The authors seem to ignore the wealth of evidence that dismisses their research. And I think there might be reasons for that.

The most issue regarding their research, and a troubling concern for anyone with a scientific neuron or two, is that this study was funded by the Dwoskin Family Foundation. This foundation is one of the most profoundly anti-vaccine sponsors of research in the world.

Dwoskin has funded research by two of the biggest quacks in the vaccine community – Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic. Their “research” (scare quotes intentional) is often laughably biased and is nearly always published in junk science predatory journals. They actually did publish an article in a respected journal – it was retracted.

Claire Dwoskin is a board member of the anti-vaccine group National Vaccination Information Center. In 2011, the Dwoskins also underwrote the anti-vaccine “safety” conference in Jamaica, which included as speakers, the quacks Shaw and Tomljenovic.

I do think that the funding source should be given some weight in determining the bias of research. Even the anti-vaccine cult agrees, because read just about anything they write in which they automatically dismiss anyone or any research that even has a tenuous tie to Big Pharma.

But the Dwoskins are just so anti-vaccine, it’s difficult for me to overlook the funding of this research. I have found no indication that they give grants to any studies that are not supportive of any of the important tropes of the anti-vaccine movement.

Basically, when I saw their name as one of the sources of money, I was about 10 nanoseconds from dismissing this research as utterly useless. Now, it’s possible that the researchers here don’t know who the Dwoskins are, but that would be almost impossible to embrace. Without any evidence whatsoever, I think that the researchers saw where their research was going and knew that they could get some dollars out of the Dwoskins.

But enough with these criticisms. Let’s look at the science.

Aluminum adjuvant research

Like I mentioned previously, this article is thick with data. To critique each point that I find difficult to accept would force me to write a 5000 word article. I’m going to stick with the points that cause me the most trouble, in a bullet point fashion. This list is not in any particular order – it’s not ordered in any particular way.

  1. In vitro research. As I’ve written before, studies in cell cultures can lead to scientific breakthroughs – and this study utilizes a hum cell culture line. However, less than 1% of cell culture studies ever lead to clinically meaningful results. There are lots of reasons for this lack of results – mostly because cell cultures are a “model” for biological effects, but it’s extremely limited. Call me in 20 years if there’s some case-control epidemiological studies that support this research.
  2. The THP-1 cell line. This cell line is derived from the blood of a human male with acute monocytic leukemia. It is generally used in examining leukemia protein-protein interactions, and for immunohistochemistry, a field that attempts to detect antigens in cells of a tissue sections under microscopy. This is sort of the research that the authors are doing, but it’s an unusual application.
  3. Cell lines ignore physiology. This drives me crazy about cell culture research. Cells are grown in an artificial medium that generally feeds the cell – but that’s not how real cellular physiology works. For example, the body has methods to flush environmental aluminum out of the body – including secretion into urine and bile.
  4. Concentration of aluminum adjuvant. The researchers used 2.5, 25.0, 50.0 or 100.0 μg/mL of vaccine adjuvants. Most vaccines contain about 125 to 800 μg of aluminum adjuvant, which may appear to be close to what we see in this research. However, if we look at the aluminum concentration in the body after injection, these doses are equivalent to around 0.125 to 0.8 µg/ml (assuming a 12 kg baby), orders of magnitude lower than what was used in this research. One could argue that the concentration is higher at the injection site, but this research uses blood cells, not muscle cells. I can only conclude that these researchers were using higher concentrations of aluminum adjuvant to get more clear results. I don’t mind this, but the authors should explain why they went so high.
  5. Results. I’m going to admit that my scientific background lacks histology – it was boring to me. But, I’ve got enough knowledge to unequivocally state that I don’t get their results and subsequent conclusions. They published nice electron micrographs that show big aluminum globs  (my scientific terminology) in some cells. I don’t know what percentage of cells include these globs, because they didn’t have a control against which to compare. But here are some of the issues – there is no explanation of what are biological consequences of these globs, and no explanation if this representative of what may be the clinical application in real humans. Moreover, it is problematic that the lowest concentration of adjuvant used, 2.5 µg/ml which is 2-10X higher than the blood concentration immediately post-vaccination, showed no globs. They are using much higher concentrations of adjuvant to get results, and even then, a real human body would deal with it quickly by dilution and secretion.
  6. Citations. Generally, I don’t care about what’s cited. But to quote the authors, “Furthermore, the use of adjuvants in human vaccinations has been linked to adverse effects often classified under Autoimmune (or autoinflammatory) syndrome induced by adjuvants (ASIA).” No it hasn’t. The authors are citing two articles from the aforementioned quacks, Shaw and Tomljenovic, plus another article from one of the most notorious anti-vaccination “scientists” in the world, Yehuda Schoenfeld, who invented “ASIA,” a concept that has been dismissed scientifically. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to accept this research when they uncritically accept the ridiculed and debunked “evidence” invented by ridiculed and debunked researchers.

The TL;DR version

When I was shown this article, I was open-minded. I thought that it would be interesting to see if there are neurological effects from aluminum, because there’s been a “debate” about aluminum and dementia, despite the lack of evidence that there is a link.

But once I reviewed this article I was struck by these key points:

  • Monetary support from the anti-vaccination crowd.
  • Citing discredited published research and researchers as if they are respected.
  • Providing observations with no biologically plausible consequences from them.
  • Questionable methodology.

I admit, I am biased toward epidemiological studies that have p values and risk ratios. I want to see numbers. But subjective observations of globs? It tells us nothing about any aluminum adjuvant, so we stick with the default position supported by mountains of evidence – adjuvants are safe.

If I were to make a recommendation to anyone who is confronted by this article – laugh first, and point out the flaws.

Key citations

 
 

 

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!