This is an edited version of an article originally published in Homeopathy in Practice. For a full version with references see HiP Autumn/Winter 2014 pp. 18-27.
Ask most homeopaths what they think about the use of animals in homeopathic research and they immediately assume you mean veterinary research based on the care of farm or companion animals. The idea of it involving artificially induced conditions in frightened laboratory animals does not naturally spring to mind – and why would it, given the safe, non-violent nature of homeopathy itself? This type of research, however, has been going on quietly in the background for years and now appears to be on the rise world-wide. In a long-overdue examination of an important ethical issue, here are seven good reasons why research into homeopathy should not involve experimentation on animals.
Reason 1: It involves suffering, often severe
Animal experimentation within the field of homeopathy has been taking place for many decades. Today it is going on in universities and research centres throughout Europe, in India, South America, Australia and the middle East (Iran, Israel), with Brazil, India and Italy particularly well represented in English-language journals. Databases such as HomBRex and PubMed/MEDLINE contain the details of studies involving animals of all descriptions (mice, rats, toads, eels, guinea pigs, non-human primates etc) and a wide variety of conditions, most of them acute in nature. In the majority of these studies the ‘diseases’ and conditions of interest are artificially induced first in the experimental animals. Then one or two (occasionally several) remedies are given to the animals to study their effects on the induced condition.
The methodology used to make healthy experimental animals ill has been borrowed from mainstream biomedical research. Thus inflammatory states are produced by injecting animals with substances like carrageenan to promote pain and swelling; artificial diabetes is created by means of alloxan; convulsions induced by strychnine; nerve damage simulated by severing sciatic nerves; sepsis created by puncturing intestines; stress and anxiety enhanced by repeated electric shocks, forced swimming tests, sleep deprivation, or the use of mediaeval-style restraints and so on. You will find studies of bone fractures where limbs are broken mechanically, or burns where the skin is scalded or irradiated, or infections with deadly diseases, or poisoning by mercury, arsenic, snake venom etc. Even the notorious writhe test, discouraged on welfare grounds by some pharmacologists, has made an appearance in homeopathic research in the study of inflammation. It involves injecting mice intraperitoneally with irritant substances like acetic acid and counting the number of times they writhe in pain, with or without treatment with anti-inflammatory medicines. Freund’s adjuvant – similarly discouraged because of the severe inflammation and tissue necrosis it causes, often leading to self-mutilation – has also been used. All these experiments cause harm and suffering, often severe, and all animals with the exception of non-human primates are killed (‘sacrificed’) at the end of the experiment.
In one particularly disturbing Brazilian study 12 capuchin monkeys were poisoned with cyclophosphamide (CP), a carcinogenic drug used to treat cancer in humans, to see whether a patented homeopathic combination remedy called Canova (CA) could mitigate the drug’s devastating effects on the immune system. Physical restraint (squeeze cages) and chemical restraint (ketamine) were used on a daily basis in order to weigh the animals and take blood samples from their femoral veins. All CP-treated animals became ill – two so seriously that they had to be destroyed before the end of the experiment. A post-mortem listed ulcerative lesions of the gastrointestinal tract, herpetic lesions of the mouth and skin, haemorrhagic cystitis and renal damage amongst other findings.
While welfare concerns inevitably focus on the experiment itself we should remember that it’s not just the invasive procedures lab animals are subjected to that cause distress. Experimental animals great and small experience fear more than anything else – pain included. Thus heart rates, blood pressure and stress hormones rise in response to routine laboratory procedures such as handling and blood sampling and feeding through a tube. Barren living conditions can result in boredom and depression, which in turn lead to repetitive and uniform movements and even self-mutilation. In the CP experiment the twelve monkeys were confined in individual cages for 50 days before the 40-day experiment even began – a deeply stressful experience for such highly social animals. We know that distressed animals generate unreliable information so how can research that causes unusual behaviour and physiology ever be considered good science? The short answer is it can’t.
Reason 2: It’s unethical
It is hard to reconcile much of the methodology mentioned above with homeopathy, a non-violent, safe and progressive system of medicine that evolved in response to the harmful medical practices of the day. But these experiments – sometimes bafflingly referred to as ‘pre-clinical research’ – are taking place as you read this article. They are being approved by ethics committees, presented at conferences and published in journals. It is important to note at this point that it is almost exclusively mainstream university researchers – rather than homeopaths – that are involved in this work, a fact that has important consequences for the nature and quality of the research and its relevance to the practice of homeopathy (see Reason 4).
Currently around 45% of English-language journals that publish animal research have no ethical policies on animal use, while 19% simply ask that research is conducted according to relevant laws or institutional guidelines. These often don’t reflect best practice which now requires researchers to question whether the work actually justifies the use of animals and whether alternatives could be used instead. Weak animal welfare legislation combined with weak publication policies encourages work of dubious ethical quality, like that involving the writhe test described earlier, or Freund’s adjuvant, or non-human primates. It also encourages bad science. The findings of the CP study, for example, are completely invalidated by a small sample size. Twelve animals, assigned to three treatment groups, were used in this experiment – effectively too small a number for the results to have any statistical power (particularly as two of them died). So even though the researchers concluded that CA protects against DNA damage and damage to white blood cells, these conclusions are unsupported. An effective ethics committee would never give the green light to a study involving animals that was doomed to scientific failure, nor one involving non-human primates unless under very exceptional circumstances, nor one where alternative testing methods existed. And a journal editor working to a clear and robust ethical policy on animal research would have rejected the work for similar reasons.
This is just one of many examples that demonstrate how weak standards do nothing to foster high-quality, innovative research or encourage a shift away from animal models towards more scientifically relevant and ethical testing methodologies (see Reason 7). They encourage instead the kind of projects that do not require time-consuming enquiry and evidence gathering – work that cannot hope to address the burning questions that need answering within homeopathy. So more and more work is done, much of it ‘generally adequate’ rather than outstanding in quality, and more and more research papers follow the multitudes of other such publications into the ever-expanding cyber-vaults of electronic databases.
Researchers often fail to meet even basic legal or institutional requirements on animal welfare. We know this from numerous exposés of work that has taken place at top UK research institutions (the breaches of animal experiment licences at Imperial College in 2013, for example), which gives little confidence that the same behaviour is not occurring in other parts of the world and within basic homeopathic research. One standard requirement of virtually all welfare guidelines that is never followed by homeopathic researchers (for fear of interfering with the experiment) is the provision of appropriate analgesia or sedation to relieve pain and distress. Thus control group rats in one of the Freund’s adjuvant studies were left for three weeks whilst arthritic lesions in their feet became progressively more severe and painful. No pain relief was given because this would have invalidated the experiment. Had the 12 monkeys in the CP experiment received the same standard treatment given to human patients undergoing CP therapy their suffering would have been alleviated somewhat by anti-inflammatories, anti-nausea drugs and intravenous fluid via a drip. Instead, all that two of them received was euthanasia.
Ultimately what really brings home the unethical nature of much of this research are the insights that homeopathy has given us into the inner worlds of animals and their spiritual dimensions. Through our provings we have come to recognise the capacity of all kinds of species to experience joy, fear, grief, frustration and more (read for example some of the provings in Nancy Herrick’s Animal Mind, Human Voices). We cannot plead ignorance of this, or of the ability of animals to suffer in much the same way we do, and with this knowledge comes a moral duty to do all we can not to add to this suffering. As David O. Wiebers, Emeritus Professor of Neurology once pointed out: ‘Humankind’s greatest goal, which outweighs the lengthening of life through medical advancements, is to evolve spiritually, and [that] in order to do this there is a need for us as a species to learn to think of other beings as ends, rather than means’.
Reason 3: It’s not getting us anywhere
We do research into homeopathy for three main reasons: to add to the evidence base; to determine mode of action; and to improve clinical care for our patients.
While many randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of homeopathy have been carried out – with 44% showing a balance of positive evidence (a comparable percentage to trials of conventional medicine) – less than a third actually reflect real-life homeopathic practice i.e. classical, individualised homeopathy. It is hard to shoe-horn a complex and holistic therapy like homeopathy into the confines of an RCT, and doing so tends to turn trials of homeopathy into efficacy trials of a single remedy, as in conventional, ‘one-size-fits-all’ drugs trials. But ways around such obstacles are being developed (see for example the ingenious ‘cohort multiple RCT’), clearing the way for clinically relevant trials of homeopathy and, ultimately, additional evidence for its effectiveness.
How do basic animal studies contribute to the homeopathic evidence base? They can (and do) demonstrate biological action and they also disprove the notion that homeopathy is merely placebo. And there are certainly a very large number of them. But there is only so much that can be achieved through basic research. Ultimately lab animal studies represent the weakest evidence for an intervention and no number of them will outweigh the findings of even a single well-conducted human study. So if demonstrating the effectiveness of homeopathy is a priority – as researchers say it is – then research efforts clearly need to be focussed on clinical trials, either human or veterinary, rather than basic animal research. In Brazil just 3.7% of academic research into homeopathy between 1985 and 2006 involved clinical studies – a staggeringly low proportion. With cancer sufferers in every town and intractable problems with chemotherapeutic drugs, how much more useful would the CP study have been had it involved real-life cancer patients receiving CP as part of their treatment?
Veterinary research directed at improving the health of animals has yielded positive evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy and practical benefits at the same time – without recourse to harm. A recent study of diarrhoea in piglets carried out in the Netherlands, for example, demonstrates the role homeopathy can play in reducing antibiotic use on farms, while a British study of Cushing’s disease in horses and dogs demonstrates success rates comparable to conventional treatment but without the side-effects, relapse rates and cost.
Perhaps the greatest spanner in the works as far as gaining acceptance of homeopathy is concerned, is the fact that we don’t understand its mode of action. People want to know not only that homeopathy works, but also HOW it works. Researchers using animal models often propose a possible mode of action, e.g. the remedies act directly on inflammatory mediators, or on the immune system, or on certain enzyme pathways and so on. These are explanations based on a conventional and materialistic view of the body and in many respects they are half-right. Homeopaths know, however, that the situation is significantly more complex than this because their remedies act first and foremost at an energetic level, on the vital force itself. They affect the whole organism, touching the mind and spirit as much as they act on the body. If we want to explain the mode of action it would seem logical to study the energetic qualities of our remedies and the phenomenon of the vital force itself, not simply the physical manifestations of treatment. Homeopathy is not allopathy, it is energy medicine and it requires a completely new approach to research. Over the decades countless animals have been experimented on yet this has brought us no nearer to demonstrating mode of action. It is time for something different – to move out of the tired rut of animal experiments, to be innovative and creative and to embrace new ideas emanating from other fields of science.
Translating the results of basic animal studies to real-life situations involving sick humans is an impossible task (see Reason 7), and we know from mainstream medicine that it is clinical research rather than basic research that has the most effect on patient care. As a consequence none of the animal experiments referred to above are likely to be of help to practising homeopaths. Stuart Close, professor of homeopathic philosophy at the New York Medical College from 1909-1913, concluded that ‘… nothing of any real therapeutic value has ever been learned by experiment upon animals that could not have been learned better, more simply and more humanely by harmless experiments upon human beings; while the knowledge gained in such experiments on human beings is equally valuable for use in the treatment of sick animals’. The great majority of our patients present with chronic complaints that develop naturally and uniquely, conditions that are influenced by life events, environmental factors, inherited traits and so on that all need to be considered when prescribing. Relatively few patients present with severe poisonings, burns, artificially induced tumours etc and even if they did they would receive individualized treatment because homeopaths, of course, practise ‘personalised medicine’ (see Reason 7) and prescribe on the totality of the symptoms not the condition itself.
If animal experiments don’t positively influence patient care, don’t add significantly to the evidence base and haven’t brought us any closer to discovering mode of action then who exactly does benefit from this research and why is it still being done? To boost publication records and academic careers? Out of curiosity? Out of personal bias and habit? Of all the reasons for research these are the ones least well tolerated by society, a point explored further in Reason 5.
Reason 4: It’s not homeopathy
Most basic animal research in homeopathy is geared towards testing the efficacy of a highly diluted medicine rather than the effectiveness of homeopathy itself. The work is heavily influenced by an allopathic approach to disease and treatment and it reflects both the conventional backgrounds of the researchers involved and a lack of training and experience in homeopathic prescribing. The remedies used are sometimes patented combinations, the homeopathic rationale for which may be unclear (Canova, for example, contains 17 different remedies, 15 of which are polycrests). More typically they are single polycrests and usually relevant to the condition studied – although this is not always the case. One study, for example, used Chamomilla 6c – not an obvious choice – to treat depression in mice induced by housing healthy animals with dying cage mates.
The process of making animals ill and then treating them with a single remedy appears crude and oversimplified to the homeopath, particularly as the focus is almost always on the physical body and on what happens at the organ or cellular level. The role of the vital force, for example, which ‘governs without restriction and keeps all parts of the organism in admirable, harmonious, vital operation’, is rarely explored. This is unsurprising given the mainstream view that humans and animals are simply physical beings made of component parts rather than energetic ones capable of existing and experiencing themselves at many different levels simultaneously. Yet to overlook the vital force when studying homeopathy seems absurd. So too does the one-condition-one-remedy approach and inattention to emotional state (usually fear) unless, of course, it forms part of the experiment. This is not homeopathy. It is a pale and distorted version of the therapy that ultimately does it no favours (see Reasons 3, 5, 6).
Reason 5: Public opinion
Public concern about the use of animals in research is a powerful agent for change. It has brought about such things as a complete ban on the testing of cosmetics in Europe and Norway in 2013 (swiftly followed by similar bans in Israel, India and Sao Paulo in Brazil) and has led to the establishment of numerous centres around the world researching alternatives to animal testing in toxicology and medicine.
A 2009 poll carried out by YouGov in six EU member states showed that around 80% of those polled believed:
- Experiments on animals which do not relate to serious or life-threatening human conditions should be prohibited,
- Experiments causing severe pain or suffering to any animal should be prohibited,
- All information about animal experiments should be publicly available, except confidential information and information that would identify researchers or where they work.
A new EU directive on laboratory animal welfare (2010/63/EU), now part of law in all member states, broadly reflects these attitudes and desires. Its emphasis on transparency is expected to have a major influence on the use of animals in scientific research in Europe – and ultimately in other parts of the world. National websites will carry summaries of the work researchers plan to do with animals and these websites can be accessed by the public. Entering words such as “homeopathy” and “animal model”, for example, into a database search will retrieve information on all relevant studies taking place in that country.
At the time of writing no basic homeopathic research involving animals appears to be taking place in the UK, although British journals continue to provide a platform for this work. In other EU countries researchers are likely to find their work coming under close scrutiny in the coming years, particularly by campaigning organisations. Judging by the response to the YouGov poll it is not hard to predict how the public would view harmful experiments on animals involving safe medicines already tested on humans – and information spreads fast in the digital age.
Reason 6: It’s quite possibly unlawful (depending on where you’re doing it)
Directive 2010/63/EU places strong emphasis on the 3Rs (test methods which replace, refine and reduce the use of laboratory animals), especially on replacement. The final goal of the directive is to achieve full replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific and educational purposes as soon as it is scientifically possible to do so. Article 4 states that: ‘wherever possible, a scientifically satisfactory method or testing strategy, not entailing the use of live animals, shall be used instead of a procedure.’ Within homeopathy it should be easy to comply with the 3Rs requirement and with Article 4 for the obvious reason that our medicines have always been tested on people, not animals.
European researchers who continue to use animals in harmful experiments may find themselves open to legal challenge by campaigning organisations who will be monitoring the new databases. These organisations would refer to the harm/benefit test now required by EU law and argue that the predicted harm would not be justified by the expected outcome (see Reason 3). They would also argue that homeopathic medicines have been around for a long time, a lot is already known about them from human studies and there is no legal requirement to test them on animals prior to using them on humans. They would cite the many alternatives (humans, plant bioassays, in vitro tests etc) that exist, and their case would be strong.
Outside Europe, in countries with weaker legislation, there is even wider scope for harm. India is harmonising animal welfare law with EU legislation but doubts exist over how practical these frameworks are and how seriously the government takes their enforcement. In Brazil law-makers have worked hard to overhaul 1987 welfare rules governing the use of animals in scientific research, yet the new 2008 legislation has numerous significant omissions, for example it fails to refer to or place emphasis on the 3Rs, has no severity classification system for procedures and does not even require research to be designed with consideration for its relevance to human and animal health, the advancement of knowledge or the good of society. It thus falls to the National Council for the Control of Animal Experimentation to develop strategies to improve regulations and to positively influence both animal welfare and the ingrained culture of animal experimentation in the country. This could take many years.
Reason 7: It’s not necessary
Mainstream medicine has built its foundations on animal research, yet these are looking increasingly shaky as scientists begin to evaluate evidence for the reliability and success of animal models in predicting effects in humans. A recent article in the BMJ highlighted the fact that even the most promising findings from animal research often fail in human trials and are rarely adopted into clinical practice. Elsewhere an open letter from 21 scientists to the Prime Minister David Cameron stressed the dangers of relying on animal models when testing drugs intended for humans, and emphasised the need for greater use of human-based test methods. Increasingly such methods are coming online, ranging from sophisticated computer programmes that can detect toxicity in minutes rather than months of animal testing, to in vitro models that simulate whole organs and organ systems. Thus mainstream biomedical research appears to be moving away from animal models, albeit slowly, driven by public opinion, the need to reduce the incidence of adverse drug reactions (ADRs) and the cost and time required to bring a new drug to market. The great irony (that won’t be lost on practising homeopaths) is that two of the latest testing technologies suggest this movement is towards a rudimentary form of homeopathy. One method is ‘micro-dosing’, which involves giving human volunteers tiny doses of a potential drug at levels high enough to allow scientists to see its effects in the body but not high enough to cause harm. The second is ‘personalised medicine’, in which scientists obtain genetic and molecular information from a person in order to predict how they will react to a certain drug. The aim of this is to make treatment more targeted and effective and to reduce the number of ADRs.
ADRs of course have never been a stumbling block for homeopathy. The safety of our medicines has allowed experimentation on large numbers of consenting men and women of all ages and ethnicities, each of whom has been able to communicate their reactions and experiences, whether physical, mental or emotional. Over the decades this non-harmful, human-based research has lead to the development of a rich, multi-dimensional and valuable homeopathic materia medica tailor-made for ‘personalised medicine’, and to a greater understanding of the nature of health and disease. It comes as another ironic twist then to see homeopathic research move away from humans as the primary research subjects and towards genetically identical laboratory animals maintained in carefully controlled environments.
If all animal experimentation were to be banned tomorrow, research into homeopathy would be more likely to thrive than to suffer. The focus would shift easily towards humans – both healthy and sick; to sick animals, to well-trialled plant bioassays and in vitro tests. Funding would be reassigned and progress towards a large, high-quality evidence-base accelerated. We would be able to take full and confident advantage of the safety of homeopathic medicines – downplayed by an allopathic approach to homeopathic research – and, perhaps most importantly, research would fully reflect the ethical principles and innovative thinking that led to homeopathy’s birth.