2010 September

Editorial: the never-ending story of Placebo

by Patricia Maché

There is an increasing pressure on homeopaths to prove that the working of homeopathy is not simply a placebo effect, as is so often asserted by its sceptics. For those who repeatedly witness the rapid, gentle, and lasting effects of adequate homeopathic treatment, especially on those not prone to the effects of placebo (babies, animals, comatose, and ... sceptics), there is little need to prove its effectiveness, though there always remains a healthy curiosity towards its working mechanism. Contrary to the claims that there is no scientific evidence in favour of homeopathy, recent researches have added to the already ample evidence that the effectiveness of accurately prescribed homeopathic remedies cannot rest on a placebo effect. Recent studies, one on piglets (see Interhomeopathy March 2010, Jan’s column) and another on breast cancer cells seem to rule out the influence of “wishful thinking”.

A study, published in the February 2010 issue of the International Journal of Oncology, reveals that certain homeopathic remedies have a beneficial effect on breast cancer cells. Conducted at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, Texas, the leading U.S. centre for cancer research, it shows that certain homeopathic remedies have preferentially elevated cytotoxic (killing) effects on breast adenocarcinoma cells compared with cells derived from normal breast epithelium. Moreover, the homeopathic remedies appeared to have similar activity to that of Paclitaxel (Taxotere), the most commonly used chemotherapeutic drug for breast cancer, without the toxic effect on the normal cells. The remedies used were: Carcinosin 30C, Thuja 30C, Conium 3C and Phytolacca 200C. The researchers concluded: “The ultra-diluted natural homeopathic remedies investigated in this study offer the promise of being effective preventative and/or therapeutic agents for breast cancer and worthy of further study.” Moshe Frenkel MD, an associate professor at the University of Texas and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Program at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Centre, commented that after the promising results of the work done by Dr Banerji in Kolkota, India, on the treatment of cancer with homeopathy, “we felt that homeopathy needed to be tested in the same way that we test new chemotherapeutic drugs.”

The study was met with enthusiasm by the homeopathic community and, unsurprisingly, with derision by the section of the scientific community, which calls itself ‘the sceptics’. Citing a consistent lack of statistics, which is a valid point,* Dr Rachie in her 'Sceptics’ book of Pooh-Pooh', (yes, that is its real name!) proceeds to dismiss the whole study and indirectly calls for the heads of the International Journal of Oncology’s review panel for having allowed this ‘tripe’ to be published. Another sceptic, writing under the pen name of Orac, expectedly adds ‘water’ to Dr Rachie’s mill, in a similar tone. There is, however, an interesting sentence in his diatribe: “It tests a remedy so highly implausible as to be safely considered, for all practical intents and purposes, impossible barring some truly extraordinary evidence coming to light, evidence sufficient to overthrow long-established science in multiple disciplines.” (my emphasis)

Five centuries ago, uncannily similar words were addressed by Luther to Copernicus, who had presented his heliocentric theory: "this fool who wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy." Isn’t it ironic to find the sceptics caught in the unenviable position of the Church of those times, which relentlessly persecuted anyone who dared oppose its authority and threaten its power, and systematically used brutal repression in lieu of scientific argumentation. Thankfully, times have changed and the flames of the stakes have been replaced by fiery words; Edzard Ernst does not shy away from using the word 'heretics' to qualify homeopaths! (see Jan's column) 

Would not it be another pleasant change, however, if instead of ‘pooh-poohing‘ works that do not follow the established creed, the sceptics took up the real challenge to answer Dr Frenkel’s research on the scientific ground to which it belongs and reproduce his experiment in their own labs, to either confirm or oppose his findings. Then, and only then, will we have a truly scientific dialogue, where both partners come to the table with facts and figures, with truth as ultimate aim.

At the moment, we are in a situation similar to that of Galileo with his telescope; those who vehemently dismiss homeopathy because its workings cannot, yet, be explained, refuse to look precisely where the evidence could be found. Evidence which might, it is true, overthrow long established science; but is it not the desired aim of true science to be forever overthrowing itself?

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*We asked Dr. Frenkel to comment on the issue of the statistics, or lack thereof, in his research paper: “The protocol followed the same research protocol done for initial investigation of any chemotherapeutic drug as practiced in any leading cancer research institute, prior to animal studies and clinical trials … The statistical analysis was done on each set of experiments; due to lack of space in the journal we could not have elaborated on all the details, but the results were significant and easily noticeable…“

Research paper: Cytotoxic effects of ultra-diluted remedies on breast cancer cells by Moshe Frenkel, Bal Mukund Mishra, Subrata Sen, Peiying Yang, Alison Pawlus, Luis Vence, Aimee Leblanc, Lorenzo Cohen, Pratip Banerji, Prasanta Banerji at: www.spandidos-publications.com/ijo/36/2/395

Categories: Editorials
Keywords: editorial
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