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Study Boosts Homeopathy

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San Jose Mercury News
Posted at 6:39 p.m. PDT Wednesday, September 24, 1997
Study boosts homeopathy
Cox News Service
The 200-year-old school of alternative treatment called homeopathy is one of the touchiest sore points in the rapprochement between traditional and unconventional medicine.

Partisans use historical statistics and quantum physics to explain how minuscule microdoses of natural substances allegedly heal conditions ranging from colds to menstrual cramps. Opponents have a simple response: There's no scientific explanation that can account for how this would work.

The debate is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. But with the publication of a major analytical paper in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet this week, it appears that homeopathy is beginning to get some science on its side.

Homeopathy has several major tenets:

Critics have maintained that the weakness of the remedies, combined with the intense attention that a homeopath gives a patient while figuring out which remedy to use, must mean that any success is due to the placebo effect -- that is, the patient's belief in the treatment, rather than the treatment itself.

To counter that criticism, an international team led by Dr. Wayne Jonas, director of the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, analyzed 89 studies of homeopathy conducted in a randomized, placebo-controlled manner, considered the gold standard of medical research.

In randomized controlled trials, patients are divided into two groups, one of which gets the medicine, while the other gets an identical-looking but inert substitute. Neither the patients nor the researchers conducting the trial knows who is getting which. That eliminates the influence of expectation and belief, making such trials one of medicine's strongest tools for evaluating substances in isolation. ``Meta-analyses,'' such as Jonas' group conducted, compare the results of many randomized trials.

Their finding: ``The results of our meta-analysis are not compatible with the hypothesis that the clinical effects of homeopathy are completely due to placebo.'' In other words, in certain circumstances, homeopathy does appear to work.

That sounds like a qualified endorsement, but for a mode of treatment that has been derided for most of this century, it's a significant victory. The Lancet's two accompanying editorials, both written by skeptics of homeopathy, reflect the bemusement the study result has produced.

``The results of the meta-analysis on homeopathy are ... unsettling because of the general belief that overviews of randomized trials, conducted with methodological rigor, will indicate what the true evidence is,'' Dr. Jan Vandenbroucke of the University of Leiden wrote in one editorial. In the second, Dr. M.J.S. Langman of the University of Birmingham added, ``There is enough in the study to give sound reasoning for asking for good controlled trials.''

In the study's last section, the seven authors agree: ``We believe that a serious effort to research homeopathy is clearly warranted despite its implausibility.''

Proponents of homeopathy, meanwhile, are hugging themselves with glee.

``This study places homeopathy squarely in the arena of legitimate science,'' said Dana Ullman, a Berkeley, Calif.-based author who is one of the method's most prominent U.S. spokespersons. Homeopathy ``extends our understanding of the law of nature in the same way that quantum physics extends our knowledge of Newtonian physics,'' Ullman declared.

``It's a dilemma,'' said Linda Gooding, a professor of viral immunology at the Emory University School of Medicine, who also teaches a medical school course on alternatives. ``Of all the alternative medicines, homeopathy is the one you can test by randomized controlled trial better than any, and yet it is also the one that most profoundly challenges traditional medical thinking.

It doesn't fit into our model, and as scientists we have a tendency to confuse our models with reality.''

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