A recent study is being cited as support for homeopathy. For instance, the Homeopathy World Community website says

Luc Montagnier Foundation Proves Homeopathy Works.

Dana Ullman cites it in the comments to this blog

And I assume that you all have seen the new research by Nobel Prize-winning virologist Luc Montagnier that provides significant support to homeopathy. 

Nope. Sorry, guys. It doesn’t. In fact, its findings are inconsistent with homeopathic theory.

The study has nothing whatsoever to say about homeopathy. Its abstract concludes:

This opens the way to the development of highly sensitive detection system for chronic bacterial infections in human and animal diseases.

Homeopaths are grasping at straws when they cite this study. It involved dilution and agitation: that’s the only possible hint of anything homeopathic and it is nothing but a false analogy.

The study is “Electromagnetic signals are produced by aqueous nanostructures derived from bacterial DNA” by Luc Montagnier, Jamal Aissa, Stephane Ferris, Luen-Luc Montagnier and Claude Lavallee. The pdf of the article is available here.

While not necessarily impacting the validity of the study, its publishing details raise some concerns. It was not published in an established, respected journal. It appeared in the first volume, second issue of a new journal, Interdisciplinary Sciences–Computational Life Sciences.  The article is not written in the usual scientific format – it lacks separate sections for Methods, Results, etc. There are numerous typos and language errors that should have been caught by any proofreader even if the peer reviewers missed them. The editor in chief is in Shanghai, and four of the other editors are in various Chinese cities, while the other two are US based but have Chinese names. Montagnier is on the editorial board. It says it is peer-reviewed, but the speed of the process is worrisome: the Montagnier article was received 3 January 2009, revised 5 January 2009 and accepted 6 January 2009.

In preliminary observations, they discovered that when they filtered 300 nM Mycoplasma with a 100 nM filter, the resulting sterile fluid

was able to regenerate the original mycoplasma when incubated with a mycoplasma negative culture of human lymphocytes within 2 to 3 weeks.

This alone is intriguing, suggesting that disrupted particles of DNA can re-create the original bacterium in cell culture. If true, it would have all sorts of interesting implications, especially for sterilization by filtration. The evidence for this was referenced merely as a “personal communication.” I wonder why they didn’t publish it.

They say that

In the course of investigating the nature of such filtering infectious forms, we found another property of the filtrates… their capacity to produce some electromagnetic waves of low frequency in a reproducible manner after appropriate dilutions in water.

They do not explain what rationale prompted them to measure EMS or to dilute their samples. It was this electromagnetic phenomenon that they proceeded to investigate in the present study.

The study detected electromagnetic signals from diluted, agitated, and filtered solutions of Mycoplasma and E. coli bacteria. They postulate that some DNA sequences emit electromagnetic waves after excitation by the ambient electromagnetic background. Extracted DNA produced EMS signals similar to those produced by intact bacteria. DNAse treatment abolished the effect. They postulate a network of DNA nanostructures organized in a gel-like liquid crystal. Puzzlingly, they found no effects in low dilutions – but they came up with tortuous rationalizations as to why that might be (Self-inhibition? Interference? Inability to vibrate?). The effect was transferable to other lower dilutions of the same bacteria when the two solutions were shielded and kept close to each other for 24 hours.

There was a lot of background noise, but they say that positive signals could be differentiated over the background by higher frequency peaks. The measuring system they used does not immediately inspire confidence, since it was designed by Benveniste, infamous for winning two Ig Nobel prizes, the second one for allegedly sending the electromagnetic signatures of homeopathic water memories over telephone lines and the Internet. I don’t have the expertise to critique the physics or the methodology; but even assuming the results are valid, they tend to discredit homeopathy, not support it:

  1. By filtration, they were able to determine the particle size of the components that were associated with positive results. There were particles of DNA present, in contrast to high homeopathic dilutions where no molecules of the original substance remain.
  2. Homeopathy postulates effects at most dilutions, with increasing effects as the dilutions become greater. In this study, there were no effects at low dilutions. There were a series of positive effects at high dilutions but the effect size did not increase progressively as the dilution increased. At the highest dilutions, the effect vanished.
  3. They talk about water structures and polymer formations, but acknowledge that these associations appear to be very short-lived. In this study they found that the effects lasted for several hours, sometimes up to 48 hours – but not longer. Homeopathic remedies are not administered within hours of their preparation. They supposedly remain effective for long periods. Most homeopaths say that homeopathic remedies do not require expiration dates and will remain effective indefinitely as long as they are properly stored.

The authors claim that the effects were only found in pathogenic bacteria, not in beneficial bacteria like probiotics. Maybe. It would be surprising if one physical phenomenon rather than several different physiologic ones could discriminate between pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria.

The authors engage in further unwarranted speculation:

we have detected the same EMS in the plasma and in the DNA extracted from the plasma of patients suffering of Alzheimer, Parkinson disease, multiple Sclerosis and Rheumatoid Arthritis.

This statement is given without any supporting references. The data have apparently not been published. One wonders why.

They go on to say

This would suggest that bacterial infections are present in these diseases.

It would suggest to me that they really don’t know the significance of what they are apparently measuring.

The study can only be categorized as a preliminary study. It raises a lot of questions and will require independent replication (preferably studies of high enough quality to merit publication in a more prestigious journal with high standards and rigorous peer review) before we can place any confidence in its results.

Anyway, in vitro findings by themselves can’t ever validate homeopathy, even if they could demonstrate that water can remember what molecules were diluted out of it. They would still have to show that such memory translated to specific therapeutic effects on human physiology. Homeopathy is a system of clinical treatment that can only be validated by in vivo clinical trials. Homeopaths who believe Montagnier’s study supports homeopathy are only demonstrating their enormous capacity for self-deception.

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.