By John von Radowitz, Science Correspondent, PA News
Thursday, 8 November 2001.
A chance discovery could provide a scientific answer to the riddle of homeopathy, it has been disclosed. Two researchers have turned upside down the conventional view of what happens when a substance is progressively diluted in water.
Common sense says that dissolved molecules simply spread further apart as a solution is increasingly diluted.But the two chemists found that some do the opposite – clumping together, first as clusters of molecules, and then as bigger aggregates. Instead of drifting apart, the molecules become more compacted.
As well as stunning other scientists, the bizarre discovery may have a direct bearing on homeopathy.Homeopathic practitioners repeatedly dilute medications, believing this will make them more potent. Some homeopaths dilute to "infinity" until no molecules of the medicine remain. They believe that water holds a memory or "imprint" of the active ingredient which is more powerful than the ingredient itself.
Others use less dilute solutions, often diluting the remedy six–fold.The Korean findings may go some way towards explaining the great paradox of homeopathic medicine – that you can make a treatment more powerful by weakening its concentration.
German chemist Kurt Geckeler and his colleague Shashadhar Samal stumbled on their discovery while studying football–shaped molecules called fullerenes at the Kwangju Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, New Scientist magazine reported last night.
They found that the molecules kept forming untidy aggregates in solution, and Geckeler asked Samal to look for ways to control the clumping.Geckeler said: "When he diluted the solution, the size of the fullerene particles increased. It was completely counter–intuitive."
Further experiments showed that the phenomenon was no fluke. The same effect was seen with a sugar–like molecule called cyclodextrin, the organic molecule guanosine monophosphate, DNA, and sodium chloride – common table salt.
Dilution made the molecules cluster into aggregates five to 10 times bigger than those in the original solutions.Growth depended on the concentration to start with. "The history of the solution is important," said Geckeler. "The more dilute it starts, the larger the aggregates."
The effect was only seen in "polar" solvents, such as water. Molecules dissolved in a polar solution have a pronounced positive charge at one end and a negative one at the other. This may be responsible for the clustering. In homeopathy, diluting a remedy may increase the size of particles until they become biologically active.
The results echo the controversial claims of French immunologist Jacques Benveniste who in 1988 claimed that a solution which had once contained antibodies still triggered an immune response.
Benveniste claimed the solution contained "imprints" in the water structure corresponding to where the antibodies had been. Peter Fisher, director of medical research at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, said: "It doesn't prove homeopathy, but it's congruent with what we think and is very encouraging.
"The whole idea of high–dilution homeopathy hangs on the idea that water has properties which are not understood. The fact that the new effect happens with a variety of substances suggests it's the solvent that's responsible. It's in line with what many homeopaths say, that you can only make homeopathic medicines in polar solvents."
Geckeler and Samal are now eager for other researchers to follow up their work.
"We want people to repeat it," said Geckeler. "If it's confirmed, it will be groundbreaking."