An India-based homeopathic organisation caused ripples in academic circles in the UK over the last few days after announcing it would conduct a conference on treating cancer at the University College London (UCL) premises – an appointment that has since been cancelled by UCL.
Although homeopathy has been widely drubbed as possessing zero curative potential, it continues to have an existence ranging from undemonstrative to unrestrained in many countries. In the UK, its practice is restricted by law; further compounding the issue is that the scheduled conference plans to discuss ways to manage cancer with homeopathy, the kind of advertising that’s barely legal in the country (see: Section 4, Cancer Act, 1939).
The website built for the event says that the Dr. Prasanta Banerji Homeopathic Research Foundation, based in Kolkata, will conduct the conference at the UCL Institute of Neurology, with an entry fee of £180. The two-day event will discuss the so-called Banerji Protocols, a set of methods developed by doctors Prasanta and Pratip Banerji to manage various ailments using only homeopathy and arrive at diagnoses quickly. However, their claims appear insufficiently backed up – a list of publications on the foundation’s page doesn’t contain any peer-reviewed studies or reports from randomised clinical trials.
Once the event’s details were publicised, the furore was centred on the Banerjis’ using UCL premises to promote their methods. As Andy Lewis wrote in The Quackometer, “[UCL’s] premises are being used to bring respectability to a thoroughly disturbing business.” However, after complaints lodged by multiple activists, researchers and others, UCL cancelled the event on February 1 and said, according to blogger David Colquhoun, that the booking was made by a “junior [secretary] unaware of issues”, that it had learnt its lesson, and that a process had been set up to prevent similar issues from recurring in the future.
The UCL clarification came close on the heels of the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority approving five homeopathic combinations to make therapeutic claims. All combinations are made by a company named Helios and assure palliative and curative effects, including for hay fever. Edzard Ernst, noted for his vehement opposition to homeopathy, wrote in response on his blog, “If you look critically at the evidence, you are inevitably going to arrive at entirely different verdicts about the effectiveness of these remedies: they actually do nothing!”
It’s notable that the marketing practices that the Banerjis are following closely mimic those generally adopted by people selling dubitable products, services or ideas:
- Advertising methods through case studies instead of scientific details – Three items on the conference agenda read: “Evidence based management of cancer, renal failure and other serious illnesses with case presentations including radiology and histopathology images” and “Live case studies to demonstrate case taking for difficult conditions”
- Conflating invitation from institutes with invitation from governments (the latter hardly ever happens) – From banerjiprotocols.in: “Under invitation from Spain, Portugal, Royal Academy of Japan, USA, Roswell park cancer centre at Buffalo, New York, Italy, Netherlands, Germany we have done workshops and teaching seminars and we received standing ovations in all the places.”
- Citing alleged accreditation by prestigious institutions but of which no official record exists or, when it does, doesn’t withstand scrutiny – Also from banerjiprotocols.in: “Our protocol for Brain cancer & Breast Cancer has been experimented by the scientist of the MD Anderson Cancer Centre, Houston, USA and found in vitro experiment that these medicines selectively kills cancer cells but not the normal cells. Joint paper by us and scientist, professor of cell biology and genetics has been published in International Journal of Oncology. Our work with National Cancer Institute, USA has been published in journal of Oncology Reports.” – The second paper was not to be found; the first was subjected to a rational takedown by The Sceptics’ Book.
Others include referring to essays and books of their own authorship; presenting their publication as validation of their methods; not participating in any collaborative work, especially with accredited research institutions; and often labouring unto not insubstantial commercial gains.
Despite a World Health Organisation directive in 2009 cautioning against the use of homeopathy to cure serious illnesses like malaria, it is officially counted among India’s national systems of medicine. Its research and practice receives support from the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH) under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. From 1980 to 2010, the number of homeopathic doctors in the country doubled while the number of dispensaries increased four-fold.
Note: This article was updated on February 4, 2016, to include a link to a blog post discussing the MD Anderson paper.