by Dr. Stefan Baumgartner
Basic research into potentised preparations
The use of potentised remedies in homeopathy and anthroposophic medicine is often viewed with scepticism. This is due on the one hand, to the philosophical background of both medical systems, and on the other, to the pharmaceutical procedures applied in the production of remedies. One such pharmaceutical procedure is potentisation, which involves iterative dilution and intense mixing processes, partially leading to extremely high dilution factors of the potentised substance.
Goals of basic research
There are several goals of basic research on homeopathically-potentised preparations. The first is the development of preclinical assays to document any specific biological effects, which may allow the preparations to be clearly differentiated, on the one hand, from conventionally diluted samples or, on the other, from the pure potentisation medium. In addition, basic research in homeopathy specifically aims at developing methods to document any empirical biological evidence for another fundamental principle of homeopathy, the Law of Similars, or Simile principle.
Having empirically demonstrated the existence of specific biological effects of homeopathic preparations, a further task of basic research is to identify the mode of action of potentised preparations. The mode of action can be differentiated as being firstly pharmaceutical and secondly biological.
The pharmaceutical mode of action will have to identify the causal factors that allow an understanding of the specific effects of homeopathic preparations due to the pharmaceutical procedures applied (e.g. how specific properties of a mother tincture can be transferred to very high potency levels, even though no more molecules of the potentised substance are present). The preferred approach to achieve this goal consists in the development of physicochemical measurement methods to identify any specific physicochemical structures or properties of homeopathic preparations.
The biological mode of action will describe how any such physicochemical structure translates into specific biological effects in living beings. This includes an identification of the relevant biochemical pathways and gene activation patterns.
Progress in basic research
Basic research in homeopathically-potentised preparations has made significant progress during the last decades: more than 1500 publications can be found in the scientific literature. These publications mainly cover reports on the development of bioassays to reveal any specific biological effects of potentised preparations in various types of preclinical experimental models. Only few publications cover the scientific foundation of the simile principle.
Research on the existence of specific biological effects is distributed in three main research fields: animal models, in vitro models, and plant-based bioassays. Recent reviews identified empirical evidence for specific biological effects of potentised preparations in all three fields of research. However, only a few experimental models were independently reproduced.
Research on the pharmaceutical mode of action involved physicochemical measurements with established methods to assess physicochemical drug structure (e.g. NMR spectroscopy, NMR relaxation times, UV and RAMAN spectroscopy, thermodynamic measurements, conductivity, and others). Summarizing the research of the last decades, it can be concluded that there is no empirical evidence to date for the existence of stable water clusters within homeopathic remedies; there are however several investigations yielding evidence for a modification of water molecule dynamics. The latter may form the basis for the presumed information storage; however, in details, the mode of action is still unknown.
Only a few publications deal with the biological mode of action of homeopathically-potentised preparations. A recent publication on the transcriptome profiling of wheat seedlings, which had been treated with potencies of arsenic trioxide, yielded evidence for a strong gene modulating effect of potentised arsenic . Further comparable experiments will be necessary to document the biological mode of action.
Effects of potentised preparations
Current theoretical approaches to explain specific effects of potentised preparations can be grouped in three main categories. The first category of theoretical models involves some physicochemical modification of the structure of the potentisation medium (e.g. stable water clusters, water molecule dynamics, nanobubbles, isotope shifts, photons, silicate compounds, peptides, etc). To date, the available empirical data are in line with a modification of water molecule dynamics and/or with the formation of nanobubbles. A further development of corresponding theoretical models is necessary.
The second category of theoretical approaches describes the effects of homeopathic potencies as indeterministic and immaterial. To develop a corresponding theoretical framework, the axioms of quantum theory were generalized to be applied to other areas of nature (e.g. weak quantum theory, patient-practitioner-remedy-entanglement, etc.). However, these theories are – in their current stage of development – still too general to allow easy empirical verification or falsification.
The third category of theoretical models refers to Hahnemann and Steiner, the founders of homeopathy and anthroposophic medicine. For both, a “life force” was not only a metaphoric expression to describe the specific differences between living and non-living objects, but a real force, in its reality and effectiveness, in principle comparable to physical forces like gravity or magnetism. This presumed life force was thought to be responsible for the maintenance and development of the shape of each living being. By potentisation, it is thought that the substance potentised is transferred to a state that enables it to interact with the life force of living beings. Although this theory may sound unusual at first sight, it can in principle be easily experimentally assessed, since it predicts action-at-a-distance effects. Some first empirical data suggest that further research in this direction is warranted.
According to my experience, the lack of knowledge of the mode of action is the most prominent obstacle to the general scientific acceptance of specific effects of potentised preparations. Therefore, identification of the mode of action is of utmost importance. Furthermore, knowledge of the mode of action will most probably allow optimisation of pharmaceutical procedures to produce potentised preparations as well as optimisation of homeopathic and anthroposophic therapy.