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May 29, 2016
Nasal flu vaccine left energetic and happy 10-year-old Bobby Hunter with disease that makes him afraid to smile (photo credit: Daily Express)
Scientists reveal how a hyperactivated immune system can unleash disease
Bobby Hunter was 10 years old when his mother noticed her usually energetic boy was struggling to stay awake and he looked exhausted all the time. Then he began collapsing. Eventually Bobby was diagnosed with narcolepsy, a lifelong incurable condition where victims suddenly drop into deep dream sleep, sometimes a dozen times a day or more. It can be accompanied by bizarre and terrifying symptoms: waking hallucinations of demons, insomnia, sleep paralysis and a sudden loss of muscle control or cataplexy often triggered by strong emotions. Bobby now has to be accompanied everywhere he goes in case he falls unconscious; he’ll never bathe or drive or cross a street alone. But his case is particularly cruel. Now, he is a child who is afraid to smile or laugh because it might trigger an attack.
Bobby’s mother Amanda is adamant he first became ill after he received the nasal flu vaccine at his school. But could such a small thing cause such a devastating disorder?
Narcolepsy Nightmare Explained
This month at the 10th Autoimmunity Congress in Leipzig, Germany a leading pharmaceutical researcher presented his international team’s findings suggesting that vaccination could indeed have the “unexpected” effect of inducing crippling narcolepsy, an autoimmune disease.
Sohail Ahmed, lead author of a ground breaking paper published last summer in Science Translational Medicine explained how the now-retracted Pandemrix vaccine was implicated in a narcolepsy epidemic of more than 1,300 children in several European countries and spates of cases linked to other vaccines for the 2009 swine flu pandemic that never materialized.
It turns out, part of the influenza nucleoprotein in the swine flu vaccine looked (molecularly) just like a receptor for a neurotransmitter in the brain called orexin that regulates the sleep/wake cycle, explained, Ahmed former global head of clinical sciences at Novartis and later GlaxoSmithKline who is currently with Roche Pharmaceuticals.
When the vaccine was injected with an adjuvant to ramp up the immune response, the immune system went into overdrive. Something — maybe chemical ingredients in the vaccine, maybe inflammation – breached the blood brain barrier and the immune system targeting the vaccine virus also locked in on the receptors in the brain sleep centre. Narcoleptic patients’ own immune system then destroyed a hub of 70,000 or so orexin-producing cells in their brains before their hosts started knocking out. The autoimmune reaction can’t be turned off because the immune system is programmed to relentlessly attack anything it perceives as a foreign invader. It’s a case of mistaken identity and in immunology it’s called a “cross-reaction.”
But could other vaccines still in circulation that contain the H1N1 virus trigger narcolepsy too? Could the same mechanism cause kids like Bobby Hunter to get narcolepsy from the nasal flu vaccine?
Both Ahmed and immunologist Maria Teresa Arango at Leipzig confirmed that it could indeed. Bobby probably carries the HLA-DQB1*0602 genetic marker that leaves him at a higher risk of getting narcolepsy. But so does 20% of the US population. For pharmaceutical industry dependents like Ahmed, so long as cases like Bobby’s are not epidemic as they were with Pandemrix, they are collateral damage the pharmaceutical industry is willing continue to keep flu vaccines rolling.
But what if other vaccine proteins are acting in more unexpected ways, contributing to other autoimmune diseases?
Arango said such cross-reactivity could be the underlying mechanism for widely varied and unexpected documented vaccine adverse autoimmune events affecting other parts of the brain or body. She pointed to the work of Dr. Darja Kanduc.
Massive Peptide Sharing, Massive Autoimmunity?
Kanduc is a biochemist at the University of Bari in Italy who presented her findings in Leipzig at a one-day symposium on vaccine safety sponsored by the Children’s Medical Safety Research Institute. Bari has been looking for molecular similarities between microbial and human proteins and found that a massive, unexpected “peptide sharing” exists between human proteins and microbe proteins.
Where overlap (“peptide sharing”) occurs between a foreign protein and human protein, they have a same identical amino acid sequence (for example, SLVDTYR). An immune response launched against SLVDTYR might hit A (the microbial protein) and also B (the human protein). In immunology terms, this is a cross-reaction between A and B — in the same way Ahmed’s team illustrated vaccine-induced narcolepsy.
Normally such cross-reactions do not occur, explains Kanduc. “In fact, the human immune system has been ‘educated’ to ignore foreign proteins and avoid cross-reactions in order not to harm the similar human ‘self’ proteins.” In immunology, this is called immunotolerance. Our immune system does not press the panic button and launch an attack on every foreign viral protein it encounters.
Our natural immunotolerance has proved a big problem for vaccine manufacturers over the years. Simply injecting a viral or bacterial particle into our bodies does not trigger the immune storm they want. Our bodies aren’t designed to encounter pathogens via intramuscular injection, after all. Our immune system refuses to attack the injected pathogen since that would mean also attacking the look-alike human proteins. It would rather not go to war than risk the home casualties.
Imagine the immune system as a border guard. If a guard at the Canada-US border pulled every vehicle that drove up to his checkpoint aside, emptied the suitcases, called in the sniffer dogs, strip-searched the occupants and called for the SWAT team, things would get ugly pretty fast. Most of the time, border guards are alert but passive. Our immune system is the same way with foreign proteins.
So vaccine manufacturers pepper vaccines with adjuvants — crude extracts of mycobacteria, toxins such as mercury, aluminum salts, or mineral oils to force the reluctant immune system to go into attack mode – from passive border guard to hypervigilant nutter pulling a gun on a granny. Celebrated Yale immunologist Charles Janeway called this “immunologist’s dirty little secret” underlying vaccination.
“Adjuvants expand, potentiate, and increase immune responses,” explains Kanduc. “Such hyperactivation has a price: the loss of specificity. The hyper-stimulated immune system does not discriminate any more between foreign proteins and self-proteins…Adjuvants render the immune system blind. Human proteins that share peptide sequences will be attacked.”
Kanduc likens immunotolerance to a protective wall. “The dam is demolished by the adjuvants and the cross-reactivity flood can crush and alter human proteins.” This might also cause numerous cross-reactions, manifested as a wide variety of autoimmune attacks.
Can vaccines induce genetic disease?
Kanduc looked for peptide sharing between a single influenza A H5N1 protein and human proteins. She found that the viral protein shares 70 peptides with the human host — proteins involved in basic cell functions including proliferation, neurodevelopment, and differentiation.
Among the human proteins that could be on the firing range: reelin, a protein involved in neuron layering, neurexins, proteins that connect neurons, syndrome 10 protein for Bardet-Biedl syndrome, a transcription factor for Williams Syndrome (a rare genetic neurodevelopmental disorder), a protein associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and so on.
When these human proteins are altered, as for example by genetic mutations, neurological disorders such as epilepsy, obesity, dystonia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and demyelinating diseases like multiple sclerosis occur, says Kanduc.
“The same spectrum of diseases might occur if these human proteins are attacked and altered by cross-reactions following an expanded and indiscriminate immune response induced by an adjuvant vaccine,” she adds.
With such “massive overlap” of proteins, the potential for vaccines to induce all sorts of autoimmune diseases is possible; it explains why such diverse autoimmune phenomena have been documented in the medical literature with respect to vaccination, from neurological disorders to skin afflictions to impaired fertility.
“The type of autoimmune phenomenon and disease that is eventually established will depend on the molecules and organs attacked,” explains Kanduc. “For example, attacks against myelin may evoke demyelinating diseases [such as multiple sclerosis] whereas immune reactions against proteins involved in behaviour and /or cognition may cause autism and behaviour disorders.”
Such autoimmunity may be the mechanism underlying cases of premature menopause and infertility in adolescent girls following injection with the vaccine against HPV, described in Leipzig by an Australian GP. Deirdre Little, a general practitioner in South Bellingen, first published a case study of her 16-year-old patient who developed premature ovarian insufficiency (POI) following HPV vaccination. Since then Little has encountered six more post-HPV cases of sterility in adolescents in her practice – though primary ovarian insufficiency is almost unheard of — normally affecting one in 100,000 girls under age 20.
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Celeste McGovern is a Canadian freelance journalist in the UK.
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