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Homeopathy validated?
by Edward V. Brown

A short history of homeopathy and a survey of research pointing to its validity. 

Homeopathy is a branch of medicine started by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700s. While experimenting with the remedies of his day, he found that medicines often produce effects that resemble the disease they are used to treat. He observed that a drug which produces a certain symptom in a healthy individual would eliminate that same symptom in a person with the illness. He concluded that the medicine produces an ëartificial' disease that can overpower and substitute for the ënatural' disease. He maintained "like cures like" and coined the term ëhomeopathy' for this system.

The remedies in Hahnemann's time often consisted of harsh cathartics and emetics that caused unpleasant side-effects. In response to what he perceived as excessively strong doses of medicine, Hahnemann recommended extremely small doses. His reasoning was that, in illness, the body was more sensitive to the medicine and minute doses were capable of stimulating a healing response and would actually be more effective. His procedure was to mix one drop of the original substance with 99 drops of alcohol in a vial. This mixture was then vigorously shaken in a manner he called ësuccussion'. The succussion was necessary to unleash the pharmacologic strength of the drug in the dilution. Then one drop of this new mixture was added to 99 drops of alcohol and the process repeated. This dilution process might be repeated 20-30 times.

While homeopathy attracted many followers, orthodox medicine attacked Hahnemann's work as quackery. Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes in Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions maintained that, since there was little if any medicine in Hahnemann's remedies, any improvement in the patient must be due to the power of suggestion. Despite a lack of support from orthodox medicine, however, homeopathy has survived for 200 years and has many credible adherents, including the British royal family.

Objective validation for homeopathic principles is beginning to appear in the scientific literature. In the 18 October 1986 issue of the British medical journal the Lancet, Reilly et al found that homeopathic dilutions of grass pollen showed significant reduction of hay fever symptoms in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. As a possible explanation for the observed results, the authors suggested that, "...succussion produces energy storage in the bonds of the diluent in the infra-red spectrum which ëdownloads' in contact with the water in living systems. Perhaps this information then spreads like a ëliquid crystal' through the body water, modifying receptor sites or enzyme action."

An article published in the 30 June 1988 issue of one of the oldest and most prestigious scientific journals, the British journal Nature, has sparked renewed interest in the homeopathy controversy. Dr. Jacques Benveniste is a respected researcher at INSERM, the French equivalent of the US National Institute of Health. He was once asked by French President Francois Mitterrand to become Minister of Health. Dr. Benveniste studied the effect of antibodies on a special type of white blood cell. Basophils are the cells that help the body to defend against allergies. When they are exposed to antibodies, the cell structure changes in a way that can be measured optically. As expected, Dr Benveniste found measurable cell changes when the Basophils were exposed to the antibody.

The procedure was then repeated with solutions of antibody at various dilutions. Dr Benveniste's experiments showed that the Basophil cells continued to react when the antibody was diluted to 10 to the 120th power. At any dilution beyond 10 to the 23rd power, it is virtually impossible that a single molecule of the original antibody is present in the solution.

This research was first submitted to Nature in August 1987. Nature's initial reaction was that the research was flawed. Before consenting to publish the research, Nature required that the results be repeated in separate laboratories. The study was replicated in five laboratories in four countries. Finally, despite their reservations, Nature consented to publish the paper, in part because "we ran out of hurdles to set". However, Nature clearly was not happy with the results. In the words of the editor, Benveniste's observations "...strike at the roots of two centuries of observation and rationalization of physical phenomena." Their editorial reservation entitled When to believe the unbelievable stated, "There is no objective explanation of these observations."

Benveniste theorizes that the original antibody acts as a ëtemplate' that perhaps alters the electromagnetic properties of the water it is suspended in. This template is then transferred to each succeeding dilution by the succussion process, the water in effect containing a ëmemory' of the original molecule. It is significant to note that simple dilution without the succussion process did not transfer biological activity to the new solution.

The reaction of orthodox medicine to the published article could be anticipated. Nature dispatched a three-man team, self-characterized as "an oddly constituted group", to investigate the research. The Amazing Randi, magician and fraud investigator, was one of the team. The other investigators were scientists, but without experience in the techniques used in Dr Benveniste's laboratory. They concluded that Dr Benveniste's results were not free from technical error and statistical inaccuracies, this in spite of their own admission that, "None of us has first-hand experience in the field of work at INSERM 200." The Nature investigation also had little to say about the replication of Dr Benveniste's results in four other laboratories. Dr Benveniste characterized their visit to his laboratory as "a mockery of scientific inquiry".

Where is the truth? Is homeopathy a valid therapy that awaits further research for science to understand the mechanisms of action, or is homeopathy a delusion as is maintained by its detractors? The jury is still out and time will tell.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005