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Brian Lewis⁄The GazetteLeda M. Cummings, chief of the new Samueli Basic Laboratory in Germantown, was a genomic researcher at the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville and the National Institutes of Health.
At an invitation-only ribbon-cutting ceremony last month, Susan Samueli, chief benefactor and founder of the nonprofit Samueli Institute of Irvine, Calif., declared that the laboratory will help meet a great need to learn why and how complementary and alternative forms of medicine are effective in curing and preventing diseases.
The 2,000-square-foot laboratory, operating on a two-year renewable lease from Avalon Pharmaceuticals, was conceived by John Ives, biologist and the institute’s director of basic science.
‘‘We believe it is the first nonprofit, nonaffiliated lab in the world for studying alternative therapies,” Ives said. The laboratory has an annual budget of $5 million, he said, adding that the institute has 15 employees and plans to staff four, adding three employees, at the laboratory.
Potential markets may be big for any new products that may be spawned by studies of alternative medical practices, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. Those practices include meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis, yoga, herbs and food supplements, massage, chiropractic, tai chi, reiki, Indian ayurvedic methods, acupuncture, homeopathy and even prayer, according to information from the center.
‘‘If you include prayer,” Ives said, ‘‘more than half the world’s population practice alternative medicinal healing.
‘‘The field of alternative medicine is not well defined; it’s like schizophrenia,” Ives said. ‘‘More of the nation’s economic engine is becoming interested in alternative medicines,” he said, citing Samueli’s multimillion-dollar contract with the Department of Defense to study drug, vitamin and vaccine interactions in combat soldiers.
‘‘I would agree that alternatives are growing,” said Roberta Lee, director of the Continuing Center for Health and Healing, associated with Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.
‘‘A body of doctors are missing out today on a lot of opportunities in preventative health. Alternatives are bringing diet and nutrition and stress management into everyday care,” said Lee, whose center is focused on integrating alternative and conventional medicines, such as getting doctors to consider prescribing acupuncture as well as prescriptions drugs for pain.
Also in favor of the Samueli effort to apply modern science to alternative medicine is David Jones, president of the nonprofit Institute for Functional Medicine in Gig Creek, Wash., who said there is a major disconnect between patient needs today and the American medical system.
‘‘The medical system is inadequately defined to address complex illness. If we as physicians are only trained in surgery or with pharmacy, that is totally inadequate,” Jones said. ‘‘But it is possible to create a different architecture. Then you bring onto the table a larger evaluation of the patient.”
The Samueli Institute, begun in 2001 by Susan and her husband, former UCLA professor and inventor Henry Samueli, has funded 55 research projects in Europe, Asia, South America and the United States.
‘‘There is plenty of good stuff to be learned from traditional practices in alternative medicines,” Ives said. ‘‘Our basic practice is to take some of those into the laboratory. We hope to do some clinical trials in a few years.”
The Samueli research will focus on projects that the NIH alternative medicine center does not fund or want to tackle, he said, such as uncovering why homeopathy does or doesn’t work.
Homeopathy uses minute doses of remedies that in massive doses produce symptoms in healthy individuals similar to those of the disease being treated. Peter W. Gold, communications director of the National Center for Homeopathy in Avon, Conn., said some of the dilutions are of sulfur, silver, phosphorus, aconite and belladonna.
Ives said using homeopathy to treat and possibly cure cancer is a major focus of the new laboratory. Homeopathy is practiced by millions of people in South America, India, France and Germany, he said.
‘‘There is no rational explanation for homeopathy,” Ives acknowledged. ‘‘Some people say it is placebo. Does it work in animal studies? That is something we can prove in the next few years.”
He said the NIH center refuses to do such work.
‘‘They have taken the position that there is very little evidence that it will work,” Ives said of homeopathy. ‘‘The vast majority of Western scientists and physicians will tell you there is no evidence to support homeopathy, while in India the vast majority of people use it.”
Gold says the argument against homeopathy is that the treatment substance can become diluted to less than one molecule in water. ‘‘They say it does not exist then — it is just water,” Gold said.
That argument against homeopathy is absurd, according to Rustum Roy,a Pennsylvania State University professor of materials.
‘‘Damn right it is worth looking into,” he said. A diluted homeopathic material changes the structure of water, said Roy, a native of India and founder of the Penn State material sciences program 40 years ago.
‘‘That change in the water’s structure is what they should be studying,” he said. One part per billion of silver colloids, which can be purchased at a health food store, he said, becomes an antibiotic that can kill infectious bacteria such as staphylococcus aureus in 10 minutes.
Lee, a certified internist, said she has witnessed homeopathic cures of nausea and other conditions in her practice. They perhaps work, she said, by accessing the body’s inner abilities to heal. ‘‘We have not named all the things that help people get well. We should be open-minded skeptics.”
Lee’s center has collaborated with Wayne Jonas, overall director of the Samueli Institute and former head of the NIH center. ‘‘Dr. Jonas is a very well-respected scientist and clinician,” she said.
Laboratory chief Leda M. Cummings, is a former genomic researcher at the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville and at NIH. She will be using sophisticated tools of genomics to look at how gene expressions linked to diseases may be changed through homeopathy and other alternative medicines.
‘‘In the case of cancer, we do not know a lot of mediators or targets that are involved in the process of forming a tumor,” Cummings said. ‘‘Is it possible that the effects of homeopathy interfere with tumor development in a more broad way? Can we see the effects, for example, in genes that are not directly related to cancer?”