Like it? Share it!

Sign up for news and updates!






Enter word seen below
Visually impaired? Click here to have an audio challenge played.  You will then need to enter the code that is spelled out.
Change image

CAPTCHA image
Please leave this field empty

Login Form



Hiding Homeopathy Behind Real Science PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Matt Fiore   

Before I fling immature epithets at the world of alternative medicine, I need to give a brief overview of the regulations imposed on those who make real medicine. The medicines that do everything from saving lives to preventing gas. In America, these regulations are known as "Current Good Manufacturing Practices", or cGMPs for short.  The best way to illustrate the thoroughness and complexity of these regulations is to use a narrative. The narrative won‘t even scratch the surface, but it will give you a general idea:

Let's say a company wants to make a new drug. What are some of the things it must it do? For one, it must develop scientific tests that prove the finished product is free of contamination, identify the ingredients, and that confirm the amount of drug present in each pill. The tests must also prove the testing equipment is clean, the chemist‘s prep work is accurate, and the equipment is working consistently as each sample is run. The company must also develop a method to track the product as it degrades over time. This "stability study" must identify and quantify all new chemicals that are formed as the product ages. (It is also used to show that the active ingredient has not dropped too far below the amount claimed on the label. If it does, the company is in danger of false advertising.) The degradation products must be proven safe for consumption as well. Every batch of drug that goes out the door will be checked using these methods. A portion of every batch is kept in the warehouse and is periodically monitored for purity and safety.

When the manufacturer finally gets down to the business of manufacturing, it builds a plant according to strict health, safety, and environmental regulations and orders the raw chemical materials from a distributor. These materials are also tested for purity, identity, and freshness. Every piece of equipment in the plant must be cleaned, inspected, and calibrated on a regular basis. As the drug is being created, a sample of the mixture is sent to the lab to ensure the everything is going according to plan. The finished product may not be legally shipped until it is approved by a trained team of professional biologists and chemists. Rejection by the nerds usually means the destruction of the batch and the  loss of thousands of dollars. Every step is recorded and checked by at least one supervisor.

The data from the chemical tests are usually sent directly to computer systems that timestamp and permanently save every single test so ugly results cannot be ignored. The mathematical equations that are hardwired into the system are checked for accuracy before manufacture even begins.  In spite of this, the final results are confirmed with hand calculations after every test just to be sure.

As you can imagine, cGMPs result in a stack of paperwork that is several inches thick. Sadly, some unfortunate men and women are assigned the task of rechecking it all one last time. Every typo and minor error must be explained in writing by the perpetrator and corrected using specific rules to avoid confusion or fraud. Major errors or failed tests result in a long and torturous investigation that can invalidate everything that has been done up to this point and can restart the entire process from square one.

It is important to understand cGMP for two reasons.  First, people need to appreciate how much effort goes into drug development and drug safety. (cGMP regulations even apply to common drugs like aspirin!) Second, I want homeopathy to stand in stark contrast to real science.

Two weeks ago, I started a new job at a fairly large pharmaceutical company.  This is my third chemist position since getting my BS in chemistry so  am quite familiar with cGMPs However, the FDA requires that I relearn everything from scratch and document my training as it progresses. As part of my retraining, I had to read a pair of testing techniques from a reference book called the European Pharmacopoeia, a compendium of official lab tests.  Pharmacopeias are written by experts for experts and are supposed to be the gold standard for proper laboratory procedure. While looking for the index, I accidentally stumbled across a chapter entitled "Methods of Preparation of Homeopathic Stocks and Potentisation".

As skeptics know, homeopathy is a quack art that involves two steps:  First, you prepare a "mother tincture" solution which may or may not have medicinal value. Second, you dilute the tincture over and over and over again. By the time the homeopath is done, not even a single molecule of the active ingredient remains. I was stunned to find this subject in a reference book of such high renown. It is akin to finding a chapter on voodoo in the latest edition of Gray's Anatomy. It is not just bad chemistry, it is chemistry‘s evil, worthless, ignorant, bastard twin with a funny comb over.

A quick scan of the chapter revealed several recipes for mother tinctures, all written in accurate scientific language. Some even included valid scientific tests that one could use to prove the mother tinctures were prepared correctly. Unsurprisingly, the chapter does not suggest performing the same tests after the dilution is complete.

Buried amongst scientific language, I found this description of the dilution process:

1 part of the stock plus 99 parts of the vehicle; they may be designated as ‘C' or ‘CH' (centesimal)

The number of potentisation steps defines the degree of dilution; for example, ‘C3', ‘3 CH', or ‘3C' means 3 centesimal potentisation

It concludes by saying that if greater dilutions are desired, one need only repeat the process. Nowhere does it mention that the most popular homeopathic dilution is 30C. Like Alfred Hitchcock, the editors of the European Pharmacopoeia pan the camera away just before the true horror begins. 30C is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000th the strength of the original mother tincture.

Even more disturbing, I found this definition:

for the purpose of dosage forms for homeopathic use, ‘active substances' are considered to be ‘dilutions...of homeopathic stocks"

In other words, the European Pharmacopoeia has decided to change the definition of "active substance" to "dilution of an active substance" just so homeopaths could worm their way past the protocols that prevent drug companies from ripping off the consumer. Thanks to this implicit endorsement from an official source, homeopaths can get away with fraud that would literally bankrupt "evil" pharmaceutical giants like Johnson & Johnson or Merck.

I encourage all of my European friends to contact the editors and authors, the EDQM, and give them a severe and logical verbal beating.

I'll close with a philosophical homeopathy quote from the European Pharmacopoeia:

the test for uniformity of content is normally not appropriate

How Zen.  Let us all ponder the uniformity of nothingness.

Matt Fiore is a chemist and law student living in Philadelphia, PA.

Trackback(0)
Comments (20)Add Comment
...
written by MadScientist, August 08, 2009
I checked my latest edition of Gray's Anatomy and there's still no section on voodoo - how disappointing. I do remain surprised that Mr. Gray continues to revise his work long after his demise - how's that for a "ghost writer"?

The rigor and traceability in the manufacture of drugs isn't unique to that industry though; you should see the paperwork generated by the space, aerospace, and shipbuilding industries.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
...
written by Squid, August 08, 2009
KingMerv, he did this because he's delusional and has some sort of personal beef with JREF. I've suggested using the law to stop his harassments, because what he keeps saying is actionable under the law... advocating that people killl atheists, for example. My only concern is how long will it be before he attempts to kill someone?

Squid
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +3
Graze Anatomy
written by Michael K Gray, August 09, 2009
Unlike Samuel Clemens, rumours of my demise are depressingly accurate.

But I have only recently received a posthumous grant from the Templeton Society to insert sneaky references to outrageously and egregious bogus woo into my learned anatomical tomes at night, as I prowl the corridors of medical libraries, making floor-boards creak, and wafting dry ice vapour down the necks of bodice-bound delightful delusional damsels.

It's the only fun that one can obtain in bloody heaven.
I keep requesting a transfer to the realms of Beelzebub, but St Peter, (or Willy Street as we spectres call her), won't be having a bar of it.
It's at times like this that I really wish I had been an Atheist.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
Homeopathy in Space
written by MooG, August 09, 2009
MadScientist - Can't we use the magic powers of homeopathy in Aerospace as usefully as in medicine.

Take a ceramic tile from the shuttle. Dunk it in a bucket of water. Throw bucket into a silo of distilled water. Spray the water on your space hardware and it will be protected during re-entry without needing costly and vulnerable heat shielding.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +15
Exemptions for Homeopathy
written by Todd W., August 09, 2009
In the U.S., if I'm not mistaken, homeopathic "medicines" are also exempted from purity and stability testing. At least, that's what I recall from the last time I looked up what regulations actually cover homeopathic products.

Oh, and S&E (safety and efficacy) testing need not be performed, either.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +3
RE Drmabus999 flamer
written by NewCoaster, August 09, 2009
One of the funniest things on their incoherent webpage, is the ad for "The God Who Wasn't There". At least that keyword web advertising cuts both ways.

Also, they have really really bad taste in music apparently. Depeche Mode?
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
Thank you, Matt, for the very good write-up
written by Human Person Jr, August 09, 2009
I thoroughly enjoyed this informative piece, Matt. Comparing and contrasting are great educational methods. I took loads of brand-new knowledge from this offering.

We mustn't forget one key fact: Real people (often innocent children) suffer real tragedies from believing in this alt med BS. I was a part (unwillingly) of a near-tragedy of this very sort. These well-researched, well-written articles prove the JREF is still on the job and making a difference in peoples' lives. Dr. Randi's assertion, that false beliefs are never harmless, gets proven over and over.

This skeptic, this Human Person, junior grade, is an insignificant speck in the realm of ratiocinatioin, but I've got enough sense to appreciate this site and the wonderful writers who breathe life into the concepts of skepticism. Thanks, all!
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +5
...
written by Holey Cow, August 09, 2009
@Human Person Jr
Dr. Randi's assertion [...]
I don't think James Randi has a doctorate; although he may deserve one. And I don't think he would want to be confused with frauds that don't have a doctorate but claim to have one (or those that simply bought it over the internet).
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
The legal status of homeopathy in the US
written by garyg, August 09, 2009
>Exemptions for Homeopathy
>written by Todd W., August 09, 2009
>In the U.S., if I'm not mistaken, homeopathic "medicines" are also exempted from purity and stability testing. At least, >that's what I recall from the last time I looked up what regulations actually cover homeopathic products.

>Oh, and S&E (safety and efficacy) testing need not be performed, either.

This is because a Senator Copleland was a practicing homeopath in the '30s:
http://www.quackwatch.org/search/webglimpse.cgi?ARCHID_4=4&query=Copeland
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
Thanks for the explanation of how this dillution business works.
written by Brookston John, August 09, 2009
I've always had trouble grasping just exactly what these woo-woos meant by "10C", "30C", etc.
You've made it shockingly clear.
Thanks.
That's amazing. You'd have to be koo-koo for cocoa-puffs to believe that crap!
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
...
written by KingMerv00, August 09, 2009

Brookston John:
I've always had trouble grasping just exactly what these woo-woos meant by "10C", "30C", etc.
You've made it shockingly clear.


Thanks for your kind words. I considered including the following quote but couldn't find a way to fit it in:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeopathy#Dilution_and_succussion

[a 30C solution] would require giving two billion doses per second to six billion people for 4 billion years to deliver a single molecule of the original material to any patient.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +2
...
written by KingMerv00, August 09, 2009

Human Person Jr
I thoroughly enjoyed this informative piece, Matt. Comparing and contrasting are great educational methods. I took loads of brand-new knowledge from this offering.


This was my first article but with compliments like this, I suddenly want to write more. smilies/grin.gif
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
Thanks!
written by Able, August 09, 2009
I have been trying to find a fairly short, concise article regarding homeopathic meds to show to some in-laws. Yours will be included. If anybody has a link to a favorite, very-very short description, let me know (the in-laws don’t like anything longer than a paragraph). Thanks again.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1
@ Holey Cow
written by Human Person Jr, August 10, 2009
You wrote: "...And I don't think he [James Randi] would want to be confused with frauds that don't have a doctorate but claim to have one (or those that simply bought it over the internet)..."

Then, in that case, don't confuse him with such. I know I never would.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
Short description of Homeopathy
written by DrMatt, August 10, 2009
Homeopathy combines two beliefs: 1. Like cures like, or the cure for any set of symptoms is a poison that causes the same symptoms; 2. The more dilute, the more powerful, so dilutions of the original poison well past the point where none of it remains are the basic stock in trade. Homeopathy is a thoroughly disproven quackery.
Homeopaths liek to contrast homeopathy with allopathy, the long-since-disproven quack notion that opposite cures like. Quacks regularly accuse evidence-based medicine of being allopathy. In doing this, quacks generally trust that their audiences are ignorant of both.
Real medicine is constantly revised and improved as evidence and understanding advances. Quackery occasionally makes cosmetic changes but otherwise is tradition-driven.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +2
@Able
written by Todd W., August 10, 2009
If anybody has a link to a favorite, very-very short description, let me know (the in-laws don’t like anything longer than a paragraph).


Phil Plait had a good video over on Bad Astronomy last Thursday (Aug. 6) on homeopathy that illustrates the topic quite well. http://blogs.discovermagazine....eopathy-2/

In it, Ben Goldacre talks about how the dilution process happens and what that means, as far as concentrations go.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +2
...
written by Habenero, August 10, 2009
Homeopathy is crap unworthy of touching the inside of a colon!
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: -1
Allopathy
written by pxatkins, August 10, 2009
>Homeopaths liek to contrast homeopathy with allopathy, the long-since-disproven quack notion that opposite cures like.

Hmmm. Not sure that definition is accurate, DrMatt. The OED defines allopathy as: n. treatment of disease by usual means, i.e. inducing an opposite condition.

report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +0
...
written by Andrew Wiggin, August 10, 2009
I suppose a manufacturer wouldn't want to risk testing a homeopathic preparation for uniformity. A sufficiently sensitive test might find traces of the supposed active ingredients. Even one molecule when there are supposed to be none would be a huge variation of purity.

A.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +2
...
written by Eosine, August 11, 2009
Awesome, hilarious, and informative! All that testing, calibration, checking and rechecking is what goes into the final product price, and that is why drugs are allowed to be patented for some years. And all I ever hear from alties is whining about the cost of medicine and how when patents run out there is a big rush to tweak something so the original can be phased out and the new one can be patented all over again. I suspect that is all complete rubbish since Aspirin is still aspirin even with the generic varieties available. But, on and on go the ridiculous claims along with the exagerations about the supposed effectivess of homeopathy.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +1

Write comment
This content has been locked. You can no longer post any comment.
You must be logged in to post a comment. Please register if you do not have an account yet.

busy