Field of Science

Deconstructing Homeopathy: An Indian perspective

Courtesy: MSNBC

In January this year, sceptics from many cities in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US staged a stunt where 300 people took large overdoses of homeopathic remedies. Their aim was to demonstrate that homeopathic remedies are nothing but sugar pills and as expected, no volunteer was killed or injured. As 62% of all Indians believe in homeopathy and with that number growing, it is high time that the country begins to understand the science behind homeopathy and the dangers of blindly believing in its claims.

Let’s consider how a homeopathic remedy to treat common cold is made. Homeopaths follow the ‘like cures like’ principle, according to which one must find something that causes the symptoms of common cold like running nose and watery eyes. It is known that onion juice can. So a drop of onion juice is taken and diluted 100 times by adding 100 drops of water. It is then shaken. But that dilution is not enough because homeopaths believe in another principle: ‘the higher the dilution, the higher the potency’, thus one drop of that solution is taken and another 100 drops of water are added to it, followed by more shaking. This is repeated at least 30 times to give the final remedy. At this level of dilution, the chance of finding Barack Obama sitting in your living room is higher than the chance of finding a single molecule of onion juice in that homeopathic remedy. (See BBC documentary to know more)

There have been serious concerns about the validity of homeopathic principles in the mainstream medical community. They lack any scientific evidence and are in complete contrast to the body of knowledge that is traditional medicine. Such highly diluted solutions, which don’t contain even a single molecule of the active ingredient, also make it possible for homeopaths to claim that their remedies have no side effects. Also according to the ‘like cures like’ principle, as stated before, the same homeopathic remedy used to treat stress can simply be used to treat a brain tumour. After all, both conditions cause a headache and the homeopathic remedy for both would simply consist of a highly diluted solution of something that causes a headache.

Many patients who receive homeopathic treatment say that it works for them and it would be wrong to claim that they are lying. Positive effects of homeopathy are merely caused by something called the ‘placebo effect’. A placebo is a medication with no active ingredients in it. The best examples of the placebo effect are observed when two dummy treatments are compared with each other. If one sham treatment works better than the other then it must be simply because people are expecting it to work. For example, a study showed that four sugar pills a day are better at reducing pain than two but more invasive treatment, like a salt-water injection, is even better. In another study patients reported that a red pill was better at treating pain than a white one, even though both were inert.

Homeopathy ‘works’ because of the placebo effect. It doesn’t matter if you are a sceptic, a baby or an animal - if people around you expect the treatment to work, it is more likely to. Sometimes ignorance of important symptoms which need timely attention can give homeopathy credence. This ignorance often makes people wait to see the doctor until their illness is at its worst. At this point a homeopathic remedy is prescribed to the patient. Once the worst is over, the immune system becomes capable of combating the disease and healing begins. But unfortunately, the natural process of healing is often then attributed to homeopathy.

When a homeopathic treatment does not lead to a cure, people tend to blame either their condition or their fate, but still continue to rely blindly on homeopathy. The belief in homeopathy is also perpetuated by India’s unregulated pharmaceutical market which makes it easy to buy medicines across the counter without a physician’s prescription. As a result, people often take the wrong medication and blame the ineffectiveness on mainstream medicine. This tendency generates an undesirable bias towards homeopathy.

One might question that if homoeopathic remedies work (by placebo effect or by self-healing) then surely there is nothing “wrong” in prescribing them? Ethically speaking, it is not wrong to use homeopathic remedies to treat minor illnesses such as common cold or a headache. But it can be exceedingly dangerous, as WHO warned recently, when homeopathy claims to be able to treat serious medical conditions such as cancer, swine flu, AIDS, TB, or malaria.

Furthermore, there can be serious consequences when homeopathy becomes enshrined in mainstream medical policy. In Punjab, for instance a state-wide program is being implemented that uses homeopathic treatment to ‘cure’ pregnant mothers of the need for a C-section during child birth. Incidences like these makes one wonder how many mothers will die and if they do, whether the homeopaths will ever be held to account.

The scientific community has, for decades, systematically refuted every claim that homeopathy makes and yet millions of people in India still believe in it. Government funds it, ministers support it, more colleges are built and more homeopaths walk amongst us year on year. Some say this broad public support for homeopathy remains because the scientific community is unable to communicate this to the people or it comes from a general disdain for “western” medicine. 

Also published at the new community blog Critical Twenties.

Further Information:
  1. BBC Horizon documentary
  2. Sense about Homeopathy: A Sense about Science publication
  3. Homeopathic treatment for Ovarian Cysts
  4. Prasad, R. The Lancet, 2007, 370, 1679
  5. Samarasekera, U. The Lancet, 2007, 370, 1677

Synthesis of Hygromycin A

Retrosynthetic analysis of Hygromycin by Donohoe et. al.
Shown to be a broad-spectrum antibiotic which also exhibits immunosuppressant activity, Hygromycin A has an intriguing structure and yet has only been synthesised once before (Ogawa et. al. 24 linear steps and 1% yield). Donohoe's retroysynthesis aims at addressing two key issues in the the sugar moiety: epimerisation at C4 and glycosylation of β-anomer. The route also aims at making use of the group's methodology, the tethered aminohydroxylation (TA) reaction in synthesising the inositol portion.

The TA-reaction at work
The sugar is synthesised by standard reactions but with triisopropyl protected alcohols at C2 and C3, the aim of which is to force the β-anomeric configuration and to protect the epimerisation of C4 by hindering the vulnerable proton. A strategy that eventually paid off. The sugar was then attached to B by a selective mitsonobu reaction  (slow addition of DIAD, tiphenyphosphine, toluene at 60 deg C) which on optimisation gave 9:1 ratio for the β-anomer with excellent yield.

The inositol portion was synthesised using the key TA step which had an superb yield of 74% on using (only) 1 mol% catalyst loading, giving the desired diastereomer exclusively. This step has been improved upon the previously reported result (61% yield at 4 mol% catalyst loading). The attacment of the inositol portion to the B+C part was achieved using standard coupling reagents and on deprotection yielded Hygromycin A in 17 linear steps and 10% overall yield a great improvement over the previous synthesis.

ResearchBlogging.org
Donohoe, T., Flores, A., Bataille, C., & Churruca, F. (2009). Synthesis of (−)-Hygromycin A: Application of Mitsunobu Glycosylation and Tethered Aminohydroxylation Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 48 (35), 6507-6510 DOI: 10.1002/anie.200902840



We the Molecular Architects

No, I am not talking about Eric Drexler's molecular nanotechnology which is still many many years away, if at all possible. Right now without a second thought I would call organic chemists Molecular Architects, especially the ones who work in the field of Natural Product Synthesis. It is that branch of chemistry that deals with the art and science of constructing complex naturally occurring molecules in the laboratory starting with easily available raw material.

The field has been recognised with many Nobel Prizes in Chemistry:
E. Fischer in 1902, H. Fischer in 1930, R. Robinson in 1947, R. B. Woodward in 1965, E. J. Corey in 1990.
Their contributions are only the few spikes in this field where every molecule synthesised has the potential of making a significant contribution. Every synthesis is a brick (or as Lehn calls it a stone)  in this construction of this structure called science, irrespective of it's position in the structure. It helps push the frontiers of the already existing synthetic methods and often leads to new methods helping to build a great library of chemical literature.
I am hoping to write a series of posts on the publications that interest me and I will keep updating this post with the posts in this category.

  1. Synthesis of Cylindricines
  2. Synthesis of Hygromycin A

Synthesis of Cylindricines

The family of tricylic compounds despite being known to possess no significant biological activity have been a target of many previous syntheses because of it's challenging structure. The paper in discussion today is the synthesis of Cylindricine C synthesised in the Chemistry Research Laboratory at Oxford University which elaborates the use of the recently published methodology by the Donohoe group.

Most of the previously reported synthesis (Snider, Heathcock, Molander, Trost and Kibayashi) have relied upon the late-stage construction of the six-membered B ring but Donohoe's synthesis was planned to begin with the ring B in place. It began with the commercially available picolinic acid which was converted to the disubstituted N-protected pyridine. Then Donohoe and co-workers extended the scope of their own methodology (previously shown N-methyl and N-allyl pyrdinium salts) by showing more examples of Grignard addition to N-DMB protected pyridinium salts. 


The key intermediate was prepared in a stereo and regio-selective manner with that methodology. After the ring closure and  the subsequent nucleophilic addition of the alkyl Gringard (HexMgBr) gave the desired diastereomer as the major product (X-ray structure). Further maniuplation of the ester side-chain through a series of well-known chemistry yielded them an intermediate aldehyde which could (using Snider's method) lead to cylindricine A, thus completing a formal synthesis of it. Also the same intermediate aldehyde was then converted to give cylidricine C as well.

ResearchBlogging.org
Donohoe, T., Brian, P., Hargaden, G., & O’Riordan, T. (2010). Synthesis of cylindricine C and a formal synthesis of cylindricine A Tetrahedron, 66 (33), 6411-6420 DOI: 10.1016/j.tet.2010.05.044

Scientia Pro Publica #36

Welcome to this edition of the Scientia Pro Publica. Without further ado, I present to you the amazing submissions I have received from the ever-growing science blogging community.

Bees are useful, no one is denying that.
Kerstin Hoppenhaus brings to our attention an interesting case in her post called 'pleasures of fact-checking'. "Some claims become so common that nobody bothers to cite sources anymore" she says. But if the claim is not true  then it goes against the basic principle of science because it's not the 'truth'. The particular claim that she explores is "One third of our food supply is dependant on the pollination that is done by honeybees". Is it really true? Find out for yourself on his post.

What the whale!
Bec Crew writes about an extinct species of the sperm whale family that was highlighted in a recent discovery. It was discovered that this species called Leviathan melvillei had 40 cm long teeth (in addition to the big body and the sperm whales that exist today do not have upper teeth and the lower teeth are much smaller ). Scientists believe that with such massive teeth, these whales were actually eating other smaller variety of whales. There is a fascinating video about this discovery made by Nature. To read more about it head to the post here. There is also a funny dinner conversation of the pre-historic times that comes at the end of the post. Don't miss it.

Evolution of the menopause
"Men can keep churning out the sperm in their old age, but women can sometimes live twice as long (or more!) as their fertile years! Is it just me, or is that cool?" asks EcoPhysioMichelle. Head to the post to read more.


Sex reduces anxiety, no kidding!
It's EcoPhysioMichelle again who says "Sex and exercise have similar positive effects on the brain" and that "the harmful effects of physically stressful behaviors may be overridden if the behavior itself evokes pleasure in the individual". So, sex gets less stressful the more you have it. Read more here.


What's hot in science, literally!

The post written by Thomas is called Hotties of Science. And of course, he starts with the women in science and their 'hotness', then moving to the really hot things in science. Read more here.

Do language universals exist?
My co-blogger at Field of Science, Games with Words, explores the question "Is there an underlying structure (that is) common to all languages?" in his post.


How do we know what we know about protein function?
Iddo Friedberg, assistant professor at Miami University has devised a wicked plan to help understand and develop better tools for predicting protein function. Head to the post to read more.

I'm a scientist, get me out of here!
An idea taken from the hugely popular show, 'I'm a scientist, get me out of here' aims to help school students interact with real scientists in a reality game show format. Professor Stephen Curry of Imperial College London won the 2010 event and writes about his experience in this post.

Geology on an epic scale
The image shows a new vent that burnt through a parking lot in Yellowstone National Park. Chris Rowan writes about the origin of the Park which "encompasses the giant caldera of a hotspot-fuelled ‘supervolcano’ that last exploded 630,000 years ago". Read more here.
In the name of science, we dive!
People do all sorts of things for the love of science. Heather Olins, a graduate student at Harvard University dives to study deep ocean microbes situated close to hydrothermal vents. Pretty cool, eh? Read about his first dive here.

You just can't trust dolphins
Chuck explains that when people care more about "cute" animals, it's bad for science and conservation. Read his post here.

 
Play with Sharks. Yes, really!
David a shark biologist recently invoked the divine powers of citizen science to help him with a project while they learned something about sharks and their important role in our oceans, and (at least a few) went home and told their friends and family. Read his post here.

Save us
Thonoir of ninjameys is writing a series of posts on Endangered Species 2010 and in this carnival he highlights his post on arthropods. Read more here.

Colours are pretty and so are birds
John writes about a research done Piping Plover birds who were banded with different coloured bands and their migration tracked. Read more here.


Students and Social NetworksAre they very well behaved college students or is the media lying about youngsters waisting their precious time on the Internet. What do you think? Read here.

Science is a mystery, one that we love
Andrew of 360 degree skeptic writes about how a study on gender differences came up with some surprising findings. Read here.

What's so great about modeling?
This post is not about fashion. Why do we make models of things? Why do some scientists spend time making and analyzing mathematical and numerical models of systems and processes in nature? Read here to find out the answers.

Plagiarism at the BBC
The headline says it all. I feel sorry to read this, have a lot of respect for BBC.

Heroin in Vietnam
Dirk explores the results of the Robins Study which was responsible for turning the official story of heroin completely upside down. Read here.

Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog 
The blog features two posts on detoxifying cassava and on looking for leimotifs in the early history of wheat and rice.

Useful links for our readers:
Scientia pro publica blog, twitter
To submit articles to this carnival click here.
To become a host of this carnival click here.
Scientia Pro Publica #37 will be hosted here

Picture credits can be found on the respective posts
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