Saturday, November 01, 2014
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Homeopathy and Breast Cancer

The homeopaths are franctically spreading the good news. A new study published in the International Journal of Oncology proves that extreme dilutions not only have a biologic effect but also selectively kill cancer cells.

Frenkel M, Mishra BM, et al. ; Cytotoxic effects of ultra-diluted remedies on breast cancer cells. Int J Oncol; 2010 Feb; 36(2):395-403.The abstract can be found here, and on that page is a link to download the complete text as pdf file.

The authors claim: “We conducted an in vitro study to determine if products prescribed by a clinic in India have any effect on breast cancer cell lines. We studied four ultra-diluted remedies (Carcinosin, Phytolacca, Conium and Thuja) against two human breast adenocarcinoma cell lines (MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231) and a cell line derived from immortalized normal human mammary epithelial cells (HMLE). The remedies exerted preferential cytotoxic effects against the two breast cancer cell lines, causing cell cycle delay/arrest and apoptosis.”

One magazine for homeopaths (Homeopathy Plus) even writes: “Homeopathy as good as chemotherapy for breast cancer”, and no side effects of course.

I had a look at the paper and was not impressed.

They tested four different homeopathic remedies. Three are ultra-diluted to 60, 60 and 400 zero's and one to 6 or 1/1.000.000. Dilution beyond 23 zero's (the Avogadro constant) means that there isn't any active ingredient present anymore. The subjects were breast cancer cells and normal cells in test tubes. They were brought in contact separately with each remedy, in different amounts and with different durations, and also with the solvent alone. The effect on the cultures was measured in five different ways and is represented in dozens of bar graphs and pictures. The authors conclude that the products have a biological effect and selectively kill or stop the growth of cancer cells, comparable in strenght to paclitaxel (Taxol), a well known anti-cancer drug.

The products were supplied by an Indian firm, the tests were done by the MD Anderson's Integrative Medicine Clinic in Texas, USA, where homeopathy is currently used for many ailments.

What's wrong with this study:

  • This paper strongly reminds of the (in)famous Benveniste “memory of water” saga, but now it is the memory of alcohol.
  • The results are presented as bar-graphs, photo's, pictures of blot analyses and are said to show an effect of the high dilutions. But this effect is also present when only the solvent is used. It is very strong alcohol (87% !), thus very cytotoxic. No wonder it kills some 30-50% of the cells in a test tube, but that does not mean that drinking strong alcohol is a cancer cure. The authors write that the remedies are killing more cells than alcohol alone, but nowhere a calculation of significance. So we don't know.
  • The bar graphs show a visual difference in effect. But the erratic (non-linear) variation in effect by the different doses of alcohol alone makes any claim of significance questionable. Since there are no tables with numerical data, no statistics, no p-values, no confidence intervals, we cannot evaluate if any effect was significant.
  • Since the killing effect of concentrated alcohol is very dependent of the dilution by the amount of cells and liquid to which it is added, the volume of cells and liquid in each test tube should be identical. We have no confirmation on this, but the non-linear responses make it very doubtful.
  • There is no mention of any blinding. Same problem as in the previous spectacular homeopathic miracle studies. (Belon- Ennis, and Benveniste).
  • Some strange wordings: “each test was done at least two times” make one wonder why not a fixed number of repetitions was used for all tests. Three is standard practice in comparable tests. It reminds me of the (in)famous study by Belon and Ennis, that was challenged in the BBC test for the Randi one million dollars and failed. It contained the same phrase. Since that test was also not blinded, it raises the possibility that they stopped measuring when the results pleased them.
  • They analysed the remedies and the solvent chromographically and found in the solvent a peak (= presence of a substance) that was not found in the remedies, though those were prepared with the same solvent. Did they use different batches of solvent? Why did they accept a solvent that contains an unknown substance ? This alone invalidates the study. Not a word of explanation of this strange phenomenon.
  • Also strange: the remedies were provided by the Indian firm (Banjeri), but “additional similar remedies were obtained from the Standard Homeopathic Company” (King of Prussia, PA, USA). The chromatographic analysis of the remedies does not mention the results of the analysis of the two different sources.
  • Several photo's are shown of a dozen cells that were affected by the remedies, but none of the effect of alcohol alone. Why not? It certainly also damages cells.

Conclusions

  • All this paper proves is that concentrated alcohol is very toxic for cell cultures, it kills cells.
  • The results do not warrant any conclusion about efficacy in patients.
  • The results are not compelling us yet to re-write the laws of chemistry and physics or to conclude that alcohol has a memory.
  • Alcohol has a biological activity, even more in such a high concentration.
  • In the conclusions they compare the remedies with the known cancer drug Taxol and conclude that the homeopathics are as effective. This is misleading. In a test tube, perhaps bleach is even more effective there.
  • The authors also write that more in vitro and animal tests are needed. Let's hope they will be more careful in analysing the remedies and solvents. I bet that with proper blinding the so called effect will disappear, as it did in the memory of water saga.
  • The inventor of this “special type” of homeopathy is Dr Banjeri, who runs a cancer treatment centre in India. They are not waiting for more research, they are selling this “memory of alcohol” treatment for many types of cancer and other ailments since decades. They define themselves as “a center for path breaking treatment for acute as well as chronic diseases by the use of “The Banerji Protocol” of treatment using homeopathic medicines”.
  • This paper is cited by more and more homeopaths though it is in contradiction with the homeopathic doctrine: no individualisation. They only have the diluting and shaking as common procedures.
  • In contrast with traditional homeopathy the Banjeri homeopathy protocol prescribes “specific medicines for specific diseases”. That should be easy to test convincingly with double blind methods, but until now they have only presented papers with “best cases”, or released some not controllable percentages of stabilisation or healing, but those even are not better than the known percentages for no-treatment . That is not the way to convince the scientific community.
  • The Banjeri's are not shy of publicity: they announce that they are prepared to treat patients during space flights and on the Moon, from their website: “Drs. Prasanta & Pratip Banerji of PBHRF presented a paper on Possible Use of Ultra-Diluted Medicines For Health Problems During Lunar Missions at the Rutgers Symposium on Lunar Settlements.” My personal opinion: it should not be very difficult to make homeopathy completely lunatic.
  • Other more detailed analyses of this study were also made by our American skeptic friends in skepticsbook and scienceblogs.
  • The unanimous conclusion is that this study is so flawed that it is a blame for the journal that has published it. It certainly is not proof for any biologic effect of ultra high dilutions, let alone of cancer curing properties.

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