Most of this text was taken (and edited for coherence) from the intermitted links.
Jacues Benveniste died in Paris on 3rd October. In the 1970s and 1980s he had made a name for himself as an immunologist, and was working at the French research institution INSERM in 1988, when he submitted a manuscript to one of the oldest and most respected scientific journals, Nature.
In it, he reported that white blood cells called basophils, which control the body's reaction to allergens, can be activated to produce an immune response by solutions of antibodies that have been diluted so far that they contain none of these biomolecules at all.
He hypothesized that water molecules somehow retained a memory of the antibodies that they had previously been in contact with, so that a biological effect remained when the antibodies were no longer present. This, it seemed, validated the claims made for highly diluted homeopathic medicines. In fact, it would not have proven homeopathy in the end; as according to the homeopathic principle ?similia similibus curentur? (like cures like), a dilute preparation of an agent will have the opposite activity!
Dilutions of an antibody to concentrations of 10^-60(10 to the minus 60) and of 10^-120(10 to the minus 120) had the same effect as did the optimal concentration of about 10^-3(10 to the minus 3). The authors claimed that the experiments were authentic, and that they were repeated in four separate institutions in four countries.
Water molecules are connected by hydrogen bonds that last for only about a picosecond (10^-12 seconds) before breaking and reforming, and could therefore not possibly cluster into long-lived mimics of the antibody (consider that homeopathic preparations have long shelf lives!)
While reviewers stated that they were convinced that these findings could not be true, they could not find anything obviously wrong with the experiments. So Nature published the paper. The editor, John Maddox, added a caveat to the publication: ?There is no objective explanation of these observations?.
Further experiments carried out by Benveniste's team, in double-blind conditions overseen by Maddox, magician and pseudo-science debunker James Randi and fraud investigator Walter Stewart, failed to verify the original results.
The team's report was published in "Nature" a month later. They found a combination of loose or non-existent controls, possible equipment contamination, data manipulation, and data selection (keeping positive results and rejecting the negative). When the experiment was run under their strictly monitored controls, the results were negative. A series of letters to "Nature" was published with critiques, and with negative results from other labs.
But the paper was never officially retracted. After 6 months of hot debate, Nature published a statement that it would not print any further letters to the editor regarding this topic.
Benveniste subsequently lost his government research position (the institute was closed down, probably due to other reasons) and continued work at the private company digibio.
Using a simpler experimental system so the precise nature of the effect could be investigated was never done. A more quantitative test would, for example, use automatic recording devices and measure output that is easily and automatically quantifiable, such as the uptake or discharge of a radioactively labeled substance. There are hundreds of such systems. Instead, they selected the basophil degranulation method, which, if not tightly controlled, could be misinterpreted.
Benveniste later devised a theory that it is possible to communicate with receptor molecules by sending out low-frequency electromagnetic signals, which the receptors pick up like radios tuned to a specific wavelength. Benveniste claimed that he was able to record these signals digitally, and that by playing them back to cells in the absence of the molecules themselves he could reproduce their biochemical effect.
The BBC takes up the challenge
A report by Madeleine Ennis in 2001 of Belfast University claimed that she recorded results using a similar experiment than Benveniste?s. Only she used an automated cell sorter that would exclude human bias. No one has reproduced her work and published it in a scientific journal.
Although many researchers by now have offered proof that the effects of homeopathy can be measured, none have yet applied for James Randi's million dollar prize. For the first time in the programme's history, the BBC programme Horizon decided to conduct their own scientific experiment.
The programme gathered a team of scientists from among the most respected institutes in the country. The Vice-President of the Royal Society, Professor John Enderby oversaw the experiment, and James Randi flew in from the United States to watch.
As with Benveniste's original experiment, Randi insisted that strict precautions be taken to ensure that none of the experimenters knew whether they were dealing with homeopathic solutions, or with pure water. Two independent scientists performed tests to see whether their samples produced a biological effect. Only when the experiment was over was it revealed which samples were real.
To Randi's ?relief?, the experiment was a total failure. The scientists were no better at deciding which samples were homeopathic than pure chance would have been.
Well, that' actually an incorrect satement, as this person states nicely...: "Experiments only 'fail' when they're badly designed and don't test what they were meant to" test.http://boards.fool.co.uk/Message.asp?mid=7898602&sort=recommendations
The science community had some pointed questions for Nature.
(Commentary by BERNARD DIXON , September 05, 1988 , The Scientist)
Why did the journal publish Benveniste?s paper before conducting its own investigation? Nature editors said: ?Benveniste had been communicating with us for nearly two years?. Benveniste had started to give his story to the French press. We concluded, therefore, that we must publish the report, so that everyone could see Benveniste?s results and methods in detail. Another reason was that ?it seemed highly likely that the results of our scrutiny would persuade us not to print the paper, and we could have been accused of suppressing an important contribution to science?.
To some, the nature of the investigation and the timing of the articles seemed calculated to attract the maximum publicity rather than to further the cause of science.
And why did Maddox himself lead the team, instead of turning it over to an immunologist? ?No one believes that Benveniste is correct,? said one scientist, ?But Nature?s approach to his work has given him an out. He can?and did?cry foul?
Just what is the obligation of leading journals to publish work that is out of the mainstream? By not doing so, journals?and science in general?might be suppressing truly innovative and revolutionary work. But some scientists have had the good sense to turn to wit instead of spleen. Take NIH?s Henry Metzger who tried unsuccessfully to duplicate Benveniste?s finding that water retains a ?memory? of molecules it once contained. ?It?s a shame,? Metzger sighs. ?It still takes a full teaspoon ofsugar to sweeten our tea.?
If homeopathy worked, the whole rule book of physical science would have to be rewritten; or at least a large part of it.
One objection that people have raised is of course ridiculous, that a single drop of the remedy is diluted so many times that it is the equivalent concentration of much less than one drop of the original substance in all of the oceans on the face of the earth (or taken to extremes, all the water in the universe). This is totally wrong of course, since serial 1:100 dilutions can be done in 100ml of water, requiring only 3 liters for a D30 dilution.
Another criticism of homeopathy is that it is not logically consistent. This theory assumes that water somehow "remembers" the chemical properties of molecules that it once came in contact with. In this practice one dilutes the original solution to the point where one removes all molecules, yet it is claimed that the water retains some chemical properties of the molecule. If this were so, then where did the pure water used in this process come from? The water that homeopaths themselves use once was in contact with other chemicals, including chemical wastes, urine, radioactive metals and various poisons. According to homeopathic theory, all water in the world should "remember" its contact with millions of chemical substances. Granted, there is a particular shaking method involved in the production of homeopathic preparations that would rule out the ?memory? of substances the water came in contact with in the distant past. But even highly purified water has some impurities in it that would be carried into the production.
Why is it important to prove that it works?
Because people are making money off it. Homeopathy has become big business. Boots and other chemists make a fortune from pushing these sugar pills, and Homeopaths undertake expensive training courses.
There are two ways to prove that medicine works: through clinical trials in animals or humans, and in laboratory tests (in vitro).
Clinical trials I have tried to understand give an ambiguous picture. Usually the number of patients tested is really low; so-called metastudies attempt to combine different published studies in order to increase sample size; in addition, they also judge the quality of the study (how carefully was it controlled) ? and there appear to be gigantic differences in quality, but sadly, even the bad papers tend to get published somewhere. Of course there are neverending discussions between proponents and opponents of the theory of homeopathy about the quality of this research. A consensus might never be reached.
Homeopathy advocates often claim that most clinical trials are flawed if they give every patient the same preparation to treat a disease. Individualisation means each patient gets a remedy that is suited best to him.
In 2003 'Thorax' published a study into the treatment of asthma. The study allowed for individualisation for each patient. No evidence was found that remedies prescribed by experienced homeopathic practitioners were superior to a placebo.
Homeopathy in animals?
Animals would be the perfect test system, as they are less prone to suggestion. Here too, a randomized controlled trial said ?it does not work?; and a concluding sentence was: ?In the European Union this implies a considerable risk for animal welfare, since in some countries priority is given to homeopathic treatments in organic farming.?
In summary, it is the opinion of the most scientists and many homeopaths that given the conflicting results of controlled trials that there will never be enough therapeutic evidence to convince science that homeopathy works. In addition, as mentioned above, the theoretical implications of homeopathy are so staggering that proof should be sought. As it goes, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.
Therefore it is vital that homeopaths are able to show in a reproducible experimental system that sub-molecular dilutions can have a biological effect. It appears that no such system yet exists, however many people have attempted to develop one.
Arguments were made that homeopathy works by the placebo effect. In fact,an extensive literature review in 1996 concluded:
Pending further evidence, homeopathy remains a form of placebo therapy.
People believe that these remdedies are doing them good, so they work. This is fine: there is no doubt that the mind can have a profound effect on the workings of the body. But why do they have to attach pseudoscience to it?