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Talking us down from the glyphosate ledge

Glyphosate. Not keeping me up at night.

Glyphosate is now the new cyclamate and we’re all supposed to be terrified to use it in agriculture.  Oh, please.  Check out this analysis of the glyphosate study by Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline, Is Glyphosate Poisoning Everyone?.  Here’s the money quote:

Now, that presumably sounds extremely detailed and impressive if you don’t know any toxicology. What you wouldn’t know from reading through all of it is that their reference 121 actually tested glyphosate against human CYP enzymes. In fact, you wouldn’t know that anyone has ever actually done such an experiment, because all the evidence adduced in the paper is indirect – this species does that, so humans might do this, and this might be that, because this other thing over here has been shown that it could be something else. But the direct evidence is available, and is not cited – in fact, it’s explicitly ignored. Reference 121 showed that glyphosate was inactive against all human CYP isoforms except 2C9, where it had in IC50 of 3.7 micromolar. You would also not know from this new paper that there is no way that ingested glyphosate could possibly reachlevels in humans to inhibit CYP2C9 at that potency.

In the pharma lab, if a compound had an IC50 of 3.7 micromolar against a target, we’d have to be desperate to call it a “hit”.  That level of activity means you’d have to choke down a lot of chocolate cookies before you’d be even mildly affected.

So, you can stop worrying about glyphosate poisoning.  That doesn’t mean everything in the world is safe to consume.  It’s just that glyphosate is no dioxin and you won’t have to superfund site a farm that uses it.

Lowe also has a post on the cost of cancer drugs that is worth reading.  It gems fairly nicely with my cynical theory of the current pharma business model, which goes like this: Once upon a time, big pharma made drugs for all kinds of ailments, like heart disease, schizophrenia, depression, reproductive health, antibiotics, diabetes, pain, inflammation, etc.  But over the last 30 years, it has become increasingly more difficult to get those drugs to market for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here.  Suffice it to say that the FDA doesn’t approve very many small molecule drugs anymore.  Like virtually none.  A pharma can spend a lot of money on research only to have a drug shot down at the approval stage.  So, how does a drug company make money if it can’t sell drugs?

Easy.  It concentrates on cancer and orphan drugs.  Orphan drugs are for diseases that are relatively rare.  For cancer drugs, the path to profit is pretty straightforward.  The patients are desperate. They’ll pay what the market will bear and then some.  Will they mortgage their houses?  Yeah, probably.  So, the market is there.  But it gets better.  Cancer drugs are fast tracked for approval and no one is overly concerned with toxicity.  In other words, there won’t be class action lawsuits because patients are grateful for any extension of life they get.  Even if the patient dies, their families are likely to consider their treatment as advancing the knowledge of science.  No one complains.  If you’re a bean counter, oncology drugs are as good as it gets.  They’re profitable, quickly approved, they don’t have to be perfect and no one will hold you accountable.  It’s probably the same situation for orphan drugs.

This is the financier’s mindset at work.  R&D people don’t think like this.  But in the end, there is a ceiling to the amount of money we as a society are willing to pay for potentially lifesaving drugs and  we are now up against it.  Meanwhile, if you are suffering from any other ailment, like bipolar disease or osteoporosis or some flesh eating bacterial infection, you’re going to be stuck with older drugs that are quickly becoming generics.  The good news is that the generics will be cheaper, well, at least for a little while longer.  I don’t think that can last as there won’t be enough profit in generics to keep the production facilities up to FDA standards. I can easily imagine some production facilities being taken offline a la the rolling blackouts of the California energy crisis 10 years ago.  Some jerk generics traders are going to be yucking it up about Granny not being able to afford her cholesterol lowering drugs.  Call me paranoid but as far as I know, there’s nothing to stop such scenarios from taking place and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already happened.

At some point, the price of generics will start to rise and in some cases, they haven’t really dropped all that much yet.   There won’t be a steady stream of new and improved drugs coming from the pipeline.  It will be more of a thin trickle.  The public has spoken.  It doesn’t want me-too drugs even if they are better than what’s already on the market, and it doesn’t want any drug that’s less than 100% perfect and free from all side effects.  Whether this combination of financier morality and public skittishness is good for medicine, science or society are questions we haven’t even considered yet.  No one, it seems, except the displaced scientists from Pharmageddon seem to be discussing those issues.  Someday, the Ezra Kleins and Duncan Blacks will wonder how that happened but it’s already almost too late to do anything about the coming Dark Ages of pharmaceutical medicine.

So, if you’re rich and you have cancer, you’re probably going to be Ok.  If not, well, it’s just another symptom of being in the 99%.

39 Responses

  1. Is Glyphosate the same as Roundup?

    • Yep

      • So I shouldn’t about the Parkinson’s much?
        “Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body,” the study says.

        We “have hit upon something very important that needs to be taken seriously and further investigated,”[MIT researcher] Seneff said.

        Those worry warts at MIT!

        • Did you read Derek’s post? He actually read the references. The activity of glyphosate is minute on human CYP2C9. You’d have to binge on it.
          Don’t fall prey to the idea that people from Harvard and MIT are the world’s authorities and know absolutely everything. They have to PROVE it. That’s why you need to read the papers.
          We just went through an exercise where the world’s economies were being held hostage to a widely reported Harvard study about debt and austerity and no one bothered to actually look at the Excel spreadsheet they used until recently. It was a grad student from a less prestigious university that found an error in the calculations that shot the whole paper to pieces. A lot of good it does people in Spain and Ireland though.
          You ARE allowed to question scientists and economists from Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Stanford (among others). They wouldn’t be credible scientists if they didn’t invite such scrutiny.

          • Yeah I skimmed it. He cherry picks to support his right wing, global warming denying tripe IMHO. His history with big PhARMA is well documented too. The amount of roundup in the environment is now many times what it was a few years ago, As a parent, doesn’t that worry you?
            Derek Lowe:
            “…the best way to preserve unspoiled spaces is to do less organic farming”
            http://pjmedia.com/instapundit/019842/

          • I suspect Lowe and I have a difference of opinion when it comes to the role of government in pharmaceutical science but I don’t think Lowe is a global warming denier.
            Do I worry about Roundup in the environment? Not with IC50 levels as high as those reported. I wouldn’t want to dust my strawberries with it at breakfast like it was sugar but I’m not concerned about using it to kill weeds.
            As for organic farming, I think we should limit our use of pesticides and herbicides but Lowe’s got a point about organic farming. I should get Brooke to write a post on the pitfalls of organic farming. She makes a very convincing case that it’s trendy and mostly a waste of time, land and resources with little real benefit.

          • As to Lowe and climate change:
            Derek Lowe fount the data on climate change gathered from around the world over a ten year period to be untrustworthy

            “The data involved have to be very damned good and convincing, given the potential impact on the world economy, through both the possible effects of global warming itself and the effects of trying to ameliorate it. Looking inside the CRU does not make me confident that their data come anywhere close to that standard.”

            http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2009/12/01/climategate_and_scientific_conduct.php
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climatic_Research_Unit_email_controversy
            http://www.climatecentral.org/blogs/quick-create-a-diversion-climate-scientists-are-saying-something-important

          • You seem to have missed the point of Lowe’s post which is that if you are going to make claims about the impact of humans on climate, you need to be very rigorous with your data. That is not the same thing as saying that global warming doesn’t exist. Clearly, it does exist. But we’re talking about governments and economies here. Policies will be made and recommendations and solutions and the last thing you need is to apply the wrong solution to a problem because you are looking at bad data.
            Here’s where Lowe and I differ from you: We aren’t in love with confirmation bias. You have a theory and you will look for data that supports that theory no matter what the consequences. We have a hypothesis and look at all the data, first assessing the quality of that data, asking questions on how it was collected and whether the conclusions are supported by that data, before we adjust our hypothesis. It’s a very different process. You might not like the way it works because it’s slow, methodical and comfortable with ambiguity. Tough titties.

          • I’m in love with confirmation bias? Dang the discussion has just devolved. Let’ be clear: those of you who claim that it’s too soon to pin climate change on human activities and, thus, to take the drastic actions needed to have a prayer of saving outr asses have a BS bias.

          • Confirming my worst fears that we’re killing ourselves doesn’t really make me warm and fuzzy, FYI:

            “Our choices depend on how each of us values the risks of acting and the risks of not acting. But the scientific evidence is overwhelming that this is a debate we need to have because human actions are changing the climate—there is no credible alternative explanation that explains all the data.”

            -Robert Lempert, a lead author of the Nobel Prize-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

            http://www.rand.org/blog/2012/03/evidence-for-climate-change-is-overwhelming.htm

          • The MIT Effort is characterized below by Mr. Lowe as:
            “…long raving papers by people with mental problems before – just as long as their check clears.”

            Sheesh!

        • There’s nothing magical about MIT.
          The author publishes a journal with distinctly Deepak Chopra-esque terminology.
          Look, if you want to freak out about every little thing in the environment whether or not there is solid evidence that there’s something harmful about it, go right ahead. But you will get pushback here unless you can prove a clear and unambiguous danger. And you can’t. It’s all fear, uncertainty and dread. I’ve got better things to waste my time on.

  2. I think that’s what we use to kill poison ivy.

  3. Well we could go back to calcium arsenate or lead arsenate.

    • Or just weed- all. the. time.
      I think that’s why serfs were created.

      • We started using Roundup to kill poison ivy … our neighbors must deliberately grow it. We used to weed but, Every time you “get” poison ivy the symptoms are worse and worse. After some number of years of watching my husband suffer through the summers, We found a poison to do it. I NEVER want to go back to weeding poison ivy.

        • Can’t you get some migrant worker to do that for you?

        • I don’t know about hand weeding poison ivy, that sounds problematic. Do you think your neighbors were using it as an identifier for potential thieves? If they were robbed they would check local hospital for ‘rash infested’ suspects?

          • No, I actually think they are lazy slobs who never go into their backyard and they didn’t give a fig about how their slovenliness was affecting us. Now we keep a 1′ barrier next to their fence – weeding with a shovel and heavy duty bag when ANYTHING appears. But it took a long time to get it clear.

  4. Laminate floor being installed in basement for new owners. He’s making a racket down there. I am more convinced than ever that I could never have done it myself.

  5. I am at a computer with either no cutpaste capabilities or none that I understand.

    I will just mention again that Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology at Purdue University Don Huber has lately been writing and interviewing about emerging problems caused by glyphosate use in agriculture itself, which is a different problem area than glyphosate’s effect (or not) on humans directly. One can find his interview in Acres USA under Don Huber glyphosate Acres USA interview, for example.

  6. The “reference 121″ linked above doesn’t make as strong a case for Lowe as he indicates. From the abstract: ” Some pesticides caused relatively potent inhibitions sporadically (carbendazim, CYP2D6, IC(50) = 12 micro M; atrazine, CYP3A4, IC(50) = 2.8 micro M; glyphosate, CYP2C9, IC(50) = 3.7 micro M; hexaflumuron, IC(50) = 6.0 micro M). ”

    The “sporadically” seems significant to me. The point the MIT scientists make is that glyphosate has effects evident over the long term. Sporadically potent toxicity can have long term effects even when there’s nothing evident short term, and is also the sort of thing that won’t show up in the short term studies Monsanto uses to support their claims of safety. Reducing the concentration down to what one gets in the diet would mean the effect is that much rarer, but wouldn’t make it go to zero, so, again, something where problems would take a long time to show up.

    It’ll be interesting to see if the MIT research is replicated or not. Until then, I’m not sure it makes sense to ridicule it out of hand. It also doesn’t make sense to go nuts, as you say. Yet.

    • I focus on the phrase “relatively potent inhibitions”. One would be hard pressed to call 3.7 micromolar inhibition “relatively potent”.
      Considering how quickly glyphosate is degraded in the soil (within a few days of application), it is unlikely that humans are consuming it in their food. It would make more sense to study the metabolites for their relative potency.
      The people most likely to be affected by glyphosate in its parent state would seem to be farmers.

    • I don’t use any manufactured kill agents in my garden. I simple do weeding by hand and the ones I don’t get to, are simply akin to a blemish on ones own face, nothing to die over.

      BTW, I’ve won two city awards for incorporating a disabled ramp with garden aspects to make it a natural form of the building and an other for the beautiful gardens (including raised veggie beds). Oh, and I did throw out all my rose food years ago due to the mad cow thing (once I learned a risk was using the product due to possible aspiration of the dead animal mix in it…eeeeak) and they are doing fine without all the high price plant food.

      Monsanto does scare me in that they try to alter everything and the way they go about attacking people seems to border on criminality. I am glad that other countries aren’t letting them take over the way they have here ala the Monsanto Protection Act.

      My two cents.

      • I do use roundup for poison ivy. The only thing that I use it for, actually.

      • I have no love for the people who run Monsanto. But the actual science behind their products? I don’t have an issue with that.
        The finance people will abuse any industry and the people who it eventually serves.

  7. Quixote: One thing that I think people need to understand is that this new paper did no research at all. It’s a bunch of references from the existing literature, strung together with string and tape and “maybe” and “possibly”. There’s no “MIT research” to replicate.

    Their central claim is that glyphosate inhibits human CYP enzymes. But they never, ever once mention that glyphosate has been tested against human CYP enzymes, the whole list of them, and it only inhibits one of them (and that one very weakly). You cannot seriously advance a hypothesis while ignoring the evidence against it – and it’s not that they missed this reference, either. They cite the paper, but act as if it’s supporting their case.

    The “journal” this appeared in is from an extremely disreputable publishing house that basically will print anything you pay them to. It claims to be “peer reviewed”, but this outfit has published long raving papers by people with mental problems before – just as long as their check clears. I mean that literally: Google the Andrulis “gyre” paper to see what I mean.

  8. Mr. Lowe, do we still need more data to confirm that steps are needed to address climate change?

    Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities,1and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. The following is a partial list of these organizations, along with links to their published statements and a selection of related resources.

    http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus

  9. I didn’t realize that there was a problem with roundup. I thought the problem was genetically engineering food crops so that they can be sprayed with roundup. But common sense does dictate that spraying massive quantities of any pesticide is going to eventually be harmful in some way. There are always unintended or unforeseen problems. Always.

    • There isn’t a big problem with roundup. Roundup degrades in the soil a few days after it’s applied. Plus, the study that Lowe cites shows that the effects of straight glyphosate on human CYP2C9 is not very potent. As I mentioned previously, if you’re a farmer and you have more direct contact with mass quantities of roundup, you probably should keep an eye on it. But if you’re a hobby gardener, just wear gloves and a mask when you apply it if you’re really concerned.
      Otherwise, I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.

  10. RD, thanks for letting me continue to comment here with opposing views. For the record, here is the money quote from Gaius Publius:
    Despite all this doom-and-gloom, it’s not over yet. Truly. By my calculation, we have a 5–10 year window to avoid the catastrophe. It won’t be easy — we’re past the point where any transition will be smooth — but we can make the transition and survive as a civilized species, humans in a recognizable world.

    But two things are needed:

    This has to be our top priority, which means you and everyone you know has to be fully aware and in full battle gear. (For reference, it’s called “hugging the monster.”)
    It’s us vs. David Koch and all of his friends and enablers. Tackling any other enemy is tackling a dummy while the game is being played.

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/05/the-climate-crisis-in-three-easy-charts.html

    • You are putting the cart before the horse. There is no doubt that global warming is a catastrophe in the making but until you fix the economy, you are not going to get too many people interested in doing anything about the temperature of the earth.

      It’s a maslow’s pyramid of needs problem. Right now, too many people’s attention is fixed on paying their bills and keeping their health insurance. If you want to save the environment, you’re going to have to fix the growing economic problems first.

      It might be frustrating to you but as far as I can see, there’s no way around it. People will concentrate on their bellies and shelter needs first. Your concerns just sound like pointless and out of touch yammering right now. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. If you are focusing on any other thing than inequality and paycheck issues, you’re dooming the environment.

  11. I guess we would need a manufactured crisis, something our leaders are so adept at. You’re right. It ain’t gonna hap. But can we agree that the time to collect an analyze climate data is is over and the verdict is in?

    • The verdict is never completely in. It’s important to continue to collect and analyze new data. Yes, we have a problem.

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