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No. 59: Sep-Oct 1988

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An absolutely delightful event occurred at the end of June, 1988. The authoritative journal Nature published an article that says, in essence, that a solution of antibodies diluted by a factor of 10120 can still trigger a strong biological response from basophils (a kind of white blood cell). Now, 10120 is such an incredibly large number that it is extremely unlikely that even one antibody molecule could be present in the diluted activating solution. Nevertheless 40-60% of the basophil cells reacted.

So unbelievable are the reported experimental results that the editors of Nature felt compelled to add an "Editorial Reservation" stating that, "There is no physical basis for such an activity." This is all great stuff. The original French work was duplicated by six other laboratories in France, Italy, Israel, and Canada. What makes it even more fun is the homeopathy connection. Homeopathic medicine is based on the theory that substances causing the symptoms of a disease in a healthy person can cure a sick person displaying these symptoms, providing the dose administered is vanishingly small. Science strongly and passionately debunks homeopathic medicine.

The Editor of Nature thinks that there must be a systematic error somewhere. Other scientists suggest that, perhaps, somehow, the antibodies left an "imprint" on the diluting water molecules. So far, we have not read that Sheldrake's "morphic resonance" theory has been invoked.

The first phase of this controversy is about complete, and we now list the references we have used so far.

(Davenas, E.; "Human Basophil Degranulation Triggered by Very Dilute Antiserum against IgE," Nature, 333:816, 1988. Also: Browne, Malcolm W.; "Impossible Idea Published on Purpose," New York Times, June 30, 1988. Cr. D. Stacy, M Truzzi. Also: Nau, Jean-Yves, and Nouchi, Franck; "La Memoire de la Matiere," Le Monde, p. 1, June 30, 1988. Cr. C. Mauge. Also: Beil, L.; "Dilutions of Delusions," Science News, 134:6, 1988. Also: Vines, Gail; "Ghostly Antibodies Baffle Scientists," New Scientist, p. 39, July 14, 1988. Also: Pool, Robert; "Unbelievable Results Spark a Controversy," Science, 241: 407, 1988.

As a matter of fact, the second phase of the controversy has already begun. The July 28 issue of Nature reports that seven repetitions of the dilution experiment produced four positive and three negative results. The three negative experiments were the only double-blind versions of the basic experiment that have been performed so far. "Double-blind" means that "all test tubes had been randomly coded twice. The person measuring the cells' reaction to the antibodies could not have been influenced by a preconcieved idea of the results."

These seven repetitions were carried out at the University of Paris-Sud laboratory of J. Benveniste. In a reply to the July 28 report in Nature, Benveniste complains that the three double-blind tests, the negative ones, "worked poorly mainly due to erratic controls."

(Bell, L.; "Nature Douses Dilution Experiment," Science News, 134:69, 1988.) Comment. Closely related to the French dilution experiments with antibodies was a clinical trial of a homeopathic treatment for hay fever, carried out by D. Reilly, of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, and published in The Lancet about two years ago. "In trials with double-blind controls, he and his colleagues found that a solution, so dilute as to contain no molecules of pollen from the original solution, reduced allergic symptoms." (From: Vines, above.)

Naturally, we will be keeping SF readers up-to-date on this matter. Already comparisons are being made with R. Blondlot's famous experiments with N-rays -- experiments that were also duplicated in other laboratories. The solution may be psychological rather than physical.

From Science Frontiers #59, SEP-OCT 1988. � 1988-2000 William R. Corliss