Dr. Hedberg: Well, greetings everyone and welcome to Functional Medicine Research. I’m Dr. Hedberg and I’m really looking forward to my conversation today with Dr. Ethan Will Taylor. And Dr. Taylor is a pharmacologist, computational chemist, and virologist. He has a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Winnipeg and a PhD in pharmacology and toxicology from the University of Arizona. He began his career as Assistant Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, and later, Professor of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Georgia College of Pharmacy. He’s currently Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of North Carolina, at Greensboro, where he has also served as a founding member of the Department of Neuroscience and as Director of the Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory. Dr. Taylor has been engaged in research on HIV, Ebola, and other emerging infectious diseases for over 25 years and is best known for his work on the role and mechanisms of the dietary trace element selenium in reducing the pathophysiological effects of various RNA viruses. He’s also an amateur musician. And with his wife Maria he operates the Dharma Farm Animal Refuge and Vegan Event Center in Archdale, North Carolina. Dr, Taylor, welcome to the show.
Dr. Taylor: I’m happy to be here.
Dr. Hedberg: Excellent. Great, so I wanna have someone on the show who has some excellent expertise in some of our biggest issues today in the world. Some of this will revolve around the current pandemic as well as we’ll talk about how the consumption of animals is leading to pandemics and how it’s affecting our environment. Before we jump into those details, can you give us just a general overview of your research interests and the work that you’ve done?
Dr. Taylor: Sure. As you stated in the bio, my background was in pharmaceutical sciences. Which means you’re looking at drugs and how drugs work and designing better drugs. And so, I had that kind of background and I was a pharmacy professor for 18 years. But the more I studied drugs and how they work, you come to realize that most of the drugs we have, a lot of them treat symptoms. We have some phenomenal drugs, they’re really great to have when you’re doing surgery on people and things like that. And many of the drugs work well but a lot of them really just treat symptoms. And I became kind of more interested in, what’s really the underlying cause of this pathogenic effect. And that led me inevitably to nutrition and being interested in nutrition. And part of it was a serendipitous, almost accidental discovery that I made when I was studying HIV, that led me to this trace element of selenium that you mentioned.
And so, that has kind of been my background but I essentially evolved into this area of looking at…became very interested in antioxidants, selenium in particular and its role in viral diseases, particularly RNA-virus diseases. And along the way, just my family were vegetarians and my kids became vegans before my wife and I did, and then we became vegans. For a lot of reasons, and people do that for different reasons, kind of health reasons, but there’s also environmental reasons, ethical reasons. And I became kind of interested as a sideline in this whole topic of, what does the fact that humans exploit animals to such an extent made primarily to eat them, what are the implications of that for things like diseases. Because, as you study RNA virus diseases in particular, a lot of them are so-called emerging infectious diseases, which, when you look at the history of it all, it’s very clear that these have tended to enter the human population through interactions with animals usually because of people eating the animals. So there you have it, there’s a kind of a smoking gun. And we can get into that, I’m sure, in this discussion.
Dr. Hedberg: Right. So, you became a vegan because of the concern of the impact of animals. And now we’re seeing an impact of eating animals on infectious diseases. So can you talk a little bit about the origins of pandemics and how that connects with human activity and how our relationship with animals and eating them has led to these pandemics?
Dr. Taylor: Sure. Well, the one that most people are familiar with is bird flu of course, that’s the big…and influenza outbreaks in general. People know that, “Oh, there’s something called bird flu and, when that comes, it’s gonna mutate and it’ll be a very serious flu pandemic.” What they don’t may perhaps realize is that virtually all serious flu outbreaks that have happened historically have come because of exchanges of the influenza viruses between humans, and birds, and pigs in particular. So basically livestock animal and birds that are consumed, domesticated birds. But those birds are interacting with wild birds who can carry the viruses over large geographic distances. And it’s in the exchange of, what we call, recombination of different fragments of this virus between the different species that will lead to a new strain that humans have not really been exposed to that much and they haven’t adapted to. And then you have a much more serious outbreak.
So people are aware of that example. But perhaps they’re less aware that some of the most notorious pandemics of recent times have also, in every single case pretty much, been traced to a case where humans were probably eating animals. And so, for instance, HIV is a big one and we now know that there’s very very similar immunodeficiency viruses in primates, what we call simian immunodeficiency viruses. And some of those, especially the ones in chimpanzees, are extremely close genetically to HIV-1 and HIV-2. And they’ve pretty much, traced in my opinion, pretty much indisputable evidence that the virus was transmitted to humans from chimpanzees. And those are…like many monkeys were prey animals that were used for food in Africa, so there you have it for HIV.
Then, if you look at Ebola virus that everyone’s absolutely terrified of, they’ve pretty much been able to trace the alpha case, or the patient zero, of the I guess the initial Ebola outbreak in 76 that kind of made the world aware of the virus to an individual guy who traveled between a couple of places and he ate a couple of different animals along the way. And certainly, in a more recent Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015, they traced it to bats. And bats are also eaten in West Africa, as well as in Asia.
And then, we have, of course more recently, people are again aware about the coronavirus outbreaks. The SARS outbreak in 2000-2003 originated probably…probably the virus reservoir was bats but that was transmitted to some species like civet cats that were sold in markets in China. And that led to the virus get in human population. And they suspect something pretty similar with the new coronavirus that it was transmitted through these wet markets through some kind of species. There’s debate over the some of the intermediate species but, they have…again, bats are sold as food and they have these markets where animals are stacked, cages of animals are stacked on top of each other. And they have I guess pangolins was another illegal food source that they found very closely related to viruses. And they’re still kind of trying to trace exactly what the path between species was. But it’s pretty certain that, if humans hadn’t been eating these animals and also encroaching on their environments, these outbreaks, these pandemics probably would not have started. So those are the most notorious ones.
Dr. Hedberg: Right. And then, you’d mention flu variants. Let’s say a pig is infected with a flu virus and then another virus. And then the human consumes it and then there’s…I believe you call it genetic mixing of those viruses? And then you can get a very difficult virus to deal with. Can you talk a little bit more about that genetic mixing in animals and what happens when we eat them?
Dr. Taylor: Yeah. Okay. So, I mean it’s hard to say if we actually acquire the virus through eating the animal, because we usually cook the meat. Although, when you have uncooked meat, you can certainly have various infections, things like salmonella transmitted or E. coli, and so on and so forth. But it’s in the animal handling stages probably that we have transmission and then that, get us into the farmers or the animal-processing workers, and then gets into our public-health system and is transmitted to general population.
But there’s a couple of different mechanisms. A virus, an avian virus can mutate directly to become more infectious to humans or it can be transmitted through a secondary species, like pigs in particular, in which that is also a human. So there might be a human flu virus and a bird flu virus and a pig gets infected with both of those. And that’s when this genetic mixing, or what’s called reassortment, happens.
So you can have either this kind of direct…so, for instance, the famous…now everyone’s talking about the 1918, you know, flu epidemic is kind of a precedent for the pandemic we’re experiencing now with coronavirus. And that virus probably was an example of what’s called a direct adaptation where a bird flu just mutated to become more infectious to humans. Whereas there’s other examples where, for instance, the 2009 H1N1, they’re pretty sure it was this reassortment where a bird and a pig and a human, you know, species were all kind of mixed up together and led to that particular species. Which, luckily, was not highly lethal to humans, the 2009 outbreak. It actually spread far more widely than people realized but it was, luckily, a fairly low pathogenicity for humans. But by 2010, actually a billion people were infected with the H1N1 and 200,000 died. So, proportionately, that’s not such a lethal flu luckily.
So there’s various ways that can unfold. And some of it is a little bit unique to flu because flu has what’s called a segmented genome, so it has individual pieces of RNA that different genes are carried on. And so, it’s kind of easier for it to kind of mix up a different assortment of those. Whereas coronavirus, for instance, you know, has one long continuous piece of RNA that all of its genes are on and it’s not quite as prone to that kind of mechanism but more of a kind of a point mutation kind of evolution.
So, now you asked about…you know, I mentioned this point about food, you know, that usually, because food is cooked, we don’t actually directly acquire the virus from food. But there may be exceptions to that and one case may be milk. Because there’s this interesting study that was done in about 2015 where they showed that there’s a very high incidence of bovine leukemia virus, which is a type of retrovirus, a relative of HIV that infects cows, and it’s very widespread in dairy herds. Basically, if you look at a large dairy herd of 500 or more, it’s almost 100% certain that some of those cows will test positive for antibodies to bovine leukemia virus, so some of them are infected. And even in smaller herds, less than 100 cows, high percentage will have at least some cows because they pool the milk. So there’s an interesting potential for human milk consumers to be possibly exposed to this virus.
And where it becomes compelling is that, this 2015 study I mentioned was published in the journal “PLOS ONE,” and they actually showed that you can detect this bovine leukemia virus in human mammary breast tissue and that, if you’re positive for that, you have a threefold higher risk of breast cancer. So there’s definitely an association between exposure to this bovine virus that’s carried in milk cows and a risk of breast cancer. So that’s a fairly unusual and direct case where perhaps actual food consumers, not just food, you know, processors, are at high risk of exposure.
Dr. Hedberg: Yeah. Thank you for that distinction regarding eating versus handling because I do think a lot of people believe that you can get some of these viruses through eating particular food. But as you said, it’s really the handling of the animals that are infected with the viruses. But bacteria is another one that we can get pretty commonly from eating animals. And that leads me to ask you just a little bit about antimicrobial drug resistance because you’ve done some work on this. And so, we do have some issues with antibiotics and bugs who are resistant to antibiotics. And unfortunately, you know, drug companies, they’re mainly focused on medications that people can take for long periods of time rather than an antibiotic because you’re only on an antibiotic for, say, 7 to 10 days, so there isn’t as much profit in antibiotics as there are in other types of medications. And so, there just isn’t as much money going into that, as much research unfortunately. So, can you talk a little bit about how eating animals and our relationships with animals leads to antimicrobial drug resistance?
Dr. Taylor: Yes. Well, I think one of the factors there, the driving factors, is the fact that, you know, the livestock industry has discovered, you know, that, if you give antibiotics to animals and if you really kind of pump them up, in some cases, with high levels of antibiotics, they actually get fatter, they seem to yield more meat. But of course they’ve also discovered that, “Okay, we realize that you’re now encouraging the antibiotic resistance because the more you use antibiotics, the more the bugs have a chance to evolve and mutate in a way that lets them resist antibiotics.”
So, in this country, there’s been an attempt to cut back on antibiotic use in any kind of livestock situations. The problem is, even if we outlaw this in the United States, there’s other parts of the world where there is increasing demand for meat. And if you look at in Asia…so, if they’re using antibiotics in their livestock in different parts of Asia and antibiotic resistance is developing in those animals, there’s also a huge amount of international traffic of animals, of farm animals, even between Asia and, say, the United States and Mexico. I think, in 2009, some of the pigs in Mexico might’ve been transported from China, I’m not totally sure about that. But also, once those drug-resistant microbes have evolved, it’s just a matter of time before they can spread worldwide. So, even if we’re doing a good job of trying to limit these antibiotics in the livestock industry, we’re at the mercy of other people in the world. I mean you just have to look at graphs showing increased meat consumption.
And there’s a lot of data out there. As you know, I have a presentation about this and I show data from different countries where they’ve looked at poultry, for instance, and just looked at drug resistance, the percentage of isolates of these bacteria that they get from their poultry populations. And the incidence of drug resistance to various classes of antibiotics are quite frighteningly high, in many cases, getting up to over 50% resistance to certain antibiotics in certain countries. So that means a whole class of antibiotics, so, whether it be Ampicillin, or Tetracyclines, or, you know, Chloramphenicol, or the, you know, Ciprofloxacin class of drugs, some of which are very important in certain types of medical care. And then, if you have just increased resistance…and there’s a nice document that the CDC puts out where they have the statistics on the incidence of drug-resistant bacteria infections nationwide and what the medical cost is. And it’s just staggering. For different drug resistant, such as salmonella, this is older data from like a 2016 report or something, there was 365 million dollars in medical costs treating drug-resistant salmonella. And that’s already probably out of date and has probably increased since then. So it’s a huge burden on our public-health system.
Dr. Hedberg: Definitely. So let’s get into COVID-19 because that’s the real elephant in the room right now. And you’ve actually published some papers already on COVID-19. And so, can you tell us a little bit about some of your key findings on COVID-19 in your research?
Dr. Taylor: Yeah. Yeah, we actually published our fourth peer-reviewed paper since April, just 2 days ago it went online. So I’m working with an international team, we’ve been working quite madly. Like many people, scientists all over the world are just going crazy trying to, you know, find solutions for this pandemic. So, as I mentioned, I’ve been doing research on this trace element selenium in particular and viral infections for many years and focused mostly on HIV where it’s proven to be a pretty important factor in, you know, helping you resist the more severe outcomes. And we suspected the same thing would happen when we heard about the COVID outbreak. I actually had already worked on the SARS virus. I had looked at SARS back in 2003, once they first sequenced the genome of that virus, and I found some genetic signatures that told me there’s probably gonna be a link between selenium status and mortality or severity of outcome of this disease.
And the Chinese government invited me to Beijing to present these results, in 2003. I hooked up with a guy, Dr. Jinsong Zhang, who’s been a collaborator of mine since and he actually had some evidence of selenium-related abnormalities in SARS patients. So we had already done this work way back then. But of course the SARS outbreak, unlike COVID, was contained because it’s not so transmissible. It’s more lethal when you get it but it’s far more difficult to transmit, even though it’s still pretty easy, they were pretty terrified. But they managed to contain it, which is why the Chinese went to such lengths to try to contain the COVID-19 outbreak because they had successfully done it years ago with SARS.
But anyway, when, you know, these genetic sequences of this virus came out, I started looking at it. But I hooked up again with Dr. Zhang and…we knew it would probably be fairly easy to tell if there was some relationship with selenium status in the Chinese population because there’s a history there of diseases going back into the early and mid 20th century. Because China, it’s a huge country, and it’s got geological features, geographical features that lead to some regions with very low selenium in the soils and some regions that have very high, which are often a volcanic soil. But in any case, they’d had problems with a couple of types of diseases that they have had figured out in the past were more severe and more common in these low-selenium regions and that, if they supplemented their population with selenium supplements, that they would be able to reduce the mortality and the incidence of this disease.
So, because of that, there’s a lot of data on the selenium status of people even in different cities in China. So we were able to find that published data, it’s actually what they do is…one of the more accurate measurements is to take it, cut some hair from a person, and you measure the amount of selenium in that hair sample. And that is a very good indicator of what their long-term dietary intake is. It doesn’t fluctuate as much as even like a blood level.
So we were able to get that published data. And of course, as the COVID outbreak progressed, they were getting the case and mortality data city by city, county by county, state by state, just like we do here. So we just, you know, connected those dots. And we published a paper at the end of April in “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” where we showed that there was a highly significant correlation between the selenium status in these different Chinese cities and what was called a cure rate that is the fraction of people that recovered from being infected by COVID. And also, if you just looked at a couple of cities or regions that were notorious for, either having very low selenium or very high selenium…there’s a city called Enshi where it’s one of the highest selenium intakes in the world to the point where they’ve had toxicity from the mineral. And in that city, the cure rate for COVID was three times higher than that in the other parts of the Hubei province, which is where Wuhan is located, where the outbreak started.
And similarly, this area in another province called Heilongjiang, there’s a region called Keshan where there was a disease called Keshan disease which was a selenium-deficiency disease that had a virus cofactor. And in that region, the death rate from COVID was five times higher than in all the surrounding regions. So that’s a pretty compelling…and the statistical analysis on all of those said the probability level of p was less than .0001, 1 in 10,000 chance of that observation happening just randomly. So, we thought it was a pretty strong thing.
Now, since then, a German group has actually published similar findings based on actual measurements of selenium levels in the patients, in COVID patients, in Germany and compared to standard levels in Europeans in a database. And they also showed that the patients with the lowest selenium status were most likely to die or have more severe like ICU-type case. So, and we’ve just heard that there’s another study coming out from another country that shows a similar trend. So this very striking kind of retrospective data now showing that this is important.
Now, to get into the why is this important, it’s hard to do without getting into some molecular biology and what is the role of selenium in the the human immune system and in human biology in general and also what is its role in what the virus might want to do. And I could give you a quick elevator speech of that if you want me to have a go at it. I’m gonna try not to get technical.
Dr. Hedberg: Oh yeah.
Dr. Taylor: Sure. Well, basically, you know, it took me, you know, 20 plus years to figure this out, the last piece of the puzzle. But during the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015, I finally figured out part of that, that led me to the realization that basically…the way I would say it is this that it turns out that the selenium is incorporated into different proteins, the class that’s called selenoproteins. And a lot of those have antioxidant type of functions in your body and they keep your cell membranes from going rancid by peroxidation. You know, so they neutralize oxygen radicals, so they’re often in peroxidases and reductases, you know, things that basically neutralize oxidation. And one of the places where they play a role is in the synthesis of DNA. So one of the selenoproteins is kind of essential to keep the synthesis of DNA going in your cells.
And people might’ve heard of another molecule called RNA, one is ribonucleic acid and one is deoxy, DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid. Which means you have to reduce ribose, the sugar ribose to turn it into deoxyribose. And that’s basically an antioxidant function and selenium is involved in that step.
So, if you’re an RNA virus, you actually would rather slow that process down because, when your body converts ribose to deoxyribose, you’re using up stuff that you could make RNA to make DNA. And all of these viruses, interestingly, they’re all RNA viruses. Right? When you look at them, you know, HIV, Ebola, Zika virus, coronaviruses, influenza viruses, they all have RNA genomes. And so, when the virus takes over your cell, what it wants to do is make a ton of RNA. And when your cell is trying to use some of that RNA stuff to make it into DNA, that’s actually bad for the virus. So, therefore, there’s kind of a natural antagonism between this role of selenium trying to help make DNA. And so, when you have less in your diet, that actually facilitates, makes it easier for the virus to make more RNA.
And it goes beyond that. What we found with coronavirus, which is even more amazing, it’s actually got an active strategy to disrupt these DNA synthesis-related functions. So, a couple of our papers, a paper I just published and a paper that came from some collaborators I have at the China CDC, we’ve basically shown that coronavirus is actually inhibiting the synthesis of certain selenoproteins that, amongst other things, are involved in this process of making DNA. So the virus is actually trying to block this and mess up the function of selenoproteins in your body and the collateral damage of that is gonna be oxidative stress, increased risk of cell death, and a whole bunch of other things that lead to in part of the pathogenic profile of the virus.
So that’s why it seems like these retrospective studies are saying, if you have a higher selenium status, then the impact of that on you is gonna be much less. And if you have a very low selenium status, when the virus starts trying to, you know, block those functions even more, then you’re more likely to be in trouble clinically. So that’s the way I would try to explain it in a simple way.
Dr. Hedberg: Excellent. Yeah, very clear. And also vitamin D is also has a connection with selenium. Can you talk about the interplay between those two?
Dr. Taylor: Yeah. Well, certainly. That’s another one where, you know, it’s actually gotten more press nationally and internationally than selenium has. Even, at one point, said something about he thought this vitamin D correlations were interesting, that it could be important. And what people need to about vitamin D is it’s not the typical vitamin…most vitamins are kind of co-factors for enzymes that make certain enzymes work better and certain things in your body work better. But vitamin D is much more like a hormone, it’s more like cortisone or something like that, it’s like a steroid basically that essentially turns a whole bunch of genes on. And some of the genes that are activated by vitamin D are involved in antioxidant defense and anti-inflammatory responses, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and specifically some of these same selenoproteins that are involved in DNA synthesis. So essentially vitamin D is kind of working with or synergizing with the role of selenium and selenoproteins. Vitamin D is basically upregulating the mRNA expression of these genes. And then they’re a gene for selenium-containing protein so you have to have the element to put in there. So that’s why I think the two of them work together. And if you’re deficient in vitamin D or selenium, then, you know, you’ll have less of an effect.
And so, it’s just interesting that some of these same genes that we’re suggesting in our recent research are being targeted by the virus, either at the protein level or at the RNA level, are the same genes that vitamin D is trying to turn up as part of its response. So that kind of helps explain why this nutrient is also important. So, in my personal regimen, like what I take to try to, you know, boost my resistance to such viruses is I’m taking vitamin D and selenium together because I think.
There’s even a paper, a 20-year-old paper from Germany where they look at a specific selenoprotein called thioredoxin reductase, which is one of the key ones that’s involved in this DNA synthesis process and which we show is being targeted by the coronavirus. Actually the coronavirus protease looks like it’s trying to chop it up to make it non-functional. And it turns out that, for the biosynthesis of thioredoxin reductase and for its enzymatic activity, you have to have both vitamin D and selenium levels, you know, at a good level. So that pretty much proves that you need these two nutrients together to get the best result.
Dr. Hedberg: And so, you know, obviously, if there’s a selenium deficiency in the soil in a certain area, then the population will most likely have lower levels…based on the research you’ve read or what you know, or maybe there isn’t that much out there on this, but are there any other reasons that you’re aware of that will cause a selenium deficiency in an individual, even if they are eating adequate amounts of selenium?
Dr. Taylor: Well, one is certain types of heavy-metal toxicity, and mercury in particular, has been shown…they’re kind of like, you know, antagonistic to each other essentially forming complexes that neutralize…now, because of that, selenium can be important as a detoxifying thing. So, for instance, we’ve heard that there’s a place somewhere in Alberta, in Canada, where they have some very high selenium soil. So, apparently they’ve been growing a bunch of lentils and sending them to Bangladesh or something where there’s a region with very high mercury levels. And I think it’s…or no, it might be arsenic because there’s a similar thing with arsenic. So, both mercury and arsenic toxicity can be neutralized by ingesting, you know, reasonably high levels of selenium-containing foods. So they’re making, you know, these…what would normally been considered, you know, an overdose of selenium from these lentils is actually a detoxifying dose against…I believe it’s arsenic in there.
And I think the same thing came into play with Zika virus. We haven’t really talked about Zika in Brazil. It was very interesting that the incidents, cases of microcephaly where there were…you know, there’s been plenty of neurological damage in neonates from Zika virus even in this country but there hasn’t been a really high incidence of the explicit microcephaly syndrome where the cranium is very small, abnormally small. But that was very common in the initial outbreak in Brazil, which is part of what brought the world’s attention to that. And my theory that I would propose is that this could be because there’s actually quite a lot of mercury, high levels of mercury in Brazil in different regions. Some of it is from possibly pollution from gold mining but a lot of it actually comes from the fact that the rain forest is being burned. Because there’s a certain level of mercury in the natural environment but it gets dispersed throughout the biosphere, so there’s a certain low level of mercury in all of these plants in the jungle. And when they burn the jungle, all of that is reduced to ash and carbon dioxide. And the ash contains concentrated levels of mercury which then gets into groundwater, and streams, and so on, in rivers. And so, we believe there’s a role of selenium in Zika virus pathogenesis along the lines of what we’re seeing for COVID but in kind of a more specific customized way that Zika virus is doing it.
And it turns out, the interesting thing about Zika is…and this was a piece of research I hadn’t heard of until Zika came along and I started doing some research on it, it turns out there’s a genetic disease that’s called PCCA, progressive cerebello-cerebral atrophy, which is a fancy phrase to mean that progressively your cerebellum and the cerebrum of your brain are atrophying. And it’s basically the primary symptom of this, it’s a genetic disease, and it causes microcephaly in the children that are born with this. And it’s kind of progressive, it gets worse and worse as they get older. And this disease was first defined in the early 2000s, and then, it took them about 5 or 7 years. They finally identified the genetic defect that was causing this. And the disease was observed in populations of Sephardic Jews in, I think, Iraq and in Morocco. And basically it turned out the genetic defect was that the children born with this disease are completely incapable of making a selenium-containing protein. So there’s basically, you know…it’s a defect in the selenocysteine tRNA. And so, they cannot incorporate the amino acid selenocysteine into a protein and all of their…so they don’t have any of the antioxidant defenses afforded by these selenoproteins.
And so, what we are suggesting with Zika is that Zika is creating an artificially…is mimicking this disease because it’s interacting, it’s blocking one specific selenoprotein which is responsible for distributing into the brain. So, therefore, it’s basically mimicking this genetic disease.
And we haven’t really…because Zika is another one that kind of has gone off the radar. And I’ve actually got one grad student working on that trying to prove this mechanism. And we’re getting some interesting results but it’s gonna be a while I think before that theory is really confirmed actually in patients because there’s just a lot of challenges in proving such a mechanism.
Dr. Hedberg: And have you seen anything about the vicinity of populations to coal plants, coal-burning plants, under reduction in selenium in the soil? Any disease associations there?
Dr. Taylor: Well, yeah. I mean that’s an interesting one because there was a guy at Oregon State University years ago, like around 1960s or something, he predicted that there was going to be a progressive decline of selenium in the food chain because of acid rain. And the chemistry of that’s pretty simple. Basically you can make sulfur-dioxide gas, which you can get just from burning some sulfur, and bubble it into a solution of, say, sodium selenite. And it’ll precipitate elemental selenium, which is kind of a red powderous material. So the idea is that, if you have acid rain coming down into your soil and you have these inorganic selenium compounds, that it will reduce it to elemental selenium which plants cannot absorb. And therefore, you’ve essentially, you know, interfered with the bioavailability of it. Now, so, there’s plenty of reason for thinking this is going on.
I know that the University of Georgia, where I was a professor for many years, in about 2012, their agriculture division published a study about forage plants all over the state of Georgia and they were raising an alarm just a remarkably low level of selenium in crops in Georgia. So this is probably possibly an ongoing thing. You know, a lot of people seem to think, “Oh, there’s variation in the soils in different parts of, say, the United States, which are partly geological features but then partly aggravated by this acid-rain problem.” So, for instance, the whole northeast, which is the oldest industrial region of the country, there’s quite low selenium levels in the soils and in crops grown there.
One of more interesting stories about that that I heard had to do with the bighorn sheep in…I can’t remember if it was in Wyoming or where…it’s one of the states, I think it might be Wyoming, where the bighorn is their state animal. And it was observed that the young sheep were having problems, they were kind of, you know, weak and having a hard time thriving. And somebody in the conservation department of the government developed this idea that, “Well, maybe it’s because they’re not getting enough selenium in their diets.” And because they observed that, when the parent sheep took their young up to these salt licks on certain places, that then they got better results so they were actually able to do it. And so, they went up the top of the mountains in the rockies and they took some plant samples and went back and analyzed them and found that, essentially, the selenium level in these plants was so low that it was inadequate to support mammalian life. And of course this is where we have the big cities on the West Coast that are chugging out lots of fossil-fuel exhaust that is also got sulfur oxides and nitric oxides and coming down as acid rain in the mountains. And if this mechanism is causing a loss of bioavailability in these plants that…if it can happen essentially to animals, then it can happen to us too. So, and it seems to be confirmed on different levels. So there could be an ongoing concern that there is a decrease of selenium in our diet because of this, again, another consequence of fossil-fuel burning.
Now, the other side of that is, you know, coal, it has a certain content of selenium that is released in the atmosphere when it is burned and which is deposited. But the question is, you know, which effect predominates, you know, and is it deposited in a form which is more bioavailable or not. So it’s a very complex environmental issue that it’s a little bit beyond my expertise. But I hope, at some point, somebody looks at it more closely.
We actually tried to start a project, or had an idea for a project, to look at tree rings and look at the concentration of selenium in tree rings so you could go back 100 years or something and just see what’s happening in different parts of the country and is there a decrease in selenium content towards, you know, more recent times. But this is yet another concern about why we need to get out of fossil fuels.
Dr. Hedberg: Yeah. There was a study published years ago that took place here in Asheville where they did hair samples of individuals. And they did tend to have much higher levels of mercury than the general population. And they were looking at that because we’re east of the Tennessee Valley Authority, many many coal plants in Tennessee and the pollution blows east into this area. And then, we do have a few coal plants in this area as well. And so, we just have to wonder if, even if it isn’t altering the soil, are we getting more mercury from the coal plants? And then, the selenium in our body is binding to that mercury.
Dr. Taylor: Yeah. Yeah, well, that’s why it’s one nutrient. You know, I’m a real advocate of whole foods, diets, and getting as much of your nutrition from a good diet as possible. But I do think it’s one nutrient that, because of all of these complex issues and at such low levels…and, you know, some people say, “Oh, eat Brazil nuts.” Well, what if these Brazil nuts come from a part of Brazil where there’s a lot of mercury and you have mercury in there with it? It might completely neutralize the effect and actually, you know, have an opposite effect. So it’s one that I just think it’s the cheapest dietary supplement that there is. So, it’s probably just safest to take a supplement, a selenium supplement, to be sure that you’re getting what you need.
Dr. Hedberg: Right. And the standard dose that are in, you know, the products that I use in practice is usually around 200 micrograms per capsule. And multivitamins will usually have somewhere around 100 to 200 micrograms. Based on your research, is that a good range or are you seeing a little bit more, a little less?
Dr. Taylor: That’s a good level and it’s certainly not a level that, you know, should be harmful. And there’s really not been…and there could actually be a counter influence of taking more. Now, you know, there could be some cases, that’s certainly for long-term, you know, dietary supplementation to build up your resistance and get to a higher level. There is some evidence that there could be pharmacological effects of selenium-type compounds which can vary from one compound to another. And so, actually I mentioned we just had our most recent paper published yesterday went online in the journal “Redox Biology.” And it’s basically a comprehensive review of all the possible molecular mechanisms whereby selenium could be acting against COVID to explain all these clinical observations. But one of the mechanisms involves, not via these selenium-containing proteins, selenoproteins, but via actions of the small metabolites.
So, there are some tantalizing studies. So, for instance, there was an outbreak in Mongolia, decades ago, of a Hantavirus infection. They call this epidemic hemorrhagic fever, and it’s common in Asia and even all the way over into the Nordic countries, you’ll get this…it’s a mouse-borne virus infection. And it manifests, it can have the kind of a pulmonary syndrome or can also have a hemorrhagic syndrome. Anyway, this old Chinese guy, Dr. Ho, decided he had his own theory of why selenium might be involved. And he treated people, in this particular outbreak, with 2 milligrams a day of sodium selenite for 9 days. So it was just a short-term, essentially a pharmacological use of selenium. And that works out to, you know, 900 plus micrograms a day. So most nutritionists would be appalled, “Oh my god, you can’t give someone 900 micrograms a day. That’s way too toxic,” but that’s only true if you take it for months and months. Short-term…in Europe, it’s become a standard practice to use milligram doses of sodium selenite, you know, for a number of days to treat sepsis and other kind of inflammatory syndromes in intensive care. And, you know, there’s been a lot of studies and meta-analyses showing that, you know, this is pretty effective. And certainly there’s no toxicity. So, toxicity is a bit relative. It doesn’t depend just on the dose, it also depends on the length of time that you give it.
So, there is some evidence that, with certainly this one case of a Hantavirus infection, because, in that study, he overall reduced the mortality by something like 80% by doing this 9-day treatment of sodium selenite. And, you know, if that was an experimental drug or something, the drug company would be just, you know, screaming from the rooftops about how fantastic their drug was. But, you know, here it is, “Oh, well, it’s just this nutrient,” and, you know, people are skeptical and you can’t even get people to pay attention.
And there are a whole bunch of anecdotal stuff about the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, which is a whole another story, where they did a small trial and initially got, again, of sodium selenite. And they were probably using much higher…well, actually about a similar dose, something probably, you know, close to 800-1,000 micrograms a day. And it was sodium selenite when they first started. And apparently, the initial results were so promising that the nurses in this ICU…or not ICU, Ebola treatment unit, ETU, one of the first ones that was set up in Liberia, the nurses apparently thought that it was so obviously helpful that they insisted on giving it to patients in the control group as well.
But then that ran into a lot of controversy. It’s been a very controversial approach. For some reason, all of the mainstream organizations, whether it’s Doctors without Borders, or the CDC, or the UN, or WHO, or NIH, they all are very very skeptical and have been opposed and think this is just, you know, kind of a snake-oil type of treatment. And luckily, I’m happy in a way that, at least in COVID, we’re finally getting some really really solid studies showing that, “Hey, this isn’t just somebody’s imagination. This isn’t just somebody trying to sell a product. There’s a real profound effect here.” And maybe we’re gonna finally get to the bottom of it. So that’s one of the silver linings of the COVID cloud I hope.
Dr. Hedberg: Right, right. Well, this has been really fascinating, Dr. Taylor. How would you like people to follow you online? Do you have anywhere to point them? I know I follow you on ResearchGate. So, for the doctors and the practitioners listening, your papers are on ResearchGate. Is there anywhere else you’d like people to follow you?
Dr. Taylor: Yeah. Well, we created a Facebook page, it’s just called selenium.virology. And it actually has a link to the ResearchGate site, so that’s there. And as the more important papers come out, we post them there not just from myself and my collaborators but also papers from other groups that are relevant to this topic. So, for instance, the German study I’ve mentioned, we’ve got a link to that. And we have links to the full-text articles whenever possible. Or reviews that come out. So, for instance, this new review that I just mentioned, I’m gonna be putting that up on that site soon. So anyway, if they just look for facebook.selenium.virology, they can find that site. And that’s got a lot of links to, you know, things that we think are relevant to this topic. So, and then, they can get to the ResearchGate site from there. So, that should work.
Dr. Hedberg: Excellent, excellent. Yeah. Well, thank you for coming on. I really appreciate it, this has been very informative. And to all of our listeners, go to drhedberg.com and just search for Dr. Taylor and you’ll see a full transcript of this interview there, as well as links to his research and all the resources that we talked about today. So, take care everyone. This is Dr. Hedberg, and I will talk to you soon.
Dr. Taylor’s published papers and projects:
- Understanding Selenium and Glutathione as Antiviral Factors in COVID-19: Does the Viral M pro Protease Target Host Selenoproteins and Glutathione Synthesis?
- Association between regional selenium status and reported outcome of COVID-19 cases in China
- Cellular Selenoprotein mRNA Tethering via Antisense Interactions with Ebola and HIV-1 mRNAs May Impact Host Selenium Biochemistry
- Antisense inhibition of selenoprotein synthesis by Zika virus may contribute to neurological disorders and microcephaly by mimicking selenoprotein P knockout and the genetic disease progressive cerebello-cerebral atrophy
- Click here to see his project on the molecular basis for the role of selenium in the pathology of the SARS Coronaviruses SARS-CoV-1 & 2, the causative agents of the 2003 SARS and current COVID-19 epidemics.
- Click here to see his project on the impacts of animal agriculture on human and environmental health.