The 2nd Monte Verita was a well organized meeting, having representative group of scientists but the final outcome feels rather slim. Once again the scientific gathering of the bioelectromagnetics researchers has shown that not only the research does not progress because of the lack of funding, but rather because of the lack of new ideas. In a one word, it is – stagnation.
Thanks to Niels Kuster I had the opportunity to participate in the 2nd Monte Verita meeting. I presented there an overview of the proteomics studies executed so far. My presentation I ended on a very pessimistic note. I quoted fragment of e-mail message describing RF-EMF research. The note I received from my colleague, a prominent proteomics researcher.
I think that this quote pretty well depicts the current state of the research on RF-EMF. This state was, unfortunately, well reflected in the presentations and discussions at the 2nd Monte Verita meeting.
Here are few observations from the meeting; by no means is this a comprehensive overview of what happened in Monte Verita. Because of my “specialty”, my comments concern RF-EMF.
As expected, DNA damage and genotoxicity of RF-EMF was one of the main topics of the meeting. Excellent, as always, was lecture from Primo Schär (Switzerland). There were two interesting comments in his talk. First, was that it might be possible, that when some researchers find DNA damage induced by RF whereas others do not, the both sides might be correct. May be we are using wrong end-point for looking at the RF effects. Meaning, is it possible that the primary “damage” happens elsewhere and the sometimes observed DNA “damage” is a by-product, not always occurring, of the original damage? The other comment was that when DNA “damage” is observed it does not automatically mean that the RF is genotoxic. DNA damage occurs in cells spontaneously and is repaired by cells. Question is whether “RF-induced damage” remains unrepaired or is it repaired as thousands of similar DNA strand breaks occurring spontaneously in cells every day. In short – DNA strand break does not yet mean that the inducing agent is genotoxic. We do not know what is the fate of the “DNA damage” observed in some studies – is it repaired or does it persists in further generations of cells. Considering the efficiency of DNA repair mechanisms in cells one may suspect that the “RF-induced DNA damage” might be repaired… We do not know.
Jim Weaver (USA) was advocating a new approach. In his opinion looking for RF effects using such complex systems as whole animals or even whole cells is difficult when we do not know what the mechanisms of RF effects are. He proposed to start with a simple systems and making them more complex when the new knowledge is generated – the in silico approach. However, I am not certain whether, at the current stage of the knowledge about the RF effects, bioelectromagnetics is ready for the in silico approach. For example, using in silico approach, it is possible to make man-built simple biological membranes, expose them and see how they respond to RF. Then, knowing the response of simple biological membrane, it would be possible to make the system more “complex” and determine how the additional complexity affected the response to RF and so on and so on, make system more and more complex. The problem is what would be the suitable simple system to start research. We do not know what molecules absorb the RF in cells and what happens with them following the absorption of RF. When man-building even the simple biological membrane, we need to decide what kind of lipids and in what proportions should be used, what structural proteins, what functional proteins. In situation when we do not know at all where the RF is absorbed it is possible to make in silico systems that will not respond at all to RF. And if system does not respond – we do not know how to modify it to make it respond. In silico idea is tempting but when we do not have any starting point, molecule candidate for the first absorption of RF, the challenge might be not lesser than when exposing the whole cell to RF.
Buzz of both excitement and skepticism was elicited by the presentation of Boris Pasche (USA). He uses specific RF frequencies for treatment of cancer. As presented, the therapy appears to have impact and increases patients’ survival time and even might cure some kinds of cancer. However, in the discussion were presented concerns that the energy deposited in tissues is extremely small. If such low energy would be confirmed to have impact on biological systems it would be a major breakthrough that would call for the revision of current paradigm. Dosimetry experts were very skeptical and if Boris would not have backing from the observed patient survival data, from the “heat of discussion” one could expect him to be “crucified”. For now it did not happen. New research with good dosimetry support is being planned, both in vitro and in vivo, to confirm the existence of effects.
In the context of the effects induced with only certain RF frequencies, observed by Boris Pasche and also by Igor Belyaev (Slovakia & Russia) and Carl Blackman (USA), I had an interesting coffee-break talk with Zhengping Xu (China). His point was: could it be so that by making “perfect uniform dosimetry” of exposure chambers used in the in vitro studies we might lose effects that might be observed in “not so perfect in their uniformity” exposure chambers? That when the exposure chamber is perfectly tuned it might be tuned to “wrong” parameter(s)? We do not know yet what the “correct” parameters of RF exposure are. This brings to mind the study by David de Pomerai. Using imperfect exposure chamber he saw effects. Once chamber was made perfectly tuned by Motorola engineers the effect disappeared. Could it be so that we might be tuning our exposure chambers to wrong parameters and have problems to see effects. Such perfect tuning is not present in real life exposures when we put phone to our head. Something to think about…
Long time ago, when research into possible health effects was in its beginning, scientists started to look at brain cancer. There were no experimental data suggesting that brain cancer would be the outcome of the exposures. It was rather the idea that when we put radiation emitter to our head, brain is exposed and “brain + radiation = cancer”. Now, when finding cancer is proving to be difficult new “fashion” is appearing. If “radiation + brain ≠ cancer” then, may be, “radiation + brain = neurodegeneration”? We again do not have convincing science to back up this notion but it looks like more and more research effort is going in this direction. What simply terrified me was that the infamous Danish Cohort is looking at neurodegeneration and apparently new “scientific” study is in press. The outcome is, of course, that there is no effect cell phone radiation on neurodegeneration. I wonder how it is possible that pseudo science from the Danish Cohort passes through peer-review. Are reviewers so blinded by the size, or are they simply incompetent or have they conflict of interest? Something is seriously wrong. As I wrote on several occasions, the exposure data in Danish Cohort is not only non existent but it is simply wrong. Here is link to my letter published in the British Medical Journal that explains the gross error of exposure evidence in the Danish Cohort data, and it applies to all Danish Cohort publications “Re: Use of mobile phones and risk of brain tumours: update of Danish cohort study”.
The lack of evidence for RF cancer-link and some evidence for neurodegeneration-link was presented by Meike Mevissen (Switzerland). Her review and analysis of the to date published gene expression studies indicated that genes linked with cancer seem not to be much affected by the RF exposures whereas some genes linked with neurodegeneration are. It is still too weak evidence because only very few studies were executed and available for this analysis. But this avenue should be pursued – screening first and making hypothesis next.
The high-throughput screening of genes, proteins and metabolites seems to be a big problem within the bioelectromagnetics. We do not have mechanism by which RF could affect cells but we look for the effects as a “blind person” would do. Trying everything what is possible within our reach. But because there are thousands of genes, millions of proteins and many metabolites it might take long time before we analyze them all. However, there are methods that allow high-throughput screening and finding what genes, proteins and metabolites respond to RF. With this knowledge it is possible to build knowledge-based hypotheses and determine what physiological processes in cells might be affected and testing them. There however seems to be a handful of influential scientists who strongly oppose use of the high-throughput screening. This is seen in the research output. For example in the last 10 years were published only 12 proteomics studies. Six of them were from my research group. It shows that very few groups do proteomics. The main reason is that it is expensive. And when the research grants are reviewed by opponents of high-throughput screening the outcome is predictable… How it is possible that the use of high-throughput screening methods is very well possible in clinical or pharmacological research but bioelectromagnetics is off limits? On a few occasions I was told, once by a prominent university scientist and then by a prominent industry scientist, that the problem is as follows: using high-throughput screening is always possible to find responding genes or proteins. If such information, before it is confirmed by further studies, is seized by the news media it will cause catchy headlines and problems for the industry. Conclusion from these pseudo-scientists was – do not do high-throughput screening.
Scientific conferences are not only to listen to the presentations or to look at the posters but, for many, they are primarily events where is possible to discuss face-to-face with other scientists. During one of the coffee breaks I had interesting discussion with Myles Capstik (Switzerland). It appeared that we both were frustrated with the scientific quality of many (if not the majority) of animal studies. The problem is that scientists use too few animals. It is often possible to listen to scientific presentations where experiments were performed on just 4-6 animals. Using as few animals as possible, to lower the costs, but, theoretically, enough to claim “statistical significance”. What’s worse based on analysis of responses of 4-6 animals some scientists claim that they have proven that animals do not respond and it directly indicates that people are safe (!). It is a completely wrong idea. Firstly, generalizing on results from so small animal group is not possible. Secondly, if animals do not respond to low level RF exposures it does not mean that humans will not respond. Claiming such is unscientific.
At the end of the conference was organized group work where scientists were divided into several groups and asked to come up with ideas for further research. The outcome was “nothing new under sky”. The same topics the same issues no desire for new methods new approaches. Just repeating and repeating and repeating, ad nauseam of the same stuff (Monte Verita recommendations).
However, there was one interesting statement from Wolfgang Kainz (USA). Besides presenting what his group’s ideas were, he also presented, in a separate slide, what his personal ideas are. And there was a surprise. The first statement from Wolfgang was that: “EMF can affect biological systems on non-thermal level”. This by itself is a far reaching statement, especially when pronounced sitting next to Bernard Veyret (France) formerly for 12 years with ICNIRP and co-author of the mantra that only thermal effects are induced by RF. Bernard did not comment on this “non-thermal surprise”. There was also another not so surprising statement from Wolfgang that: “current safety levels seem to protect public”.
Combination of these two statements from Wolfgang, elicited some comments from the audience. First, Denis Henshaw (UK) opposed the idea that safety standards protect from ELF exposures when there is evidence of children leukemia induced at the levels permitted by the safety limits. Wolfgang did not oppose Denis’ comment. The other comment was from me (Dariusz Leszczynski; Australia). I stated that if Wolfgang agrees that there are non-thermal effects and the ICNIRP safety standards are set to protect only from the thermal effects then we do not know at all whether the current safety standards sufficiently protect the general public. The safety standards do not protect from the non-thermal effects. Wolfgang did not oppose my statement.