Quoth an antivaxer: DNA vaccines are contaminating our DNA in the name of transhumanism!

I’ve been at this blogging thing for well over 12 years now. I know, I know. Sometimes it amazes even me that I been doing this so long. I also know that I’ve been mentioning just how long I’ve been blogging more frequently. Sometimes I worry that the blog will turn into nothing more than posts counting down the days since I started this whole crazy thing. Of course, the main reason I mention this is not so much out of a desire for repetition but as a way of expressing amazement when I find something new and/for bizarre that I don’t recall having heard before.

So it was when I came across an article on a website called Vaxxter, which bills itself as the “ultimate guide to vaccine news and anti-pharma news, and more” entitled DNA vaccines and Transhumanism. It’s written by, hilariously (or it’s written hilariously by) Sherri Tenpenny, who likes to append her DO after her name plus a whole bunch of woo letters, like ABIHM (which stands for the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine and indicates that she’s “board-certified” in that specialty) and AOBNMM (which stands for the American Osteopathic Board of Neuromusculoskeletal Medicine, which certifies DOs in the remaining part of their specialty—in the US, at least—that is still woo-based, the “manipulative,” chiropractic-like aspect of their specialty). Now, to be clear, this is not the first time I’ve seen vaccines likened to transhumanism. Sayer Ji did that at least five years ago Well, I have, but not quite this explicitly. Sayer Ji did mention the fear of DNA contaminants somehow “converting our living tissue into ‘vaccine-making factories’ through the use of DNA and Recombinant Vector Vaccines,” but he didn’t go as far into the crazy as Tenpenny.

First, she starts out describing what transhumanism is, describing it as a “futuristic concept where man and technology blend, resulting in soulless intelligent machines.” That isn’t quite accurate, of course, and Tenpenny’s judgment is showing in her use of the word “soulless.” She then goes on to describe transhumanists as assuming “that humanity will only be enhanced by machines.” That, of course, is a bit closer to the mark; from my reading it does appear to be true that advocates of transhumanism seem to assume that the coming “singularity” when humans and machines merge will only be for the good, never for the bad.

Before she gets to the real business of fear mongering about vaccines, Tenpenny has to do a bit of fear mongering about a scientific initiative first, the better to set the stage:

In former-president Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address, he announced his plan to invest in brain mapping technologies. In April of that year, a $100+ million initiative was launched called BRAIN, which stands for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. Multiple public-private partnerships were funded, including the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the Kavli Foundation and Institutes. Our tax dollars also funded this project; the government allocations included:

  • $20 million to the National Science Foundation to study how Big Data could be used to understand the ability of the brain to generate thoughts, emotions, and memories;
  • $40 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop training tools and resources to support the BRAIN initiative; and
  • $50 million was given to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop tools to capture and process dynamic neural and synaptic activities.

Using those funds – and more – DARPA announced in 2016 it would develop the Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program. Touted as the next-level brain-computer interface (BCI), the NESD system is designed to turn brain activity into a binary code, allowing humans to engage with machines wirelessly, by simply thinking.

Got that? The BRAIN Initiative is in reality a plan that lays the groundwork for the singularity, whether it was intended that way or not, whether the researchers working on projects funded by the initiative believe that’s the case or not. Tenpenny asserts, menacingly, that while great medical advances could come from such research, such as brain-activated prosthetic limbs, “it takes very little imagination to see how this research could quickly turn dark.” Fortunately, very little imagination is exactly what Tenpenny has. Not that that stops her from going dark.

Of course, with Tenpenny, it is, first and foremost and above all, about the vaccines. Whatever evil there is in the world of health, particularly children’s health, it must have been the vaccines that done it. In this, she is, if nothing else, veyr predictable, and she doesn’t deviate from the script. What bothers her is DNA vaccines. DNA vaccination is a technique in which genetically engineered DNA, usually a sequence coding for an antigen, sometimes with a viral peptide sequence tacked on in order to provoke an immune response, is injected. Cells take up the DNA and, using the DNA as a template, directly produce an antigen, resulting in a protective immunological response. DNA vaccines are currently a major area of research, particularly in cancer.

DNA vaccines came about as the result of observations that the injection of plasmid DNA into muscle could result in the muscle cells taking up the DNA and expressing the protein for which the DNA codes. Indeed, a graduate student in the lab where I did my PhD thesis research worked on studying gene expression due to plasmids injected into embryonic chicken muscle and showed that the regulatory elements that controlled expression of the protein coded for by the DNA controlled that expression in living muscle the same way it did in cultured muscle cells. Our lab wasn’t working on DNA vaccines, but that graduate student’s work included experiments that could be used to guide the development of DNA vaccines.

In any case, the first generation of DNA vaccines produced a lot of excitement. Cell culture studies, animal studies, and clinical trials were done in rapid succession. Unfortunately:

The first of several of phase I trials, conducted almost 2 decades ago, evaluated the efficacy of a DNA vaccine targeting human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) for therapeutic and prophylactic applications [5]. Other studies shortly followed that targeted cancer or other HIV-1 antigens, influenza, human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis, and malaria. However, the results of these early clinical trials were disappointing. The DNA vaccines were safe and well tolerated, but they proved to be poorly immunogenic. The induced antibody titers were very low or nonexistent, CD8+ T-cell responses were sporadic, and CD4+ T-cell responses were of low frequency. However, these studies provided proof of concept that DNA vaccines could safely induce immune responses (albeit low-level responses) in humans.

The problem, of course, is that the injection of plasmid DNA into muscle is not a very efficient way of producing expression of an antigen. Delivery was inefficient. Expression in the cells was inefficient. Newer techniques are being developed to address these deficiencies, including new delivery approaches, molecular adjuvants, and better antigen design, but for the most part the promise of DNA vaccines remains unrealized. Of course, that reality doesn’t deter Tenpenny from going full mental jacket on DNA vaccines, portraying them as incipient transhumanism:

This process is not without problems.

  • The DNA snip can be incorporated into the host’s DNA, leading to chromosome instability. The mutagenic affect can turn on oncogenes and turn off tumor suppressor genes, leading to cancer.
  • Genetic expression is the process where genes create proteins. Genetic over-expression is when the process “goes rogue” and produces massive amounts of foreign protein, destroying human tissues via both acute and chronic inflammation.
  • Often the plasmid used is resistant to antibiotics; the same antibiotic resistance can be transferred to the host.
  • The plasmid DNA can appear very similar to the vaccine recipient’s DNA. The anti-DNA antibodies can attack human organs with similar DNA sequences. The result is autoimmunity, clearly identified as the cause of nearly 100 different diseases and suspected to be the cause at least 40 more chronic and potentially life-threatening conditions.

I find it amusing that Tenpenny references a review article that’s 11 years old and a PowerPoint presentation that looks as though it were a lecture done for a class, the date unclear. For instance, there’s no evidence that the first concern really is much of a concern. Antivaxers frequently cite fear of DNA from such vaccines (and even just tiny amounts of DNA contamination in, say, the HPV vaccine), attributing to them almost magical powers to recombine with the host’s DNA and corrupt it…somehow.

The problem for Tenpenny is that there’s no good evidence that this is a major concern. From a more recent review:

The DNA platform is conceptually safer and more stable than are conventional vaccine approaches. Plasmids are nonlive and nonreplicating, which leaves little risk for reversion to a disease-causing state or secondary infection. The original concerns associated with the DNA platform were the potential for genomic integration and development of anti-DNA immune responses. Exhaustive research has found little evidence of integration, and the risk for integration appears to be significantly lower than that associated with naturally occurring mutations [28–30]. Induction of anti-DNA immune responses after DNA vaccination has been monitored in multiple NHP studies and clinical trials, but evidence of increased production of such responses or changes in other clinical markers of autoimmunity have not been reported [31]. Overall, multiple studies have reported the DNA platform to be well tolerated and to have an enviable safety record.

That’s science. Tenpenny is promoting pseudoscience and going full bore conspiracy theory, bordering on Mike Adams territory:

This level of genetic manipulation makes DNA vaccines a dreamy tool of the transhumanists. With a host of companies working on biotic human body parts and DARPA working to build killer robots, designing DNA vaccines to enhance human DNA is only a step away. In fact, Editas Medicine, a US-based company, announced in November 2015 that the trials with the first humans to have their DNA genetically modified were well underway.

If robots could think, feel and have a conscience, would that make them human? Or, would the lack of genetic material always render it as non-human? Using the combination of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and DNA vaccines to insert human genes and human characteristics into machines is no longer just for the movies. At what point are humans no longer humans?

As vaccine recommendations become mandates – and 30 states are now pushing for mandatory vaccines, will you retain your right to refuse?

Notice how she waxes lyrical about “killer robots” and designing DNA vaccines to enhance human DNA. Clearly, she hasn’t been paying much attention. Not only is it very difficult to make DNA vaccines that get into cells and actually express the protein product of their DNA—not to mention to have the cells excrete it rather than simply build it up in the cells—thus far there hasn’t been a method of DNA vaccination that would integrate foreign DNA into human cells at anywhere near the level needed to do anything resembling what Tenpenny described. I must admit that I laughed when she expressed fear about genetic overexpression “going rogue” and producing “massive amounts of foreign protein, destroying human tissues via both acute and chronic inflammation,” given how difficult it has been even to get DNA vaccines to produce enough protein to provoke an adequate immune response to produce actual immunity to what is being vaccinated against.

I’ve said many times that one of the driving forces behind the antivaccine movement is, at its core, the ancient fear of bodily contamination. Vaccines are viewed as something that endangers the body’s “purity of essence,” or the purity of their “precious bodily fluids” (word choice intentional). There’s a frequent theme in the deeper, darker recesses of the antivaccine movement that sometimes even bubbles up to the less darker recesses, that vaccines somehow corrupt our DNA and make us less human. This whole invocation of “transhumanism” is just a more extreme version of that fear.