Ig Nobel
March 15, 2009 4:42 AM   Subscribe

Professor Luc Montagnier, 2008 Nobel Prize Laureate for Medicine, is no stranger to controversy. Recently, he has been touting his approval for the ignominiously debunked "water memory" theories of the late French immunologist Dr. Jacques Benveniste. This is not altogether surprising, given that Montagnier has filed a patent application for a method for characterising "biologically active biochemical elements" based on Benveniste's more outlandish theories. But there's more...

First of all, the patent examiner who has drafted the International Search Report, in his Written Opinion on patentability, seems less than impressed by Montagnier's invention. The killer quote comes in page 10:

"This is all the more problematic since: (i) the invention is based on phenomena which contradict the basic principles of physics and of chemistry, i.e. the existence of a biological activity or effect without an active molecule, and (ii) no explanation or theoretical basis makes it possible at the current time to explain the results obtained."

Secondly, a man called Bruno Robert claims that Montagnier stole the invention from him. Most disturbingly, Robert filed a nearly identical patent application right before Montagnier.

BTW, this may not be Montagnier's first brush with quackery.
posted by Skeptic (13 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

This is all the more problematic since: (i) the invention is based on phenomena which contradict the basic principles of physics and of chemistry...

It also contradicts the basic principles of logic.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:21 AM on March 15, 2009

pandemonium By the diplomatic standards of patent examination documents, that sentence already is as damning as it gets. It isn't often that a patent examiner tells a patent applicant (never mind an applicant who happens to be a world-famous Nobel laureate) that he's, quite basically, full of sh*t.
posted by Skeptic at 5:37 AM on March 15, 2009

I'm actually pretty shocked that the Nobel committee would honor a homeopath.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:47 AM on March 15, 2009

I find it hard to believe that Montagnier copied his invention from Bruno Robert. Robert fails to teach or even suggest the vital Figure 9 of Montagnier, showing a "HiFi Amplifier," in stereo with 2x100W.
posted by exogenous at 6:21 AM on March 15, 2009

Giving someone antioxidants is not a "brush with quackery." The brief note doesn't say Montagnier made any outrageous claims of their benefits. The touting his approval link is in French so I personally can't comment on that. The patent link is in French so I can't comment on that. The Telegraph article isn't about homeopathy - it says the invention is "a technique whereby the Aids virus and other serious ailments, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, can be pinpointed by their electromagnetic "signatures"."
Those diseases exist, so I suspect some probe could be made of them.
The rest of the links are about Montagnier in general or Benveniste, a nut. If this is Montagnier touting homeopathy, you need a better job of documenting it.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:26 AM on March 15, 2009

dances_with_sneetches: I hate to intervene for a second time in my own thread, but:

a) This is not about Montagnier touting homeopathy, but about him touting something even nuttier as his own invention. Something which, even worse, does not appear to actually be his own invention;

b) I have actually gone out of my way to find English-language links: for instance, I've linked to an English translation of the examiner's Written Opinion, which is quite informative about the nature of the invention, and moreover cites as closest prior art a patent application and an article, both by Benveniste. Unfortunately, not all documentation is available in English: this is not the umpteenth predigested newsfilter FPP linking to the Guardian. I'm sorry that you can't read French, but both Montagnier's and Robert's patent applications clearly cite Benveniste by name, and that in the second video in the "touting his approval" link, Montagnier is sitting right behind a sign that says "Fondation Benveniste";

c) While prescribing antioxydants is not quackery, Montagnier's shameless shilling of the fermented papaya pills, and his exaggerated claims on their behalf, have been given ample (and amused) coverage in French. That short article in "Science" seemed to me the best English-language link.

I've been quite shocked to find out this story: Prof. Montagnier's merit in the HIV discovery is undisputable, and in my view he clearly was the victim in the Montagnier-Gallo controversy. Nevertheless, the documents here speak for themselves (even if sometimes only in French).
posted by Skeptic at 8:10 AM on March 15, 2009

Weird, why is it always virologists who get caught up in homeopathy? (It's an interesting read, quackery or not.)
posted by greatgefilte at 8:35 AM on March 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Benveniste conference poster with Montagnier as featured speaker.
posted by Skeptic at 9:05 AM on March 15, 2009

Astonishing, greatgefilte.

How weird that solutions which show activity far beyond the point where they should be diluted to zero inspire these two virologists to mysticism about "water memory" rather than serious concern about the effectiveness of test tube washing techniques in their own labs.
posted by jamjam at 9:39 AM on March 15, 2009

Hmmm, maybe Joan of Arc caliber faith in the effectiveness of isolation and cleaning techniques is necessary for the mental health of virologists dealing with deadly human pathogens, when you consider that a single virus particle (a "virion") is apparently capable of producing an infection.

Then again, I think it's entirely possible Montagnier is suffering from some sort of dementia as a result of contracting an infection by one of the many viruses and other pathogens he has studied and come in contact with over the years in the course of his research, and cannot really be held responsible for these actions.
posted by jamjam at 10:12 AM on March 15, 2009

Okay, Skeptic, I don't want to pick a fight but you did link to something you called "quackery" and it was just giving the pope some glutathione and papaya juice and making no great claims about them. The Telegraph article suggested intrigue - but isn't the telegraph a Murdoch paper? The fact that he has been seen with Beneviste is bad - but how bad would depend on the translation. As for the device requiring "water memory," maybe it does. But if you are scanning for "electronic signatures" of specific molecules, well that can be done in a number of manners, emr, nmr. All of this post boils down to the patent examiners response, which does say quackery, but I think there should have been more supporting the claim.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:45 PM on March 15, 2009

Frankly, dances_with_sneetches, you could bother having a look at my links. Anyway, if everything I've shown is not enough for you, just note the name of Montagnier's co-speaker in that Benveniste conference (which BTW was a conference about Jacques Benveniste, not with Jacques Benveniste, who was incoveniently dead at the time): Jamal Aissa.

Jamal Aissa happens to be a veteran of Benveniste's lab. In particular, he was cited in the DARPA paper which definitely buried Benveniste's claims, as the researcher whose presence seemed to be essential to successfully reproduce Benveniste's experiments. As you may know, "the results couldn't be reproduced unless person A was present" is, since Blondlot, a BIG red flag.

Anyway, if you look at figure 1 of that DARPA paper, showing the experimental set-up of Benveniste, what do you see? Well, exactly the same picture as figure 9 of Montagnier's patent application, the one with the 2x100W "HiFi Amplifier" exogenous has mocked above.

Still any doubt? Well, Montagnier has filed yet another patent application on the same subject, this time with that same Jamal Aissa as co-inventor.
posted by Skeptic at 4:59 PM on March 15, 2009

I was reluctant to post once again, but since you decided to insult me to suggest I didn't read the posts, the problem was I did read them. You started with Wikipedia. A minor sin, but forgiveable. It tells us who Montagnier is, but added nothing to the matter of the controversy in question. You followed that up by the Nobel Prize site. He did win a Nobel Prize, but the site didn't add to what he is doing that is controversial. Okay, you were only giving background.

No stranger to controversy? I've linked to the Dallas News article on Metafilter before. Yes, there was a controversy surrounding the discovery of AIDS and the patent of HIV antibody detection. I don't think Montagnier is to blame for this.

Then you link to an Italian site where videos are side by side with Benveniste claiming Montagnier is touting his approval for water memory theories. Is Montagnier "touting his approval" for "water memory theories" - I don't know. I'm at work now, I don't have sound on my computer, but I seem to recall the videos were in a language other than English. I'm not going to jump to the conclusion that Montagnier is a nut because he has a video on the same page below a nut.

Then you went to the patent application. I'm supposed to evaluate a patent application written in French. (I am multilingual, French doesn't happen to be one of the languages.)
So you linked to Benveniste's more outlandish theories, water memory again, this time the digital variety. I don't have anything yet that tells me this is relevant to the patent controversy.

So we go on to the patent examiner's report. That is damning, as I conceded above. Even now I don't see the "water memory" aspect of the invention, just the statement that it has some of the classical hallmarks of quackery. But - so far this is all I've got - and I don't know how to weigh the statement of a single patent examiner. Many are not experts in their fields.

So then I have the link "a man called Bruno Robert claims that Montagnier stole the invention from him." It takes me to an advertisement I have to click past saying "Read World News and Prophecy Magazine to know your future." Click on it and you come to "Find the answers in Bible prophecy." I get past that to a Telegraph article that begins:

"Man who co-discovered HIV accused of stealing rights to Aids cure

A Nobel prize-winning French researcher who co-discovered the virus that leads to Aids but sparked controversy after his colleague said he had claimed all the glory, has now been accused of stealing the rights to a revolutionary invention that may provide a cure to the disease, it emerged yesterday."

So basically it is a sleaze article that opens by claiming the invention is revolutionary. Every skeptical bone in my body is screaming.

The article goes on to say that the argument does not seem to be whether Montagnier is claiming intellectual rights to the invention, but rather whether he paid for the right to patent it. Which will be decided in court on May 20. Moderately interesting stuff garnished by tabloid journalism, innuendo and snark.

The line related to the invention: "the Aids virus and other serious ailments, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, can be pinpointed by their electromagnetic "signatures".

The hope is that once identified, the diseases can be blocked or neutralised with an opposite electromagnetic signal."

The second statement "the hope..." is a whopper, but doesn't seem to be a claim of Montagnier or this patent. The first statement, I would say is within the realm of possibility. Parkinson's is an entire tissue deficit and some kind of imaging could find it. I'm uncertain how it would apply to HIV but maybe in a high concentration area like the lymph nodes an electronic spin based image could quantify the virus population - a useful tool in measuring the efficacy of treatment.

You go on to present another patent application in French and finish off by citing some of Montagnier's folksy advice about antioxidants as a sign of quackery. The latter statement is akin to Montagnier saying "take a cold shower in the morning and a glass of red wine." I just can't get excited about it. The guy can't recommend papaya juice and glutathione? I suppose if he puts his face on a patent medicine I'll get my dander up.

So, this leaves the question, does the Montagnier patent rely on something as ridiculous as water memory? Maybe. Maybe if I understood French I could make the final judgment on that. My problem is that I read this post as a skeptic, rather than accepting the conclusions of the post.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:16 AM on March 16, 2009

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