Making bogus research claims, the homeopathic way


10:00 am - August 15th 2010

by Unity    


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With homeopathy rearing up its ugly head in the wake of Adam Grace’s well-founded criticisms of Caroline Lucas, I think its time for something a little different here on LC – a bit of more or less pure science blogging.

To be a bit more specific, what I’m going to do here is explain one of the more common ‘tricks’ that homeopathic ‘researchers’ use to generate bogus claims for the efficacy of their ‘magic’ sugar pill and water using nothing more than the abstract of a piece of ‘research’  published only a couple of months ago in a homeopathic journal.

The paper in question carries the impressive sounding title ‘Heparin-binding epidermal growth factor expression in KATO-III cells after Helicobacter pylori stimulation under the influence of strychnos Nux vomica and Calendula officinalis‘ and comes from the journal ‘Homeopathy’, which is published by Elsevier (publisher of both The Lancet and Gray’s Anatomy) – and don’t worry if the title seems like gibberish for now, I’ll quickly explain all the salient features of the research as we go along.

The Experiment.

So, lets kick things along and take a look at the abstract’s introduction:

Previous studies have shown the stimulating effect of Helicobacter pylori on the gene expression of heparin-binding epidermal growth factor (HB-EGF) using the gastric epithelial cell line KATO-III. Strychnos Nux vomica (Nux vomica) and Calendula officinalis are used in highly diluted form in homeopathic medicine to treat patients suffering from gastritis and gastric ulcers.

All of which necessitates a very quick biology lesson…

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is a common bacteria that can inhabit and infect various areas of the stomach causing inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis) and gastric ulcers.

KATO-III cells are cultured human cells, the kind that make up the stomach lining, and

heparin-binding epidermal growth factor (HB-EGF) is a protein that plays a role in wound healing and is ‘manufactured’ by epithelial cells, including KATO-III cells, when they’re damaged.

So the experiment were looking at here involves infecting cultured KATO-III cells with the H. pylori bacteria and then dousing the infected cultures with one of two widely used homeopatic ‘treatments’  for gastritis/gastric ulcers – Nux Vomica (Strychnine) or Calendula. PCR tests are then used to measure the amount of HB-EGF produced by the KATO-III cells.

In theory, if either of the ‘remedies’ actually work, then KATO-III cells that have been doused in woo should produce much less HB-EGF than an untreated control culture.

The Results.

Now let’s look at the results…

Baseline expression and stimulation were similar to previous experiments, addition of Nux vomica 10c and Calendula officinalis 10c in a 43% ethanolic solution led to a significant reduction of H. pylori induced increase in gene expression of HB-EGF (reduced to 53.12+/-0.95% and 75.32+/-1.16% vs. control; p<0.05), respectively. Nux vomica 12c reduced HB-EGF gene expression even in dilutions beyond Avogadro’s number (55.77+/-1.09%; p<0.05). Nux vomica 12c in a 21.5% ethanol showed a smaller effect (71.80+/-3.91%, p<0.05). This effect was only be observed when the drugs were primarily prepared in ethanol, not in aqueous solutions.

So the results purport to show that both homeopathic solutions generated a statistically significant reduction in the amount of HB-EGF produced by the infected cell cultures using pretty extreme dilutions – a 10C solution would have one part in 1020 while a 12C solution goes beyond Avagadro’s number, at which point there would be no molecules of active ingredient in the solution whatsoever.

Based on these results, the ‘researchers’ arrive at the utterly bogus conclusion that…

The data suggest that both drugs prepared in ethanolic solution are potent inhibitors of H. pylori induced gene expression.

An outcome that supporters of homeopathy have been cheerful reporting, particularly on Twitter, as ‘evidence’ that homeopathy actually works even though, as the segments picked out in italics (above) show, there’s a much simpler and more obvious – in fact screamingly obvious – explanation for these results.

The Real Explanation.

One of the more obvious methods of reducing the amount of HB-EGF produced by a cell culture infected with the H. pylori bacteria is, quite simply, that of killing the bacteria and, therefore, the infection by dousing the whole shebang in alcohol.

The researchers got their greatest effect, in terms of a reduction of the amount of HB-EGF compared to the control, when their woo was administered in a 43% ethanolic solution (equivalent to neat vodka), they got a smaller effect when using a 21.5% alcohol solution (equivalent to a fortified wine) and they got no effect at all when they used plain old water – results that are entirely consistent with the hypothesis that its the alcohol solutions, alone, that are responsible for these results.

If nothing else, there’s an eminently testable hypothesis for you – run the same experiment but replace the Nux Vomica and Calendula solutions with a bottle of Red Label Smirnoff and a decent Reserve Port…

…you’ll get near enough the same results and still have the makings of an after-hours lab party to show for your efforts.

Using alcohol solutions in cell culture experiments of this kind – and here’s another example as picked over by the redoubtable Orac – is such an obvious scam that it really deserves to be put up there alongside perpetual motion machines and astrology in the pseudoscience hall of shame.

Where it doesn’t belong is in any kind of reputable medical research institution although, sadly, that’s precisely where this paper originated, at the Medical University of Vienna, the largest medical university in all the German-speaking countries.

Disclaimer.

Regardless of the actual explanation for the results of this study, alcohol is not recommended as treatment for gastritis or gastric ulcers – nor is homeopathy – so if you do have/develop either of these conditions then go see a doctor and get them treated properly.

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments


This is a good expose.

Next up could we have an expose of the “scientific” methods employed by conventional medicine and the drug companies? Or should we take their “scientific” research at face value and pretend they don’t “fiddle” their tests in any way?

For example I suspect that most infections people suffer from clear all by themselves in 3 to 5 days, yet “scientists” are continually trying to convince doctors to prescribe their latest expensive little pill. Of course the placebo effect must also play a part since red antibiotics seem to be always more effective in trials than white ones. hmmm…..

@John

Try Ben Goldacre’s latest Bad Science column…

http://www.badscience.net/2010/08/give-us-the-trial-data/

Wow. That’s just so blatant. I can’t believe the authors of that paper wrote it with a straight face.

That’s like saying if the homeopathic solutions were diluted with bleach you could use it to homeopathically clean your toilet.

Brilliantly argued…. but I’m still having trouble getting my head around one aspect. If this HB-EGF promotes healing then wouldn’t we all want more of it rather than less when we put our snakeoil woo on the ulcers?

If homeopathy is true, then tap water is homeopathic faeces. I think I’ll give it a miss, as belief systems go.

6. squirrel nutkin

“That’s like saying if the homeopathic solutions were diluted with bleach you could use it to homeopathically clean your toilet.”

Except all the bleach is being recommended for other uses now – as googling up “bleachgate” will show – a jawdropping (non-homeopathic) tale of crank remedies and online irresponsibility!

If this HB-EGF promotes healing then wouldn’t we all want more of it rather than less when we put our snakeoil woo on the ulcers?

Not in this case – HB-EGF is measured in this experiment as a proxy for the effect of the H. pylori bacteria, so the more active the infection, the more HB-EGF will be expressed by the KATO-III cells.

If weaker concentrations make a thing’s effect stronger, then why don’t people get sicker as homeopathic treatments reduce the size of their infections?

Next up could we have an expose of the “scientific” methods employed by conventional medicine and the drug companies? Or should we take their “scientific” research at face value and pretend they don’t “fiddle” their tests in any way?

I’d like an ‘expose’ of people who think that if something is criticised it means there is absolute support for the opposite.

oh please @leftoutside @ukliberty, what you are doing is criticising a very good and cheap method of administering the placebo effect. It’s not the opposite, it’s an alternative. And it’s an alternative to something a lot more dangerous:
http://cot.ag/97WMl3

That is very relevant to this debate because if “scientific” medicine wasn’t trying to do the same thing (peddle bogus cures that rely on the placebo effect) and if homeopathic medicine wasn’t relatively harmless in comparison then I might agree with you. However your faith in “science” is misplaced.

@10 john

It always makes me wonder what people who think that faith in science is misplaced think we SHOULD place our faith in?!

The shortcomings identified in the Independent article in your link do not mean that we should therefore turn to baseless pseudo science for results, any more than we should put our trust in witch doctors, the power of prayer or healing crystals.

Does science have all the answers? No of course not. Is homeopathy effective? There isn’t a shred of evidence to say so. If you are going to use the argument that it should be funded for it’s placebo effects, you might as well argue that we do the same for other bogus alternative remedies.

However your faith in “science” is misplaced.

I refer you to my comment @9.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
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