A prestigious journal announced this week it will launch an independent investigation of a series of experimental findings that have been confirmed around the world yet defy any conceivable scientific explanation.
Researchers at five separate laboratories in France, Canada, Israel and Italy reported they have identified a curious antibody reaction involving human blood cells that should, by any imaginable theory, be impossible."It's unbelievable and it breaks all the rules," said one of the researchers, Patricia Fortner, an immunology research associate at the University of Toronto.
The researchers have found that antibodies that react with certain blood cells will continue to react when diluted far beyond the point where they should theoretically be able to.
The reaction occurs even at extreme dilutions where there are theoretically no antibody molecules left in the solution, said Fortner.
"We've all assumed that where there are no molecules present, nothing will happen," Fortner said in an interview. But something does.
"This has really shaken up our world," she said. "Even people who have seen this phenomenon find it hard to believe, because it's hard to conceive what could be happening here."
The report appears in Nature, an influential British medical journal.
Nature's editors were as perplexed by the research as were the researchers. Its referees - scientific experts chosen to affirm the soundness of research before it is published - didn't believe the result, but couldn't find anything wrong with the conduct of the experiments, the magazine said.
"Readers of this article may share the incredulity of the many referees who have commented on several versions of it during the past several months," Nature said in an unusual comment, entitled "Editorial reservation."
The scientist principally responsible for the inexplicable results is Dr. Jacques Benveniste of INSERM, the French medical research institute.
The findings are an outgrowth of his efforts to develop a new blood test to identify allergies.
Fortner, Bruce Pomeranz and others at the University of Toronto have independently duplicated Benveniste's findings, as have two research groups in Israel and one in Milan, Fortner said. Benveniste was not in his laboratory Wednesday afternoon and could not be reached for comment.
In its statement, Nature said of the findings, "There is no physical basis for such an activity. With the kind collaboration of Professor Benveniste, Nature has therefore arranged for independent investigators to observe repetitions of the experiments."
The magazine said a report of the investigation would appear shortly.
Other findings by Benveniste have added further mystery. For example, the phenomenon occurs only when the extremely diluted solutions are mixed violently in the laboratory, said Fortner. Without this violent shaking, called succussion, nothing happens.
Why? Unknown, Fortner said.
Furthermore, if the extremely diluted solutions are heated or frozen, which would destroy any antibodies in them, the reaction doesn't occur, Fortner said.
Yet there aren't supposed to be any antibodies present, so the question is: What is being changed?
Researchers have tried the experiment with chemical agents that react with the blood cells. They, too, exert their effect at extreme dilutions, far beyond anything that should be possible.
Benveniste's findings fuel a long-standing dispute over the effectiveness of a controversial school of disease treatment called homeopathy.
"Homeopathy basically says that the same substance that can cause a problem - if you can identify that element and dilute it into very small doses, infinitesimal doses, it can cure or ameliorate those symptoms," said Robert Matsuk, a pharmacist at Boiron-Borneman, a homeopathic pharmaceutical company in Norwood, Pa.
Benveniste's findings, if correct, lend support to the claims of homeopathy.
Homeopathic practitioners don't claim to understand precisely how their treatments work, Matsuk said.
Conventional medical wisdom says that there is no scientific evidence to support the claims of homeopaths, Fortner said.
Among Benveniste's collaborators were Elisabeth Davenas, an adherent of homeopathy, and Bernard Poitevin, a homeopathic physician, Fortner said.
She said that the researchers speculate that perhaps the water molecules in the dilute solutions somehow are altered during the process of succussive dilutions to produce the observed reaction.
"We have a few theoretical physicists working with us," she said, "and there are a lot of theories but nothing concrete."