Thursday, February 03, 2005

The placebo effect

Cheating on pharmaceutical trials

From HSI, a health information newsletter I receive:
The fact is, drug companies make their own placebo pills for research purposes, and for each individual study they create a unique placebo formula - sometimes including ingredients that match ingredients in the drugs being tested. But the contents of placebos are never revealed...

...Before conducting human trials for drugs, pharmaceutical companies are often fully aware of many of the side effects of the products they're testing. So, for instance, if a drug is known to cause dizziness and nausea, the drug company running the test may want the placebo to have the same side effects. And they have an explanation for this. They say the placebo should mimic the drug being tested so that the control group of the experiment will have side effects similar to the placebo group. Without that, they claim, the results of a blind study would be compromised.

There are plenty of gray areas to debate in that logic, but for the moment let's focus on the idea of what they call an "active placebo," designed to mimic the side effects of a tested drug. And with that in mind let's look at an advertising campaign for a popular allergy medication. In the TV ads, when the moment arrives to list the side effects, the voice-over says, "The most common side effects - including headache, drowsiness, fatigue and dry mouth - occurred about as often as they did with a sugar pill."

Couldn't the drug companies also go about this the other way? They're always comparing the successes of their drugs to the placebo; they could easily make a placebo that has an opposite effect of what the drug is supposed to treat.

For example: if DrugCo, an imaginary company, wanted to manufacture a pharmaceutical product that reduced sneezing and runny nose, couldn't they make a placebo that increased those symptoms, in order to increase the contrast between the two, and exaggerate the effectiveness of the drug?