Unraveling a Health Mystery

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Ever since German physician Samuel Hahnemann introduced homeopathy in the late 18th century, skeptics have challenged the idea that diluting a remedy can make it more potent. Homeopathy is based on the idea that “like cures like” and that administering a highly diluted form of the substance causing the illness will stimulate the body to recover its health. But recent research by two chemists in South Korea has confirmed the seemingly counterintuitive basis of homeopathy and sparked a renewed debate over the controversial approach to healing.

German chemist Kurt Geckeler and his colleague Shashadhar Samal were creating fullerenes (a type of molecular structure) and found that the molecules began clustering together in “untidy aggregates” when they were diluted in water. Investigating further, they were amazed to discover that the size of the particles had actually increased as they diluted them even further, a phenomenon never before observed in chemistry. “It was completely counterintuitive,” Geckeler told Andy Coghlan in New Scientist (Nov. 10, 2001).

Geckeler performed the same experiment with various molecules, including sodium chloride, and found the same surprising results: When they were diluted, the molecules formed aggregates 5 to 10 times the size of those in the original solution. Such an increase in size, Coghlan notes, may help the particles become biologically active.

These findings echo the claims made by French immunologist Jacques Benveniste, who in 1988 argued that a highly diluted solution that once contained antibodies could still activate human white blood cells because the “imprint” of the antibodies remained. Benveniste, though, says he’s not convinced that the new findings completely explain his claims, because the solutions were not as diluted as in his experiments.

Other scientists, such as chemist Jan Enberts of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, are more skeptical. Enberts admits that the new findings are “surprising and worrying,” but argues that they are hardly conclusive. “It’s still a totally open question,” he says. “To say the phenomenon has biological significance is pure speculation.”

Still, Enberts and others believe Geckeler and Samal are on to something new. “It doesn’t prove homeopathy, but it’s congruent with what we think and is very encouraging,” says Peter Fisher of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital. “The whole idea of high-dilution homeopathy hangs on the idea that water has properties which are not understood.”

That mystery, thanks to Samal and Geckeler, may now be much closer to being solved.

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