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The Montagnier “Homeopathy” Study

A recent study is being cited as support for homeopathy. For instance, the Homeopathy World Community website says

Luc Montagnier Foundation Proves Homeopathy Works.

Dana Ullman cites it in the comments to this blog

And I assume that you all have seen the new research by Nobel Prize-winning virologist Luc Montagnier that provides significant support to homeopathy. 

Nope. Sorry, guys. It doesn’t. In fact, its findings are inconsistent with homeopathic theory.

The study has nothing whatsoever to say about homeopathy. Its abstract concludes:

This opens the way to the development of highly sensitive detection system for chronic bacterial infections in human and animal diseases.

Homeopaths are grasping at straws when they cite this study. It involved dilution and agitation: that’s the only possible hint of anything homeopathic and it is nothing but a false analogy.

The study is “Electromagnetic signals are produced by aqueous nanostructures derived from bacterial DNA” by Luc Montagnier, Jamal Aissa, Stephane Ferris, Luen-Luc Montagnier and Claude Lavallee. The pdf of the article is available here.

While not necessarily impacting the validity of the study, its publishing details raise some concerns. It was not published in an established, respected journal. It appeared in the first volume, second issue of a new journal, Interdisciplinary Sciences–Computational Life Sciences.  The article is not written in the usual scientific format – it lacks separate sections for Methods, Results, etc. There are numerous typos and language errors that should have been caught by any proofreader even if the peer reviewers missed them. The editor in chief is in Shanghai, and four of the other editors are in various Chinese cities, while the other two are US based but have Chinese names. Montagnier is on the editorial board. It says it is peer-reviewed, but the speed of the process is worrisome: the Montagnier article was received 3 January 2009, revised 5 January 2009 and accepted 6 January 2009.

In preliminary observations, they discovered that when they filtered 300 nM Mycoplasma with a 100 nM filter, the resulting sterile fluid

was able to regenerate the original mycoplasma when incubated with a mycoplasma negative culture of human lymphocytes within 2 to 3 weeks.

This alone is intriguing, suggesting that disrupted particles of DNA can re-create the original bacterium in cell culture. If true, it would have all sorts of interesting implications, especially for sterilization by filtration. The evidence for this was referenced merely as a “personal communication.” I wonder why they didn’t publish it.

They say that

In the course of investigating the nature of such filtering infectious forms, we found another property of the filtrates… their capacity to produce some electromagnetic waves of low frequency in a reproducible manner after appropriate dilutions in water.

They do not explain what rationale prompted them to measure EMS or to dilute their samples. It was this electromagnetic phenomenon that they proceeded to investigate in the present study.

The study detected electromagnetic signals from diluted, agitated, and filtered solutions of Mycoplasma and E. coli bacteria. They postulate that some DNA sequences emit electromagnetic waves after excitation by the ambient electromagnetic background. Extracted DNA produced EMS signals similar to those produced by intact bacteria. DNAse treatment abolished the effect. They postulate a network of DNA nanostructures organized in a gel-like liquid crystal. Puzzlingly, they found no effects in low dilutions – but they came up with tortuous rationalizations as to why that might be (Self-inhibition? Interference? Inability to vibrate?). The effect was transferable to other lower dilutions of the same bacteria when the two solutions were shielded and kept close to each other for 24 hours.

There was a lot of background noise, but they say that positive signals could be differentiated over the background by higher frequency peaks. The measuring system they used does not immediately inspire confidence, since it was designed by Benveniste, infamous for winning two Ig Nobel prizes, the second one for allegedly sending the electromagnetic signatures of homeopathic water memories over telephone lines and the Internet. I don’t have the expertise to critique the physics or the methodology; but even assuming the results are valid, they tend to discredit homeopathy, not support it:

  1. By filtration, they were able to determine the particle size of the components that were associated with positive results. There were particles of DNA present, in contrast to high homeopathic dilutions where no molecules of the original substance remain.
  2. Homeopathy postulates effects at most dilutions, with increasing effects as the dilutions become greater. In this study, there were no effects at low dilutions. There were a series of positive effects at high dilutions but the effect size did not increase progressively as the dilution increased. At the highest dilutions, the effect vanished.
  3. They talk about water structures and polymer formations, but acknowledge that these associations appear to be very short-lived. In this study they found that the effects lasted for several hours, sometimes up to 48 hours – but not longer. Homeopathic remedies are not administered within hours of their preparation. They supposedly remain effective for long periods. Most homeopaths say that homeopathic remedies do not require expiration dates and will remain effective indefinitely as long as they are properly stored.

The authors claim that the effects were only found in pathogenic bacteria, not in beneficial bacteria like probiotics. Maybe. It would be surprising if one physical phenomenon rather than several different physiologic ones could discriminate between pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria.

The authors engage in further unwarranted speculation:

we have detected the same EMS in the plasma and in the DNA extracted from the plasma of patients suffering of Alzheimer, Parkinson disease, multiple Sclerosis and Rheumatoid Arthritis.

This statement is given without any supporting references. The data have apparently not been published. One wonders why.

They go on to say

This would suggest that bacterial infections are present in these diseases.

It would suggest to me that they really don’t know the significance of what they are apparently measuring.

The study can only be categorized as a preliminary study. It raises a lot of questions and will require independent replication (preferably studies of high enough quality to merit publication in a more prestigious journal with high standards and rigorous peer review) before we can place any confidence in its results.

Anyway, in vitro findings by themselves can’t ever validate homeopathy, even if they could demonstrate that water can remember what molecules were diluted out of it. They would still have to show that such memory translated to specific therapeutic effects on human physiology. Homeopathy is a system of clinical treatment that can only be validated by in vivo clinical trials. Homeopaths who believe Montagnier’s study supports homeopathy are only demonstrating their enormous capacity for self-deception.

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29 thoughts on “The Montagnier “Homeopathy” Study

  1. troffer says:

    Very nice post, although not deserved. Received 07/03, accepted 07/06, lots of typo and I don’t even comment on the content… Shame on you Luc Montagnier.

  2. PilleMille says:

    Well, either you could buy that bacteria spontaneously reappeared in the cell cultures, ooor that their sterile technique was really poor.

    I vote for the second.

  3. Soliton says:

    An astute analysis of the Montagnier article. I am impressed.

    “The study can only be categorized as a preliminary study. It raises a lot of questions and will require independent replication (preferably studies of high enough quality to merit publication in a more prestigious journal with high standards and rigorous peer review) before we can place any confidence in its results.”

    A rather generous “gimme” imho.

  4. Joe says:

    This is an excellent deconstruction of the article. Cue Dana Ullman (MPH!!) 3, 2, 1 …

  5. Mojo says:

    Homeopaths are grasping at straws when they cite this study. It involved dilution and agitation: that’s the only possible hint of anything homeopathic and it is nothing but a false analogy.

    Whenever I dilute or mix things, I make sure that they’re adequately mixed. If merely invoking agitation is enough to make something homoeopathic then pretty much any procedure involving solutions could be considered homoeopathic. Grasping at straws indeed (and never mind the appeal to authority…).

  6. Archangl508 says:

    “Anyway, in vitro findings by themselves can’t ever validate homeopathy, even if they could demonstrate that water can remember what molecules were diluted out of it.”

    I disagree with that statement. I would love to see homeopathy try to generate some positive in vitro POC data. Would just be more evidence for the “homeopathy is just water” hypothesis.

  7. Scott says:

    I don’t have the expertise to critique the physics or the methodology

    Fortunately, some of your readers do have relevant expertise. ;)

    Ultimately, their claim is that they observe (relatively) high-frequency EM radiation from these preparations. After carefully reading the article, I am completely unconvinced that said observations are anything other than background.

    1. There is no indication that backgrounds were measured, characterized, or controlled for in any systematic way. This critical and central piece of the experiment is addressed only with the brief statement that

    In each experiment, the internal noise generated by the different pieces of the reading system was first
    recorded (coil alone, coil with a tube filled with water).

    – For starters, the reference to internal noise appears to indicate a complete unconcern with external background.

    – The background readings are not presented at all. All by itself, this is a fatal flaw that renders the paper completely meaningless, as there is no way for the reader to judge the extent to which the purported results comport with the noise characteristics of the apparatus.

    – There is no indication that the background characteristics were monitored over time – a very important requirement given that many sources of external EM radiation are transient.

    – I would very much want to see monitoring of external background during the experiment itself – set up two sets of apparatus next to each other, place the sample in one, and compare results with the other.

    – The assertion is made that figures 2c,d show the Fourier analysis of the background (which would still be grossly inadequate, but at least a start) but figures 2c,d are later stated to show samples. The caption agrees with the latter. So I can only conclude that the background results really weren’t shown at all.

    – The authors claim that shielding the apparatus from background in a Faraday cage abolished the signal. This is a priori a strong indication that they were in fact measuring background. The blithe assumption that the measured signal is instead stimulated by external excitation requires vigorous defense and careful correction for the external background. This was not done at all.

    – It was apparently required to use the laptop’s battery instead of a power cord in order to obtain positive results; this is another strong indicator that they were measuring background noise.

    2. The sensitivity of the apparatus was apparently not characterized. The results are therefore uninterpretable. Exposure to known intensities of known frequency signals would simply be the necessary first step to determining that the apparatus works at all. Even that was not done.

    3. No analysis of the signal-to-noise ratio AT ALL?!?!?!?!? Not even compared to the limited background testing they DID do? Even high school physics students are expected to make at least some genuflections in the direction of assessing uncertainties.

    4. The apparatus is in principle plausible, but the details that would permit a reader to evaluate it are completely absent. Often new apparatus is presented in its own article in a methods journal – this is particularly true when the results obtained from it are so striking. I suppose it is possible that this was done in another article, in which case the lack of a clear citation is inexcusable. The closest thing I can see in the references is a patent, which doesn’t even come close to adequate (I looked it up; there’s no information anywhere near sufficient to evaluate its performance). There is also a citation to “Faseb Journal 10, A1479″. Such an article does not exist according to http://www.fasebj.org – indeed, their search indicates no publications by Benveniste, Jurgens, or Aissa in 1996.

    Overall, if this were a lab report from a college junior/senior level physics major lab course (the closest analog), it would rate a D at best. And that would be generous. At the professional level, the complete unconcern with background can only be described as gross incompetence.

    This doesn’t even rise to the level of a preliminary study. When it comes right down to it, the entire paper is simply an unsubstantiated assertion.

  8. Telum says:

    I agree with everything stated above on the physics. The paper states that the signals were at 1000 hz. Not Mhz, Thz or Ghz. Just plain hz. That is incredibly low for an electromagnetic wave. It has a wavelength of 300 kilometers, and I wonder how they even detected such low energy photons.

    Also, it is notoriously difficult to purge all mycoplasma even from “sterile” equipment, particularly to which you are adding any sort of cells to.

    “Thus, filtration of a culture supernatant of human lymphocytes
    infected with Mycoplasma pirum, a microorganism of
    about 300 nM in size, through filters of 100 nM or
    20 nM porosities, yielded apparently sterile fluid. The
    latter however was able to regenerate the original my-
    coplasma when incubated with a mycoplasma negative
    culture of human lymphocytes within 2 to 3 weeks.”

    1) The filters were up to 200nm in size. It is not hard to imagine that there existed a few mycoplasma that were abnormally small.

    This indicate that the “silent” low
    dilutions are self-inhibitory, probably by interference of
    the multiple sources emitting in the same wave length
    or slightly out of phase, like a radio jamming.

    1) Lol! So at low concentrations all the tiny structures magically become in phase?

    My guess is that their singals are due entirely to a particular team member being near the apparatus with his cell phone, or something silly like that.

  9. daedalus2u says:

    I agree with Scott, he beat me to it. To me, it looks like just noise. Variable amounts of high frequency noise superimposed on top of pretty constant low frequency noise.

    If you look at figure 5b, I can’t distinguish between NF, D2, D4, D7, and D12. D8, D9, D10 and D11 look identical also. To me, it looks like exactly the same low frequency noise signal with sometimes (and sometimes not) the exact same high frequency noise signal superimposed on it. Lots of electrical equipment will generate signals like this. Because the high frequency noise is in phase with the low frequency noise, I suspect electromagnetic noise, as from a transformer, power supply, or an induction motor.

    They even say that without the low frequency background noise they don’t get any signal. If they need a background signal, they need to do their work in a shielded region and then deliberately impose a known background signal and not rely on ambient noise. There are many electrical systems that are extremely sensitive to noise. I have worked with some where just moving your hand while it was feet away from anything would produce a significant signal. If this is a real signal they can find it in a noise-free environment.

    They report that they did all the serial dilutions and then did all the analysis. That means that the samples had variable lengths of time between when they were vortexed and when they were analyzed.

    The type of signal the apparatus they are using can detect is a magnetic signal, not an electrostatic signal. However an electrostatic signal could affect their results by putting a DC bias on their amplifier via electrostatic induction. That going to a 12 volt powered computer reduces the noise suggests that a lot of it is from the power lines.

    If vortexing is necessary, maybe it is bubbles from the vortexing. Maybe different amounts of surfactant from the filters is changing the characteristic bubble diameter. They don’t report results on filtered blank solutions. They say they did the tests in 3 different cities and say to look at the graphs to see how they are different, but they don’t tell which city which results were obtained in.

  10. I won’t get into the methodological flaws. But there are some immediate red flags in addition to the ones Harriet mentioned. The first is the list of reference. Any good article will give a good background on the topic, reviewing previous findings, and if there are non, examine the theory. A reference list of ten citations of which one is a patent, and another is a CRC reference book, is on the rather short side for a scientific paper. The second red flag is that unlike most journal articles there is no acknowledgement of support of funding or conflict of interest statement from the authors. The third is that the author’s corresponding e-mail address is a free Yahoo account. It’s unprofessional and hence suspicious for the author of a scientific paper not to have or use their university or corporate address for official correspondence on a published work.

  11. BKsea says:

    Yesterday, this site was hatin’ on the Canadians. Today it’s the Chinese. I think the quality of the journal that published this article speaks for itself without needing to imply it is inferior because people with Chinese names are on the editorial board. Perhaps you could bring up the relevant (or lack thereof) credentials of the editors?

    On another note, I followed the link to the publication and found that the Luc Montagier Foundation boasts a total of 2 “publications”. The other one is an apparently un-published recomendation to use fermented papaya to prevent H1N1.

  12. Harriet Hall says:

    China is notorious for only publishing studies with positive results. I meant no disrespect to individual Chinese scientists. I am, however, concerned with their exposure to cultural influences about deciding what to publish.

  13. Scott says:

    Incidentally, I find it particularly amusing that Ullman would wave around Montagnier’s Nobel for this, given that virology (and indeed, biology) are quite irrelevant to the experiment. It has no more bearing on his qualifications to perform this research than if it were for Literature.

    So Dana, if you happen by here to see this – yes, I did quite knowingly call a Nobel laureate grossly incompetent, and that’s because in this field he is.

  14. antipodean says:

    Harriet sez- The editor in chief is in Shanghai, and four of the other editors are in various Chinese cities, while the other two are US based but have Chinese names.

    I have to agree with most of your post Harriet but Chinese ancestory is never going to be a valid reason to refute scientific arguments. One could just as easily dig up some horrible quote about women being constitutionally unable to argue rationally from a hundred years ago. Or for that matter apply that quote (above) to Africans, Polynesians or the Germans.

    Either way it’s extremely distasteful both to myself and my Chinese-decended and China-based collaborators.

    American’s are also notorious for publishing studies with positive results. Everybody is. It’s a systematic problem.

  15. I have written my own thoughts on this…

    http://www.quackometer.net/blog/2009/10/why-i-am-nominating-luc-montagnier-for.html

    In particular, how Montagnier is using a device used by Benveniste to transmit homeopathic signals via email to do his measurements.

  16. Harriet Hall says:

    antipodean,

    Your statement that “Chinese ancestory is never going to be a valid reason to refute scientific arguments” is uncalled for. I never suggested any such thing.

    I said “While not necessarily impacting the validity of the study, its publishing details raise some concerns” and my concern about publication bias in Chinese culture has been discussed in these pages before and is based on solid evidence. The file drawer effect in China is practically 100%, far higher than in any Western country.

    See the following references. The first one showed that “No trial published in China or Russia/USSR found a test treatment to be ineffective.”
    The second one is by a Chinese scientist from Hong Kong acknowledging that there is a problem and suggesting what might be done about it.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9551280
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1285067/

  17. Mark P says:

    “Either way it’s extremely distasteful both to myself and my Chinese-decended and China-based collaborators.”

    Get over it. It’s got nothing to do with your race!

    The same things were said about Russians during the Soviet era publishing history. Again, it was about the local system, not the race of the writers. They weren’t all bad, but one had extra reason to treat any “fact” with care. And when the citations were all “internal” to the same political system and unobtainable, then the evidence was basically worthless.

    Going all cry-baby when real issues are pointed out does no-one any favours.

  18. Harriet Hall says:

    Where is DUllman? As an intrigued observer of human psychology, I am really looking forward to seeing what kind of ingenious rationalizations homeopaths will invent to assuage their cognitive dissonance and try to convince themselves that this study really supports homeopathy.

    By the way, in the famous Benveniste basophil study, the effect of increasing dilutions also failed to increase as homeopathic theory predicts. It went up and down and up and down with successive dilutions. I have never heard a homeopath try to explain that, or even acknowledge it.

  19. This study, were it to be replicated and validated consistently and repeatedly with high quality followup studies would still not support homeopathy.

    You couldn’t even stretch it to say it would provide a remotely plausible mechanism through which homeopathy might work since this effect (if it were to turn out to be real) depends on actual particles being present, and the effect disappears after 48 hours or with extreme dilution.

    Even setting aside the limited duration of the effect and the limit to the dilution level (some particles must be present), if the study were to be validated, the MOST you would have is a plausible conjecture of how homeopathy might potentially work IF homeopathy were shown to be effective beyond placebo, but why look for zebras when you haven’t even seen hoof prints yet?

  20. TsuDhoNimh says:

    I just looked at the diagram of their experimental equipment from Quackometer. It’s definitely a quackometer!

    What the heck are they doing, using off the shelf audio amplifiers meant for stereo systems, unshielded cables, and the sound card and I/O systems from a PC to detect a signal so faint it’s buried in noise?

    What they have built is an uncontrolled wide-band antenna.

  21. Mojo says:

    Steve Scrutton (of the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths) has just cited it over at the Guardian’s Science Blog:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2009/oct/21/pseudoscience

  22. antipodean says:

    All I’m trying to say is that the apparent ethnicity of somebody’s last name does not consitute a qualification on the plausibility of their science. Thes rest of the article was excellent and I agree wholeheartedly with it. Harriet writes these pieces very well.

    But.

    Having a Chinese or Russian last name is not a political affiliation. Being based inside a political system is a problem as the articles that Harriet helpfully cited (and I was previously aware of these). So Chinese-based might be a problem but Chinese-named should not be. Then we have the confusing issue of Hong Kong…

    So the exception I took was that Chinese last names in American universities were suspicious. This was not an argument I liked seeing from my EBM-producing perspective. This argument could be applied to my collaborators who are Chinese-descended and grew up in the antipodean islands or China and are based in Australian and New Zealand Universities and Institutes. That erroneous argument could be used to devalue my science, which is not subject to political interference from the Chinese government nor some sort of Chinese cultural requirement to provide positive findings.

    Mark P “Get over it. It’s got nothing to do with your race!” – Reading comprehension fail.
    Mark P “Going all cry-baby when real issues are pointed out does no-one any favours.” – I’m no apologist for homeopathy. It’s utter bullshit. But we must argue rationally and scientifically. I’m a producer of EBM not some whinger concern troll.

  23. jofspammo says:

    Hasn’t pushing the boundaries of science (into non-explainable science) always been punishable by ridicule? Yet some of these discoveries were later validated. Remains to be seen here.

  24. qetzal says:

    Hasn’t pushing the boundaries of science (into non-explainable science) always been punishable by ridicule? Yet some of these discoveries were later validated.

    Quite true.

    Remains to be seen here.

    Nope. This is at best an artifact being overblown by sloppy science.

  25. Harriet Hall says:

    antipodean,

    I see I will have to explain my thinking. I have shown that Chinese science may be less trustworthy than science coming from some other countries because they do not publish negative studies. This suggests that some aspects of their scientific thinking may not be as rigorous as that of scientists trained in a different milieu. When the majority of a new journal’s editors are based in China and the only two others are based in the US but have Chinese names, it is worth wondering whether they might all be colleagues trained in China. Even if they are, that fact does not by itself discredit the study in any way. I characterized it only as a “concern” and I stand by that assessment. As with any study, we should ask questions about things that might suggest subtle bias or tend to diminish our confidence that the results are trustworthy, such as pharmaceutical company funding, conflicts of interest, and incredibly fast peer review.

    I would not have commented on the Chinese names of the American-based editors if all the other editors had not been based in China.

  26. Ulrich says:

    @ Scott:

    The FASEB reference is:

    Thomas Y, Litime H, Benveniste J: Modulation of human neutrophil activation by “electronic” phorbol myristate acetate (PMA). FASEB Journal 10: A1479, 1996.

    The A in the page number indicates that this is an unrefereed FASEB conference abstract.

  27. Oroboros says:

    This alone is intriguing, suggesting that disrupted particles of DNA can re-create the original bacterium in cell culture. If true, it would have all sorts of interesting implications, especially for sterilization by filtration.

    As I read that it almost struck me as a form of spontaneous generation.

    I met someone once who told me with a straight face that Pasteur got it wrong. This guy wasn’t peddling homeopathy however. He had a plan to build an earthquake machine to recreate the Pleistocene climate (destroyed in a Velikovskian disaster). He believed that would be sufficient to restore the woolly mammoths, giant cave bears and saber-tooth tigers.

    But, back to this idea of sterilization by filtration: over the summer an ancient ultramicrobacteria- Herminiimonas glaciei – was revived after a freeze of 120,000 years. I can’t access the original publication, but tried tracking down details of just how small it is for comparison on this cell size scale chart. Wikipedia claims dimensions of 0.5–0.9 by 0.3–0.4 µm but the referenced story at newscientist.com says H. glaciei rods are 0.9 micrometres long and 0.4 micrometres in diameter.

    Why am I bringing this up? Because of this quote:

    “H glaciei isn’t a pathogen and is not harmful to humans”, Dr Loveland-Curtze added, “but it can pass through a 0.2 micron filter, which is the filter pore size commonly used in sterilization of fluids in laboratories and hospitals. If there are other ultra-small bacteria that are pathogens, then they could be present in solutions presumed to be sterile. In a clear solution very tiny cells might grow but not create the density sufficient to make the solution cloudy”

    So I naturally found myself wondering… are there some H. glaciei that are simply extra small and fit through the .2 micron pore, or are they otherwise elastic enough to squeeze through it? Could that be an alternate explanation for supposed signatures of Mycoplasma in the Montagnier study?

  28. Oroboros says:

    Apologies for second attempt if duplicated – suspect I hit a spam filter with too many links.

    This alone is intriguing, suggesting that disrupted particles of DNA can re-create the original bacterium in cell culture. If true, it would have all sorts of interesting implications, especially for sterilization by filtration.

    As I read that it almost struck me as a form of spontaneous generation. I met someone once who told me with a straight face that Pasteur got it wrong. This guy wasn’t peddling homeopathy however. He had a plan to build an earthquake machine to recreate the Pleistocene climate (destroyed in a Velikovskian disaster). He believed that would be sufficient to restore the woolly mammoths, giant cave bears and saber-tooth tigers.

    But, back to this idea of sterilization by filtration: over the summer an ancient ultramicrobacteria- Herminiimonas glaciei – was revived after a freeze of 120,000 years. I can’t access the original publication, but tried tracking down details of just how small it is for comparison on this cell size scale chart. Wikipedia claims dimensions of 0.5–0.9 by 0.3–0.4 µm but the referenced story at newscientist.com says H. glaciei rods are 0.9 micrometres long and 0.4 micrometres in diameter.

    Why am I bringing this up? Because of this quote:

    “H glaciei isn’t a pathogen and is not harmful to humans”, Dr Loveland-Curtze added, “but it can pass through a 0.2 micron filter, which is the filter pore size commonly used in sterilization of fluids in laboratories and hospitals. If there are other ultra-small bacteria that are pathogens, then they could be present in solutions presumed to be sterile. In a clear solution very tiny cells might grow but not create the density sufficient to make the solution cloudy”

    So I naturally found myself wondering… are there some H. glaciei that are simply extra small and fit through the .2 micron pore, or are they otherwise elastic enough to squeeze through it? Could that be an alternate explanation for supposed signatures of Mycoplasma in the Montagnier study?

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