- To some it is the snake oil of the New Age. To others
it is a tried-and-trusted treatment that has been good enough for the likes
of Bill Clinton, the Prince of Wales, Geri Halliwell and David Beckham.
- Homoeopathy is big business and getting bigger. Yet there
is little if any evidence to show that it works, and absolutely nothing
to justify its central claim - that highly diluted solutions containing
nothing but water can affect human health.
- That is until now. Researchers have just published what
could be the first hard evidence in a peer-reviewed scientific journal
that appears to support the central idea behind homoeopathy.
- The scientists, from Britain, France, Belgium, Italy
and the Netherlands, have chosen the relatively obscure but respected Inflammation
Research to publish what some call the "holy grail" of homoeopathy.
- In summary, the study found that extremely dilute solutions
can have a biological effect. Like homoeopathic remedies, the solutions
in the experiments were so diluted that there was no realistic chance of
a single molecule of the substance remaining in the liquid.
- Scientists have likened this to believing in magic. How
could something that was once dissolved in a solution, and can no longer
be present in that solution, still have an effect? The scientists themselves
are baffled. "We are not yet able to propose any theoretical explanation
of these findings," they write. In showing that high dilutions exert
a biological effect, the findings seem to break the laws of physics. Surely
there must be errors in the experiment; an accusation the scientists reject.
"Despite searching for artefacts, we have been unable to find any,"
- An editorial in Inflammation Research explains why the
journal published such controversial research: "The authors are unable
to explain their findings but wished to encourage others to investigate
this area," it says. "It is with this spirit of openness that
the journal, after submitting the paper to a rigorous reviewing process,
has agreed to publish the paper."
- Understandably, the practitioners of homoeopathy have
seized on the findings as vindication. Peter Fisher, of the Royal Homoeopathic
Hospital in London and homoeopath to the Queen, said the findings were
nothing short of groundbreaking. "History may come to view [the study]
as a turning point in the scientific controversy surrounding homoeopathy,"
Dr Fisher said.
- "Of course further repetition is required, but it
may be that this represents the holy grail of basic research in homoeopathy,"
- There are two central tenets of homoeopathy. The first
is that an illness or malady can be treated by administering tiny amounts
of a substance that might under normal circumstances actually result in
similar symptoms - extract of onion for instance to treat hay fever.
- The second belief is that the concentrations have to
be really minute, so minute that the dilutions involved in effect get rid
of the substance in question from the liquid solvent.
- Homoeopathic solutions are diluted repeatedly to produce
solutions that are millions of times weaker than they were originally.
Often the solutions are so weak that they are equivalent to dissolving
a tiny speck of something in a volume of water several times greater than
all the world's oceans.
- Scientifically, this would mean that the chance of just
a single molecule of the homoeopathic remedy being left in the solution
is next to nil. Sceptics say patients might just as well treat themselves
with distilled water - which is cheaper.
- Science cannot explain how such highly dilute solutions
could have an effect, that is until the French biologist Jacques Benveniste
came along. Working at his laboratory in Paris, Dr Benveniste formulated
the idea that water retains a "memory" of what has been dissolved
in it and that it is this memory that results in the homoeopathic effect.
In 1988 Dr Benveniste published a study in the journal Nature in support
of his water-memory theory. He claimed his experiments showed that an ultra-dilute
solution exerted a biological effect.
- However, the then editor of Nature, Sir John Maddox,
had insisted that he would only agree to publication if he was able to
investigate Dr Benveniste's laboratory procedures. A few weeks later Sir
John invited an American science fraud investigator, Walter Stewart, and
a professional magician and arch sceptic, James Randi, to watch over Dr
Benveniste as he and his team tried to repeat the experiments.
- The Nature investigation concluded that Dr Benveniste
had failed to replicate his original study. In subsequent issues of Nature,
Dr Benveniste suffered the professional ignominy of being ridiculed by
arguably the most influential scientific journal in the world.
- As a result, the idea of memory water was consigned to
the dustbin of science history, or so it was thought.
- France as a country is a keen advocate of homoeopathy
and there were many French scientists who had not given up on the notion
of investigating the phenomenon. Among them was a one-time collaborator
of Dr Benveniste called Philippe Belon, who now works for a French homoeopathy
- Dr Belon, who fell out with Dr Benveniste a long time
ago, has investigated high dilutions for 20 years and although he works
for Boiron, and has himself tried homoeopathic remedies, he insists he
is only interested discovering the truth about the claims.
- In the spirit of scientific investigation he organised
a collaboration between four different groups in Europe who all undertook
to carry out identical high dilution experiments at separate places involving
separate teams of scientists.
- The British end was run by Professor Madeleine Ennis,
an established asthma researcher at Queen's University of Belfast and an
avowed sceptic of all things homoeopathic.
- In fact Professor Ennis became involved in the project
in the first place because she could not accept what some of her scientific
colleagues were saying. "I told people I didn't believe it so they
said 'why don't you try it'," Professor Ennis said.
- The dilution experiments they carried out, and now published
in Inflammation Research, involved a substance called histamine which is
released by a type of white blood cell called a basophil. Normally basophils
release histamine, and as levels of histamine rise this exerts a "negative
feedback" which inhibits further release of histamine.
- The four teams of scientists tested highly dilute solutions
of histamine to see whether they still exert an effect on basophils in
a test tube. At extreme dilutions, three out of four laboratories found
a statistically significant effect and the fourth found an effect which
just fell out of the typical range for statistical significance.
- Professor Ennis emphasised that the research does not
prove that homoeopathy works, nor does it even show that Dr Benveniste
was right because he had used a different test for a high-dilution effect.
"The paper didn't test homoeopathy, it tested high dilutions of histamine.
I know what we tested and I cannot explain the results," said Professor
- For Dr Belon, however, the research does at least support
the basic premise behind homoeopathy. "Of course it supports it, on
the other hand it is not a demonstration that homoeopathy works,"
- In whatever ways the latest findings are interpreted,
they cannot be ignored. The experiments were repeated by four different
teams using the same experimental protocol that involved a blind code -
the scientists did not know whether they were working with a high dilution
solution or a control sample of pure water until the code was broken at
the end of the experiment.
- When BBC Horizon televised a similar attempt at replicating
the same experiment two years ago, the results were negative but scientists
such as Dr Belon believe this was trial by media rather than science by
the peer-review process.
- This time, with a full scientific paper detailing the
precise protocol, anyone can try to replicate the findings - and replication
is the essence of science. Until others repeat the work it will take a
lot to convince sceptics such as James Randi, who has offered $1m to the
first person to prove the scientific basis of homoeopathy.
- Mr Randi warns about reading too much in a single scientific
paper. "A paper is a paper is a paper. Don't forget, two scientists
wrote a paper, published in Nature, back in 1974, that endorsed the powers
of Uri Geller," he said.
- But the homoeopathic gauntlet has been thrown down. The
question now is whether anyone will be brave enough to pick it up.
- © 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd