Alternative medicine

After being rubbished by recent Australian study, beleaguered homeopaths look for credibility

At the World Homeopathic Summit in Mumbai, all the doctors agreed that the problem lies in the fact that they do not exactly know how homeopathy works.

Dr AR Khuda-Buksh, retired professor of zoology at the University of Kalyani in West Bengal, got a standing ovation from the entire congregation of 800-odd homeopaths after his presentation at the World Homeopathic Summit organised by the Global Homeopathic Association in Mumbai in April.

Khuda-Buksh has dedicated a bulk of his career of three decades to studying homeopathy medicine and its effectiveness on animals and humans. His research has provided much hope to the beleaguered practitioners of a branch of medicine that has been accused – almost – of quackery.

“Whoever says homeopathy is a quack medicine, I only have pity on them,” Khuda-Buksh said to the crowd. “Let them work and find out what is true and what is a lie.” He, along with his students, has not only written papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals on the effectiveness of homeopathy in cases of arsenic poisoning and thalassaemia but has also conducted a study to prove that homeopathy triggers gene activity and has the ability to repair chromosome damage.

Fresh setbacks

Homeopaths believe that illness-causing substances can, in minute doses, treat people who are unwell. Critics have long claimed that the ultra-diluted medicines only have a placebo effect.

In March, the Australian research body, National Health and Medical Research Council, declared homeopathy was ineffective in curing any disease. In 2010, the UK House of Commons published a similar report stating the homeopathy does not work beyond the placebo principle.

Dr Tejinder Kaur, who flew down from Singapore to attend the summit, said that the Australian body's claims had severely affected her practice. “In Singapore, the message that homeopathy is ineffective was doing the rounds on social media and WhatsApp,” she said. “This gives us more confidence. I can now explain nano technology and the positive scientific research that has been presented.”

Scientific research

The summit was organised to present homeopathy as a science and highlight the scientific research. “In this conference we explained everything,” said Dr Rajesh Shah, organising secretary of Global Homeopathy Foundation. “Whether homeopathic medicines contain anything and, if yes, then what do they contain? And how do they work, what is the action of these medicines?” Shah, a practitioner from Mumbai, has conducted research on the effect of homeopathy on HIV patients and has developed a new drug for Tuberculosis which is to be tested.

The doctors criticised the Australian report, saying not a single homeopath was part of the committee. “There were about 300 double blind placebo controlled trials published in highly placed medical journals," said Dr Dana Ullman, a homeopath based in the US, who has also written articles defending homeopathy. "But they were rejected because they had to cover 150 subjects. You do not need a large sample size for all medical disorders. For instance, a study conducted by University of Vienna of 100 patients was considered too small. If we use the same standards for allopathic medicines, only 11% of all the medicines will be considered reliable.” And so the need to reinvent the image.

The conference had the who's who of homeopathy, including Dr Jayesh Bellare from Chemical Engineering department of the Indian Institute of Technology, who presented a paper on how homeopathy works on the principle of nanotechnology. Dr GD Jindal and Dr Akalpita Paranjpe, scientists from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (now retired), used a medical analyser that measures the effect of homeopathic medicines on a person's physiology. Dr PK Joshi, a scientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, demonstrated that the ultra-diluted homeopathic medicines can be traced using intense ultrashort laser beam.

A World Health Organisation representative who is regional adviser for traditional medicine, Dr Kim Sung Chol, attended the conference and has requested Dr Shah to share the presentations. “As you may know, WHO is in a position of promoting best practices in the use of safe and good quality traditional medicines, and I think those evidence-based information presented in the summit, should be further disseminated to the concerned stakeholders and community,” he wrote to Shah after the conference.

But admittedly, research in homeopathy, especially fundamental research that looks into what sort of material the medicine contains, has started only recently, since the early 2000s.

“We did some work in the 1980s, but proper work started only after 2000,” said Dr Khuda-Buksh. “Earlier work did not comply with the scientific norms.” Dr Shah agreed: “We definitely need to do more research. More evidence needs to be gathered about homeopathy.”

Dr Ullman feels that scientists aren't replicating good results achieved in homeopathy trials. “It is easy to blame allopathy, but we have to look at ourselves,” he said. “The way science works, you need to replicate the results of research.”

Lack of funds

Another barrier for research is a woeful lack of funds. Most of the medical research in modern medicine is funded by pharmaceutical companies. “Everything is measured in molecules that can be seen, measured and sold,” said Dr Paolo Bellavite from University of Verona, Italy, who studied the action mechanism of homeopathy at molecular level.

Doctors mostly work on their own steam, with little funding from either the government or some small groups. “There is so little funding. We only have public funding or funding from self help groups," said Dr RK Manchanda, director of Central Council for Homeopathy, which gives grants for research in homeopathy. "With such studies, one has to limit sample sizes,” he added, claiming that his organisation uses the WHO framework for clinical trials and conducts drug development safety and quality research.

Even Dr Bellare did not get funding for the research from conventional sources, but had to dip into internal IIT funds and alumni support. “Lack of funds is limiting. We cannot try all the experiments that we would like to,” said Dr Bellare. For the next projects, they are likely to get funding from Central Council for Homeopathy. Dr Shah funds his entire research himself.

Little support

Many doctors at the conference claimed to be conducting some kind of research, with very little support. Dr Gaurang Gupta, from Lucknow, claimed that he has been documenting his cases (photographs, reports, and other paperwork) since the 1980s and has a lot of publications to his name, so that nobody questions the science behind his work.

A scientist, Dr Upma Bagai, associate professor of Zoology, Panjab University, conducted research on effectiveness of homeopathy drugs along with modern medicines on mice suffering from malaria and found that the treatment was very effective. She got no external funding. “There was so little grant,” she said. “Anyway, nobody was funding, so I decided to do whatever I wanted to try out. I took the liberty of mixing homeopathy with allopathy. And the mice were dancing in the cages.”

Despite all this work being presented, when the congregation got down to discussing what ails homeopathy, all the doctors agreed that the problem lies in the fact that they do not exactly know how it works. “Let us be honest, why are people opposing homeopathy?” said Dr Khuda-Buksh. “As a scientist, and a rationalist, I should question how the drugs act. Everyone wants to know the mechanism. However, there is no real consensus on the issue. It is like a bunch of blind persons describing a elephant. Everyone will touch different parts of its body and describe it.”

There are some other fundamental questions unanswered. “One of my students asked me that if the medicine produces pharmacological effects, why are there no side effects?" said Dr Carla Holandino, professor of pharmacy at Federal University, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. "I have no answer for that. We need more research on the mechanism of action."

Dr Ullman pointed out that for nearly half a century, nobody knew how aspirin worked, but that didn't stop consumption of the drug. Dr Bellavite said, “Nobody knows what happens in this medicine. There are many opponents to homeopathy. But we have to consider that in science, some things are clear, while some things are not.”

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