By Carrie McLaren, 4:13 PM on Wed Sep 2 2009,
Wired Magazine reports that drug companies' are facing a new obstacle in clinical trials: over the past few decades, the placebo response has gotten stronger. Some drugs, like Prozac, would have had trouble getting FDA approval if their effectiveness against placebos were as insignificant as tests now show. Pharmaceutical companies see the strengthening of the placebo response as a crisis because it makes getting new drugs approved all the more difficult. The effect is most dramatic with drugs targeting the central nervous system, such as antidepressants, anxiolytics, and pain relievers. The ailments that these drugs treat have "turned out to be particularly susceptible to the placebo effect." One theory behind the stronger placebo is that clinical trials take place in an environment of exceptional, one-on-one health care, the kind patients don't typically get from their own doctors. This personal attention has a therapeutic effect, encouraging a placebo response. To find out the exact cause, drug companies are now working with the National Institute of Health (NIH).
- In typically secretive industry fashion, the existence of the project itself is being kept under wraps. NIH staffers are willing to talk about it only anonymously, concerned about offending the companies paying for it.
But the placebo "crisis" is one that deserves quote marks. Drug companies want to reduce the placebo response in order to make its products look better. But the fact that patients can reap huge benefits from sugar pills should be taken as good news, not bad. It means that finding relief from chronic pain, insomnia, and certain forms of depression need not come from a drug linked to serious side effects – rather, it suggests that the solution to many ills may reside within the human mind.