The Homeopathy Controversy in Nature Magazine (1988)


By Dana Ullman MPH


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A charge commonly leveled by the scientific establishment at alternate healing therapies is that these often time-tested medicines are “unproven” or “unscientific”, and that their advocates are thus irresponsible quacks and charlatans.  But what happens when scientific research begins to validate one of these “unscientific” practices and even to suggest a provocative new view of the natural world?

The disturbing answer can be found in the scientific establishment’s flustered response to a study of an aspect of homeopathic medicine published in the June 30, 1988 issue of the prestigious British journal Nature and re-evaluated in the July 28, 1988, issue.

Homeopathy—a 200-year-old medicinal science still favored by the British monarchy and by large numbers of people in Europe and Asia but long dismissed by orthodox medicine—treats illness through the administration of very small doses of various substances which, if given to a healthy person in larger doses, would provoke the symptoms similar to those being treated.  The Nature research, which the journal subsequently purportedly disproved with the help of debunker-magician James “the Amazing” Randi, tested one of homeopathy’s most controversial tenets: that a substance can have a biological effect even when it is so diluted that theoretically there should not be any molecules of the substance remaining in the solution—only a “memory” or “template” of the original substance.

The original research was conducted by leading scientists at four major universities and repeated seventy times.  The fact that this research showed that microdoses could act on basophils, a component of the body’s allergic response, added support to previous research published in the Lancet (October 18, 1986) which showed that homeopathically prepared microdoses could reduce symptoms in hay fever sufferers.  Despite this verification, the editors of Nature published the research with an unprecedented “editorial reservation” stating that they did not believe the results of the research.

To personally investigate the results of this research, the editor of Nature, along with magician James “the Amazing” Randi and scientist Walter Stewart, went to the University of Paris South laboratory to personally observe the experiment which tested microdoses of an antibody upon a type of white blood cells called basophils.  Under their close observation, the experiment was completed seven times.  The first three times showed that the microdoses did have action; however, this was just a “test run” since the person doing the experiment was not “blind” (she knew which test group was given the microdose and which was given the placebo).

The next time she wasn’t privy to this information, and the microdoses did have significant action.  The next three times, however, the experiment did not “work”.  The “debunkers” concluded that the microdoses had no action, thus ignoring the fact that the experiment worked.  They also disregarded a fact of experiments in immunology: white blood cells are not always sensitive to large doses of antibodies, let alone microdoses of them.

One reason that the “debunkers” may have ignored this fact was that none of them were immunologists.  One was a journalist and two were known ghostbusters.

Jacques Benveniste, the French researcher in charge of the study, was inflamed by the debunkers conclusions as well as by their behavior in his lab.  Wallace Stewart was shouting so often during the experiment that Dr. Benveniste had to elicit John Maddox’s support in having Stewart behave appropriately in a laboratory.  Benveniste sharply criticized the Nature team for making the lab environment unconducive to scientific investigation.  Benveniste was particularly shocked at the debunkers’ assumption that they have “disproven” his five years’ worth of experiments in three days.

The primary reason that the original research is so threatening to conventional scientists is that it seems to knock out a central pillar of Western thought.  Scientists assume there should be no molecules remaining if a substance has been diluted 24 times by a ratio of one to ten.  The homeopathic researchers were working with a substance that had been diluted 1:10 120 times.

The original research suggests a non-material “memory” of a substance and of the ability of white blood cells to recognize this trace.  Such research might not only give credence to homeopathic medicine but also to other subtle energy therapies.

To accept this research would be too much.  Instead, denial is essential.  And as the popular rock group says in one of their songs, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt”.  And with denial comes an all-out effort to disprove and attack.

And yet, maybe the debunkers are correct, maybe this experiment doesn’t work.  If so, what about the twenty other controlled experiments which have successfully shown the action of the homeopathic medicines?  What about the fact that medicines are commonly used to treat farm and domestic animals?  What about the fact that homeopathy developed its initial popularity in the 1800s due to its successes in treating the infections and disease epidemics that raged during that time?  What about the fact that tens of millions of people today rely upon homeopathic medicines to treat their acute and chronic conditions?  If these experimental and empirical findings don’t convince skeptics, denial is a good alternative.

Background on the “Nature” Research

The Research Team

The research team who conducted the research published by Nature was led by Professor Jacques Benveniste of the highly regarded French National Institute for Scientific Research in Medicine (INSERM—the equivalent to America’s National Institutes of Health).  Dr. Benveniste is a leading allergist and immunologist who was once asked by French President Francoise Mitterand to heard a research institute.  This research was replicated by scientists at the Hebrew University, University of Toronto, and University of Milano.

The Specific Research

The researchers utilized the “Human Basophil Degranulation Test”, which is commonly performed in Europe but is virtually unused in the U.S.  Basophils are a kind of white blood cell which play an important role in the allergic response, and this test helps to determine to which substances a person is allergic.  The granules found in basophils contain histamine and other chemicals which can elicit symptoms of allergy when they are released or degranulated.  A substance to which a person is allergic causes degranulation of the basophils.

There are certain substances which will cause anybody’s basophils to degranulate.  Among these are antibodies that react against a specific type of antibody known as anti-IgE.  These IgE-specific antibodies are called “anti-IgE”.

What was revolutionary about the research of Benveniste and his colleagues is the finding that extremely dilute doses of anti-IgE could cause basophil degranulation.  To prepare the anti-IgE for their tests, the researchers diluted anti-IgE 1:10, then shook it vigorously, diluted it again 1:10, then shook it again vigorously.  They repeated this process of serial dilution with shaking as many as 120 times.  It was calculated that it was unlikely that there was even a single molecule of the original anti-IgE after just 14 times repetitions of the dilution/shaking cycle.            Homeopaths call the pharmaceutical procedure of dilution and succussion (vigorous shaking) to be “potentization”.  For the past 200 years they have asserted that the microdoses maintain biological activity and clinical efficacy when they are potentized and if they are correctly prescribed.

The “Debunking” of This Research

Nature published this research with the stipulation that they could send a tear to observe a replication of the experiment.  The team included Nature’s editor John Maddox, magician James Randi, and anti-fraud investigator Walter Stewart.

Under their supervision, the experiment was first replicated three times without any blinding of the experimentors (a procedure that the original experimentors never utilized).  All three experiments showed positive results.  The fourth experiment blinded the person counting the number of degranulated basophils, and the results of this experiment were again very successful.  The Nature team inexplicably ignored this experiment in their conclusions.  The Nature team’s article acknowledged in Figure 2 (page 288) of their article that this fourth experiment, which they acknowledge was conducted in a blind fashion, had “unexpectedly high peaks.”

The next three experiments blinded the person doing the counting and the person doing the pipetting (pipetting is the process of dispensing the diluted anti-IgE and the placebo in vials).  All three of these experiments did not show any difference between the microdoses and the control group.  The Nature team immediately deemed that there is no evidence that the microdoses have biological action.

The Problems with the Debunking

1.      The Nature team ignored one blinded experiment which showed the biological action of the microdoses.

2.      Of the three trials which supposedly didn’t work, one was inadequately stained, a fact which was acknowledged by both sides.  According to Benveniste, the controls of the other two batches show that they were also technically unsatisfactory.  This contention has not yet been disputed.

3.      The Nature team presumed to have disproved Benveniste’s five years’ worth work in two days of experiments.

4.      The Nature team did not include an immunologist, and thus they did not know that white blood cells are not always sensitive to large doses of antibodies, let alone microdoses of them.

5.      The Nature team (a journalist, a magician, and an expert in scientific fraud) was obviously composed to expose a fraud, not to conduct a serious scientific investigation.  Even the editor of Nature admitted in Time (8-8-88), “we began by thinking that someone was playing a trick on Benveniste.”

6.      The Nature team created a disruptive environment in the laboratory which was not conducive to scientific investigation.  Walter Stewart was acting so hysterically that he had to be asked several times to stop shouting by John Maddox and Jacques Benveniste.

7.      The Nature team claimed that some of the original data of the experiment was not available, and yet, the specific data in question was printed in the Nature article.

8.      The Nature team’s response was sent to Dr. Benveniste for his reaction.  This response included acknowledgement that the microdoses worked in one of the four blinded trials.  Benveniste even made reference to this acknowledgement in his response.  However, the Nature team mysteriously omitted this acknowledgement in their published article.9.      The original work showed that heating, freeze-thawing, or ultrasonation suppressed the activity of the highly diluted solutions.  This fact suggests that the microdoses are sensitive to various external influences and that in a couple of experiments that do not “prove” their action, some unknown factor may be inhibiting their action.

The Media’s Response

The coverage of this controversy in the American press was significantly different than that in the European press.  The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall St. Journal, Time Magazine, and Associated Press Syndicate assumed that the “debunkers” truly debunked the homeopathic research, while the Boston Globe and the L.A. Times as well as many French and English papers critiqued the debunkers.