Respen-A: A homeopathic treatment for autism? I’m skeptical

Homeopathy, is there nothing it can’t cure? Now, Neuro-Med, a company in Washington, USA, are selling a homeopathic treatment for autism: Respen-A, only available on prescription. Of course, I’m skeptical that a homeopathic treatment for anything can exist, let alone for autism, so I’m keen to find out more about this product.

For starters, the introduction in the manufacturers literature is quite worrying, as it lists vaccines (and thimerosal) as being implicated in the onset of autism, and does not provide references. So immediately, I get the impression that they are pandering to the antivax market. They then go on to try and link epidurals to autism, explain the benefits of a gluten free casein free diet, before finally arriving at the theory behind their treatment.

The active ingredient in Respen-A is reserpine, an indole alkaloid. It has been used to treat high blood pressure and the relief of psychotic symptoms. The manufacturers of Respen-A claim that high doses of reserpine can cause hyperactivity, irritability, inattentiveness, and depression, all of which are symptoms of autism. Following the homeopathic principal of “like cures like”, the manufacturers hypothesize that a low dose will alleviate the symptoms of autism. The resperine in Respen-A is diluted to 4X, which I believe is the same as 2C (1:10,000). If that is the case, there should be something in it!

What tests have been carried out on Respen-A? According to the manufactures website, a grand total of zero. Instead, they appear to be prescribing Respen-A (for a mere $82 for a 28-day supply), then inviting doctors and patients to submit data to the website.

Needless to say, this is not generally how a medicine goes from testing to sale. A medicine (certainly one of this nature) should go through a series of randomized double blinded placebo controlled trials to determine if the treatment is efficacious. According to the Respen-A Twitter account, these studies have not been done and all evidence for the effectiveness of Respen-A is anecdotal.

Is Respen-A a viable treatment for autism, or is it just another quacks attempt to con vulnerable parents out of their money for a “treatment” that offers nothing but false hope? I couldn’t possibly say. I don’t want to get sued.

Arsenic-eating bacteria: fascinating, but not that surprising

Last week, NASA announced a press conference that was hyped to the extreme. Some believed NASA would announce an alien life form, or perhaps an organism that used something other than DNA to store it’s genetic information. Sadly, what they announced was neither of these, but instead an interesting little quirk of biology.

Writing in Science, NASA scientists announced that they had discovered an extremophilic bacteria in Lake Mono, California, which has a pH of almost 10, and contains high levels of arsenic. When they cultured this bacteria in the lab, they found that it could grow in growth media which had phosphate replaced with arsenate, conditions that would usually be toxic to any other bacteria.

Then (and this is the fascinating part) they found that the bacteria were actually incorporating the arsenate into their biochemistry, including reaction pathways and their DNA. Usually, arsenic is toxic because it is similar enough to phosphorous that it competes with it, stopping various biochemical apparatus from functioning properly (they are in the same group of the periodic table). However, this organism could substitute the arsenic for phosphorus, and the biochemical pathways remained intact.

This seemed to be where the confusion with DNA comes in. The structure of DNA is well understood, and integral to this structure is a phosphate backbone. As this extremophile can substitute the phosphate for arsenate, it technically has DNA which is different to any other organism. However, this change is cosmetic, the code is exactly the same (as far as we know). It would be like painting your house a different colour then claiming that you had a completely new house.

In fact, this phenomenon was quite predictable. Arsenic is “one below” phosphorous in the periodic table, just as sulphur is “one below” oxygen. Extremophiles have been found living where oxygen is scarce but sulphur is plentiful. These organisms can substitute oxygen with sulphur, so it should come as no surprise that organisms exist that can substitute phosphorous with arsenic.

In conclusion, this is a fascinating discovery, but not earth-shattering. Don’t believe the hype!

DNA chemical structure

Chemical structure of DNA. Simply replace "P" with "Ar"!

10:23 announces global homeopathic ‘overdose’ challenge

In the latest move in their campaign against the quackery of homeopathy, 10:23 have announced their plans for next year: a global “overdose” of homeopathic products, scheduled for February. This will follow up the original overdose event from last year, which saw around 400 people take part in a somewhat spontaneous worldwide ‘overdose’, intended to show that homeopathy has ‘nothing in it’.

I was lucky enough to take part in the Liverpool event, and I made a little video with the help of Rachel Stephanie Waller, Helen Wynn and the Merseyside Skeptics Society. Hope to see you all with your deadly 30C sugar pills in February!