Homeopathy Is Sugar Water. The FTC is Finally Regulating Industry Claims.

Given the FDA's lack of oversight, the FTC is stepping in to regulate homeopathic products.

In the midst of flu season you’ll see plenty of tiny Oscillococcinum tablets being dissolved in tall glasses of water. The homeopathic remedy has been in production for over sixty-five years, netting roughly $15 million per year in America. It is also one of France’s top-selling medicines.


Oscillococcinum is based on a discovery by French physician Joseph Roy, who coined the term in 1925. Eight years prior he discovered an oscillating bacterium (which he called Oscillococcus) in the blood of flu victims. He postulated that the bacterium was responsible for a variety of diseases, ranging from eczema to cancer.

Later he discovered the same bacterium in a duckling from Long Island. A fan of homeopathy, of which practitioners believe ‘like treats like,’ Roy began using the liver of the Long Island duck to prepare his medication. (The heart and liver of the Muscovy duck are used today.)

Problem is, nobody else has ever seen Oscillococcus. It was most likely dust accumulated by the movement of water molecules. That hasn’t stopped French homeopathic manufacturing giant Boiron from producing millions of tiny vials each year.

To manufacture Oscillococcinum technicians mix one part duck heart and liver with one hundred parts sugar in water. This process is repeated two hundred times—that is, lactose is mixed into the original mix two hundred times; duck is never added again. What you pay ten bucks for contains no fowl whatsoever. When dilution ceases only sugar and water remain.

The FDA has generally taken a hands-off approach to homeopathic remedies. As long as manufacturers don’t make medical claims the agency won’t regulate. This blind eye has resulted in billions of dollars in sales of sugar water in the United States alone. While enviable to soda companies, it’s terrible medicine.

In fact it’s not even medicine, though reading Boiron’s description you’d think differently. The manufacturer claims Oscillococcinum “temporarily relieves flu-like symptoms such as body aches, headache, fever, chills and fatigue.” A 2015 study found the pills ineffective at treating influenza, which makes sense given that sugar is more likely to promote rather than reduce inflammatory responses. A 2005 study in France and a 2007 study in the UK reached the same conclusion.

Which is probably why the FTC is stepping in. In November the agency stated that companies marketing and selling homeopathic products must either prove efficacy or print that there is no scientific evidence that it works on the packaging. This agency did not mince words:

Many homeopathic products are diluted to such an extent that they no longer contain detectable levels of the initial substance. In general, homeopathic product claims are not based on modern scientific methods and are not accepted by modern medical experts, but homeopathy nevertheless has many adherents.

Boiron has gone so far as to state its products are regulated “as drugs by the FDA”—a completely false claim. Yet makers of homeopathic medicines are sounding off about the FTC’s decision, stating consumer choice is an essential ingredient for overall health.

For one, the American Institute of Homeopathy called the FTC’s decision “unqualified and wholly lacking in merit.” The AIH also believes the FTC is causing harm and mistrust to a “respected traditional system of medicine in the United States,” a rather spectacular claim given that the system was nearly abandoned a half-century ago—in 1970 there were only seventy-five homeopathic practitioners in the country.

Then a revival occurred, predominantly as a response to a real and pervasive danger: the growing influence and lobbying power of the pharmaceutical industry. Much of the natural healing industry is a response to a failing health care system that creates addicts while focusing on the bottom line.

This is especially concerning considering the next potential head of the FDA, Jim O’Neill, wants to strip down the government’s rigorous drug approval process. His basic philosophy is that the free market will figure it out—a stunning display of ignorance in which we can use homeopathy as a guiding light, given that consumers have not figured these products do not work. Most patients trust their doctor’s advice. When those doctors are mouthpieces (and prescription writers) for pharmaceutical companies, nothing about the market is free.

A proper response to chronic misinformation and greed is not more misinformation and greed—in 2007 the homeopathic industry was worth $2.7 billion in America. Homeopathic doctors too have a stake in this given that the median income is $70,000, with $200,000 going to the more successful ones. As pointed out by surgical oncologist David Gorski, the homeopathic industry’s supposed rigorous double-blinded, randomized studies are laughable.

Anyone who’s studied homeopathy much knows that these studies are invariably poorly designed, too small, lacking in proper controls, or have any number of flaws that invalidate them. Of course, there are also some well-designed studies that turned out slightly positive, but it’s clear from the preponderance of evidence that these were due to random chance. 

As I’ve written about on this site, the placebo effect is a real phenomenon. How else can one explain the supposed efficacy of sugar water? We already know that sugar is one of the planet’s greatest killers. We also know that humans are susceptible to false claims on pretty packaging. The FTC is not overstepping its boundaries in this decision. The agency is merely filling a gap that the FDA should have plugged long ago. 

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Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
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