Cheating in homeopathy study?

Controversy over alleged evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy

Nothing in it and yet effective? A homoeopathic study wanted to prove just that, but is now under suspicion of manipulation. © Ollo / iStock
Read out

Suspicious Mistakes: A recent study on the effectiveness of homeopathy has come under heavy fire. The experiments on cell cultures and rats should show that a homeopathic plant preparation helps against nerve pain. But now several other scientists have uncovered suspicious mistakes in graphics and data of the article. They raise doubts about the authenticity of the data and the seriousness of the study.

Homeopathy is highly controversial. While many people rely on the healing power of the "gentle" remedies, others in the globules and tinctures see a mere quackery. The reason: Homeopathic medicines are so heavily diluted that in most preparations, not a single drug molecule is more. However, homeopaths attribute the healing effect to a kind of memory of water or alcohol - an effect that has hitherto been incomprehensible with scientific methods. Critics see the observed effects as more of a consequence of the placebo effect.

So far, it is highly controversial whether homeopathic remedies develop a real healing effect. One of the reasons for this is that the placebo effect in studies with humans is difficult to separate from the purely pharmacological effect of a preparation. All the more revealing would be experiments with cell cultures or animals.

Ultra-dilutions of poisonous salmon in the test

This is exactly what Shital Magar from the Patel Institute for Pharmaceutical Research in India and his team did for their study. They tested how well homeopathic dilutions of an extract of the oak leaflet Poisonum (Toxicodendron pubescens) help against nerve pain. The preparations referred to as Rhus Tox in homeopathy are considered to be anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving in alternative medicine.

For their first experiment, Magar and his colleagues gave the Rhus Tox solution in dilutions between 10 -8 and 10 -34 to a culture of chemically stressed human cancer cells. Ultra-dilutions of one trillion to billiard, as they reported, led to a reduction of aggressive oxidative and proinflammatory substances in the cells. display

The highly toxic Poisonum is said to help in homeopathic dilution against inflammation and pain. USDA

Pain relief in rats

In the second experiment, the sciatic nerve of rats was irritated by pinching, causing the animals pain. Eight rats were then given the Rhus Tox extract in the dilution one to a trillion daily, another eight animals were given the analgesic gabapentin and a third group of rats was given only a saline solution as a control. After 14 days, the researchers tested the pain and tactile sensitivity of the rats on the affected leg and analyzed messengers in their sciatic nerve.

The result: "Treatment with Rhus Tox increased the rats' pain threshold, suggesting a reduction in their nerve pain, " Magar and his team report. In addition, a lower concentration of inflammatory and pain-promoting messengers such as interleukin-6 and TNF-alpha was found in the sciatic nerve of these rats. These effects were similar to the gabapentin. According to the researchers, the results show that the homeopathic remedy for nerve pain is effective.

Proponents of homeopathy celebrated the study published in the scientific journal "Scientific Reports" as the definitive proof of the effectiveness of homeopathy: "This work undoubtedly demonstrates the effects of high homeopathic effects Dilutions and their therapeutic effectiveness, for example, commented a homeopathic research center in Italy.

Same graphic, two different experiments: The duplicated graphic from the technical article. Ar Magar et al. / Scientific Reports, CC-by-sa 4.0

Copied graphics, contradictory data

But now doubts about the seriousness of the researchers and their study increase. For several scientists have discovered errors in the publication. Thus, the same figure appears twice, but is supposed to represent measurement series with different dosages. Two more graphs on rat behavior contain the same data points, although they are supposed to come from two different experiments. Some information on the dilution levels is also contradictory.

"If we limit ourselves to the illustrations in the work, then two out of three blemishes have different degrees of severity, " says Enrico Bucci of Temple University in Philadelphia, one of the researchers who reviewed the study, "And the numerical re-analyzes of the results show numerous discrepancies." For him and other scientists, these are indications of manipulation and reason enough to doubt the seriousness of the study.

Unintentional mistakes or targeted manipulation?

The authors explain these abnormalities, however, with unintentional mistakes in compiling the manuscript and with mere typos. "All experiments were done with the utmost integrity, " co-author Kalpesh Patil told Nature News. The mistakes would not change the scientific conclusions.

Stutzig makes, however, that already in 2016 a professional article by Patil and his colleagues by duplicate graphics negative noticed. In addition: It is not the first time that homeopathy studies have fallen into twilight and have been transferred as counterfeits. For example, a paper published in 1988 in Nature on the effect of a highly dilute antiserum had to be withdrawn later. In 2005, a Leipzig research group focused on data selection and counterfeiting was transferred to a homeopathic Belladonna extract.

The scientific journal "Scientific Reports" has already provided the online version of the current study with a reference to the technical criticism. The editors announced that they would thoroughly review the work. For Bucci it is clear: "Either the paper is correct, then it would be of extraordinary importance. Or it is wrong. "The latter considers the scientist far more likely:" Ultimately, this work proves only one thing: that even a prestigious journal sometimes slips through bad science. "(Article by Magar et al .: Scientific Reports, 2018, doi: 10.1038 / s41598-018-31971-9; Critical Analyzes by PubPeer and Enrico Bucci)

(Nature News, PubPeer, RESIS, 11.10.2018 - NPO)