People susceptible to the placebo effect may be keeping us from getting new drugs

People susceptible to the placebo effect may be keeping us from getting new drugsBy Erik Vance

Dec 2 2016

Since the dawn of time, people have used ointments, powders and potions to try to improve their health. Many of these elixirs have been inert — lacking any property to actually heal illnesses or makes bodies stronger. Still, they persist because people believe they work, and the placebo effect can be powerful medicine.

And ever since the 1960s, the U.S. government has required inert placebos as a comparison in clinical trials to determine whether a potential drug is effective or not. Since the act of taking a pill can make many patients feel better, a drug must perform better than a placebo to be allowed on the market.

But as I found while writing a new book on the suggestibility of the human mind, this so-called placebo control has become increasingly difficult to manage. For certain ailments, so many people respond so strongly to placebos that it’s impossible to tell if the drug being tested is working or not. And this can be disastrous for people desperate for new therapies.

Take pain. In 2011, registered 4,152 clinical trials to investigate new pain treatments. Yet over the next few years, the Food and Drug Administration approved just five new treatments.

“We’ve all been there. If you are in this field, you know that weekly there will be a clinical trial that doesn’t work and one of the interpretations was that the placebo effect was too high,” says Neal Farber, CEO of Neurohealing Pharmaceuticals, a company that, among other things, tries to resuscitate drugs that failed previous clinical trials.

But there may be a way to run drug trials that could bypass the strongest placebo effects. People may differ in how susceptible they are to the placebo effect. If we could detect who would respond to placebos and exclude them from a trial, it would be much easier to tell if a therapy worked.