Tapping into the Power of the Placebo Effect
When Wayne Jonas was in medical school 40 years ago, doctors would write out a prescription for placebos, spelling it out backwards in capital letters, O-B-E-C-A-L-P. The pharmacist would fill the prescription with a sugar pill, recalls Jonas, now director of integrative health programs at the Samueli Foundation. It fulfilled the patient's desire for the doctor to do something when perhaps no drug could help, and the sugar pills did no harm.
Today, that deception is seen as unethical. But time and time again, studies have shown that placebos can have real benefits. Now, researchers are trying to untangle the mysteries of placebo effect in an effort to better treat patients.
The use of placebos took off in the post-WWII period, when randomized controlled clinical trials became the gold standard for medical research. One group in a study would be treated with a placebo, a supposedly inert pill or procedure that would not affect normal healing and recovery, while another group in the study would receive an "active" component, most commonly a pill under investigation. Presumably, the group receiving the active treatment would have a better response and the difference from the placebo group would represent the efficacy of the drug being tested. That was the basis for drug approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"Placebo responses were marginalized," says Ted Kaptchuk, director of the Program in Placebo Studies & Therapeutic Encounters at Harvard Medical School. "Doctors were taught they have to overcome it when they were thinking about using an effective drug."
But that began to change around the turn of the 21st century. The National Institutes of Health held a series of meetings to set a research agenda and fund studies to answer some basic questions, led by Jonas who was in charge of the office of alternative medicine at the time. "People spontaneously get better all the time," says Kaptchuk. The crucial question was, is the placebo effect real? Is it more than just spontaneous healing?
A turning point came in 2001 in a paper in Science that showed physical evidence of the placebo effect. It used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to measure release patterns of dopamine — a chemical messenger involved in how we feel pleasure — in the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease. Surprisingly, the placebo activated the same patterns that were activated by Parkinson's drugs, such as levodopa. It proved the placebo effect was real; now the search was on to better understand and control it.
A key part of the effect can be the beliefs, expectations, context, and "rituals" of the encounter between doctor and patient. Belief by the doctor and patient that the treatment would work, and the formalized practices of administering the treatment can all contribute to a positive outcome.
Conditioning can be another important component in generating a response, as Pavlov demonstrated more than a century ago in his experiments with dogs. They were trained with a bell prior to feeding such that they would begin to salivate in anticipation at the sound of a bell even with no food present.
Translating that to humans, studies with pain medications and sleeping aids showed that patients who had a positive response with a certain dose of those medications could have the same response if the doses was reduced and a dummy pill substituted, even to the point where there was no longer any active ingredient.
Researchers think placebo treatments can work particularly well in helping people deal with pain and psychological disorders.
Those types of studies troubled Kaptchuk because they often relied on deception; patients weren't told they were receiving a placebo, or at best there was a possibility that they might be randomized to receive a placebo. He believed the placebo effect could work even if patients were told upfront that they were going to receive a placebo. More than a dozen so call "open-label placebo" studies across numerous medical conditions, by Kaptchuk and others, have shown that you don't have to lie to patients for a placebo to work.
Jonas likes to tell the story of a patient who used methotrexate, a potent immunosuppressant, to control her rheumatoid arthritis. She was planning a long trip and didn't want to be bothered with the injections and monitoring required in using the drug, So she began to drink a powerful herbal extract of anise, a licorice flavor that she hated, prior to each injection. She reduced the amount of methotrexate over a period of months and finally stopped, but continued to drink the anise. That process had conditioned her body "to alter her immune function and her autoimmunity" as if she were taking the drug, much like Pavlov's dogs had been trained. She has not taken methotrexate for more than a year.
An intriguing paper published in May 2021 found that mild, non-invasive electric stimulation to the brain could not only boost the placebo effect on pain but also reduce the "nocebo" effect — when patients report a negative effect to a sham treatment. While the work is very preliminary, it may open the door to directly manipulating these responses.
Researchers think placebo treatments can work particularly well in helping people deal with pain and psychological disorders, areas where drugs often are of little help. Still, placebos aren't a cure and only a portion of patients experience a placebo effect.
If medicine were a soap opera, the nocebo would be the evil twin of the placebo. It's what happens when patients have adverse side effects because of the expectation that they will. It's commonly seem when patients claims to experience pain or gastric distress that can occur with a drug even when they've received a placebo. The side effects were either imagined or caused by something else.
"Up to 97% of reported pharmaceutical side effects are not caused by the drug itself but rather by nocebo effects and symptom misattribution," according to one 2019 paper.
One way to reduce a nocebo response is to simply not tell patients that specific side effects might occur. An example is a liver biopsy, in which a large-gauge needle is used to extract a tissue sample for examination. Those told ahead of time that they might experience some pain were more likely to report pain and greater pain than those who weren't offered this information.
Interestingly, a nocebo response plays out in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is never activated in a placebo response. "I think what we are dealing with with nocebo is anxiety," says Kaptchuk, but he acknowledges that others disagree.
Distraction may be another way to minimize the nocebo effect. Pediatricians are using virtual reality (VR) to engage children and distract them during routine procedures such as blood draws and changing wound dressings, and burn patients of all ages have found relief with specially created VRs.
Jonas argues that what we commonly call the placebo effect is misnamed and leading us astray. "The fact is people heal and that inherent healing capacity is both powerful and influenced by mental, social, and contextual factors that are embedded in every medical encounter since the idea of treatment began," he wrote in a 2019 article in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry. "Our understanding of healing and ability to enhance it will be accelerated if we stop using the term 'placebo response' and call it what it is—the meaning response, and its special application in medicine called the healing response."
He cites evidence that "only 15% to 20% of the healing of an individual or a population comes from health care. The rest—nearly 80%—comes from other factors rarely addressed in the health care system: behavioral and lifestyle choices that people make in their daily life."
To better align treatments and maximize their effectiveness, Jonas has created HOPE (Healing Oriented Practices & Environments) Note, "a patient-guided process designed to identify the patient's values and goals in their life and for healing." Essentially, it seeks to make clear to both doctor and patient what the patient's goals are in seeking treatment. In an extreme example of terminal cancer, some patients may choose to extend life despite the often brutal treatments, while others might prefer to optimize quality of life in the remaining time that they have.It builds on practices already taught in medical schools. Jonas believes doctors and patients can use tools like these to maximize the treatment response and achieve better outcomes.
Much of the medical profession has been resistant to these approaches. Part of that is simply tradition and limited data on their effectiveness, but another very real factor is the billing process for how they are reimbursed. Jonas says a new medical billing code added this year gives doctors another way to be compensated for the extra time and effort that a more holistic approach to medicine may initially require. Other moves away from fee-for-service payments to bundling and payment for outcomes, and the integrated care provided by the Veterans Affairs, Kaiser Permanente and other groups offer longer term hope for the future of approaches that might enhance the healing response.
This article was first published by Leaps.org on July 7, 2021.
Vascomotor symptoms (VMS) is the medical term for hot flashes associated with menopause. You are going to hear a lot more about it because a company has a new drug to sell. Here is what you need to know.
Menopause marks the end of a woman’s reproductive capacity. Normal hormonal production associated with that monthly cycle becomes erratic and finally ceases. For some women the transition can be relatively brief with only modest symptoms, while for others the body's “thermostat” in the brain is disrupted and they experience hot flashes and other symptoms that can disrupt daily activity. Lifestyle modification and drugs such as hormone therapy can provide some relief, but women at risk for cancer are advised not to use them and other women choose not to do so.
Fezolinetant, sold by Astellas Pharma Inc. under the product name Veozah™, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on May 12 to treat hot flashes associated with menopause. It is the first in a new class of drugs called neurokinin 3 receptor antagonists, which block specific neurons in the brain “thermostat” that trigger VMS. It does not appear to affect other symptoms of menopause. As with many drugs targeting a brain cell receptor, it must be taken continuously for a few days to build up a good therapeutic response, rather than working as a rescue product such as an asthma inhaler to immediately treat that condition.
Hot flashes vary greatly and naturally get better or resolve completely with time. That contributes to a placebo effect and makes it more difficult to judge the outcome of any intervention. Early this year, a meta analysis of 17 studies of drug trials for hot flashes found an unusually large placebo response in those types of studies; the placebo groups had an average of 5.44 fewer hot flashes and a 36 percent reduction in their severity.
In studies of fezolinetant, the drug recently approved by the FDA, the placebo benefit was strong and persistent. The drug group bested the placebo response to a statistically significant degree but, “If people have gone from 11 hot flashes a day to eight or seven in the placebo group and down to a couple fewer ones in the drug groups, how meaningful is that? Having six hot flashes a day is still pretty unpleasant,” says Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research (NCHR), a health oriented think tank.
“Is a reduction compared to placebo of 2-3 hot flashes per day, in a population of women experiencing 10-11 moderate to severe hot flashes daily, enough relief to be clinically meaningful?” Andrea LaCroix asked a commentary published in Nature Medicine. She is an epidemiologist at the University of California San Diego and a leader of the MsFlash network that has conducted a handful of NIH-funded studies on menopause.
LaCroix and others have raised questions about how Astellas, the company that makes the new drug, handled missing data from patients who dropped out of the clinical trials. “The lack of detailed information about important parameters such as adherence and missing data raises concerns that the reported benefits of fezolinetant very likely overestimate those that will be observed in clinical practice," LaCroix wrote.
In response to this concern, Anna Criddle, director of global portfolio communications at Astellas, wrote in an email to Leaps.org: “…a full analysis of data, including adherence data and any impact of missing data, was submitted for assessment by [the FDA].”
The company ran the studies at more than 300 sites around the world. Curiously, none appear to have been at academic medical centers, which are known for higher quality research. Zuckerman says, "When somebody is paid to do a study, if they want to get paid to do another study by the same company, they will try to make sure that the results are the results that the company wants.”
Criddle said that Astellas picked the sites “that would allow us to reach a diverse population of women, including race and ethnicity.”
A trial of a lower dose of the drug was conducted in Asia. In March 2022, Astellas issued a press release saying it had failed to prove effectiveness. No further data has been released. Astellas still plans to submit the data, according to Criddle. Results from clinical trials funded by the U.S. goverment must be reported on clinicaltrials.gov within one year of the study's completion - a deadline that, in this case, has expired.
The measurement scale for hot flashes used in the studies, mild-moderate-severe, also came in for criticism. “It is really not good scale, there probably isn’t a broad enough range of things going on or descriptors,” says David Rind. He is chief medical officer of the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER), a nonprofit authority on new drugs. It conducted a thorough review and analysis of fezolinestant using then existing data gathered from conference abstracts, posters and presentations and included a public stakeholder meeting in December. A 252-page report was published in January, finding “considerable uncertainty about the comparative net health benefits of fezolinetant” versus hormone therapy.
Questions surrounding some of these issues might have been answered if the FDA had chosen to hold a public advisory committee meeting on fezolinetant, which it regularly does for first in class medicines. But the agency decided such a meeting was unnecessary.
There was little surprise when Astellas announced a list price for fezolinetant of $550 a month ($6000 annually) and a program of patient assistance to ease out of pocket expenses. The company had already incurred large expenses.
In 2017 Astellas purchased the company that originally developed fezolinetant for $534 million plus several hundred million in potential royalties. The drug company ran a "disease awareness” ad, Heat on the Street, hat aired during the Super Bowl in February, where 30 second ads cost about $7 million. Industry analysts have projected sales to be $1.9 billion by 2028.
ICER’s pre-approval evaluation said fezolinetant might "be considered cost-effective if priced around $2,000 annually. ... [It]will depend upon its price and whether it is considered an alternative to MHT [menopause hormone treatment] for all women or whether it will primarily be used by women who cannot or will not take MHT."
Criddle wrote that Astellas set the price based on the novelty of the science, the quality of evidence for the drug and its uniqueness compared to the rest of the market. She noted that an individual’s payment will depend on how much their insurance company decides to cover. “[W]e expect insurance coverage to increase over the course of the year and to achieve widespread coverage in the U.S. over time.”
Leaps.org wrote to and followed up with nine of the largest health insurers/providers asking basic questions about their coverage of fezolinetant. Only two responded. Jennifer Martin, the deputy chief consultant for pharmacy benefits management at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the agency “covers all drugs from the date that they are launched.” Decisions on whether it will be included in the drug formulary and what if any copays might be required are under review.
“[Fezolinetant] will go through our standard P&T Committee [patient and treatment] review process in the next few months, including a review of available efficacy data, safety data, clinical practice guidelines, and comparison with other agents used for vasomotor symptoms of menopause," said Phil Blando, executive director of corporate communications for CVS Health.
Other insurers likely are going through a similar process to decide issues such as limiting coverage to women who are advised not to use hormones, how much copay will be required, and whether women will be required to first try other options or obtain approvals before getting a prescription.
Rind wants to see a few years of use before he prescribes fezolinetant broadly, and believes most doctors share his view. Nor will they be eager to fill out the additional paperwork required for women to participate in the Astellas patient assistance program, he added.
Astellas is marketing its drug by pointing out risks of hormone therapy, such as a recent paper in The BMJ, which noted that women who took hormones for even a short period of time had a 24 percent increased risk of dementia. While the percentage was scary, the combined number of women both on and off hormones who developed dementia was small. And it is unclear whether hormones are causing dementia or if more severe hot flashes are a marker for higher risk of developing dementia. This information is emerging only after 80 years of hundreds of millions of women using hormones.
In contrast, the label for fezolinetant prohibits “concomitant use with CYP1A2 inhibitors” and requires testing for liver and kidney function prior to initiating the drug and every three months thereafter. There is no human or animal data on use in a geriatric population, defined as 65 or older, a group that is likely to use the drug. Only a few thousand women have ever taken fezolinetant and most have used it for just a few months.
A woman seeking relief from symptoms of menopause would like to see how fezolintant compares with other available treatment options. But Astellas did not conduct such a study and Andrea LaCroix says it is unlikely that anyone ever will.
ICER has come the closest, with a side-by-side analysis of evidence-based treatments and found that fezolinetant performed quite similarly and modestly as the others in providing relief from hot flashes. Some treatments also help with other symptoms of menopause, which fezolinetant does not.
There are many coping strategies that women can adopt to deal with hot flashes; one of the most common is dressing in layers (such as a sleeveless blouse with a sweater) that can be added or subtracted as conditions require. Avoiding caffeine, hot liquids, and spicy foods is another common strategy. “I stopped drinking hot caffeinated drinks…for several years, and you get out of the habit of drinking them,” says Zuckerman.
LaCroix curates those options at My Meno Plan, which includes a search function where you can enter your symptoms and identify which treatments might work best for you. It also links to published research papers. She says the goal is to empower women with information to make informed decisions about menopause.
Every year, around two million people worldwide die of liver disease. While some people inherit the disease, it’s most commonly caused by hepatitis, obesity and alcoholism. These underlying conditions kill liver cells, causing scar tissue to form until eventually the liver cannot function properly. Since 1979, deaths due to liver disease have increased by 400 percent.
The sooner the disease is detected, the more effective treatment can be. But once symptoms appear, the liver is already damaged. Around 50 percent of cases are diagnosed only after the disease has reached the final stages, when treatment is largely ineffective.
To address this problem, Owlstone Medical, a biotech company in England, has developed a breath test that can detect liver disease earlier than conventional approaches. Human breath contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that change in the first stages of liver disease. Owlstone’s breath test can reliably collect, store and detect VOCs, while picking out the specific compounds that reveal liver disease.
“There’s a need to screen more broadly for people with early-stage liver disease,” says Owlstone’s CEO Billy Boyle. “Equally important is having a test that's non-invasive, cost effective and can be deployed in a primary care setting.”
The standard tool for detection is a biopsy. It is invasive and expensive, making it impractical to use for people who aren't yet symptomatic. Meanwhile, blood tests are less invasive, but they can be inaccurate and can’t discriminate between different stages of the disease.
In the past, breath tests have not been widely used because of the difficulties of reliably collecting and storing breath. But Owlstone’s technology could help change that.
The team is testing patients in the early stages of advanced liver disease, or cirrhosis, to identify and detect these biomarkers. In an initial study, Owlstone’s breathalyzer was able to pick out patients who had early cirrhosis with 83 percent sensitivity.
Boyle’s work is personally motivated. His wife died of colorectal cancer after she was diagnosed with a progressed form of the disease. “That was a big impetus for me to see if this technology could work in early detection,” he says. “As a company, Owlstone is interested in early detection across a range of diseases because we think that's a way to save lives and a way to save costs.”
How it works
In the past, breath tests have not been widely used because of the difficulties of reliably collecting and storing breath. But Owlstone’s technology could help change that.
Study participants breathe into a mouthpiece attached to a breath sampler developed by Owlstone. It has cartridges are designed and optimized to collect gases. The sampler specifically targets VOCs, extracting them from atmospheric gases in breath, to ensure that even low levels of these compounds are captured.
The sampler can store compounds stably before they are assessed through a method called mass spectrometry, in which compounds are converted into charged atoms, before electromagnetic fields filter and identify even the tiniest amounts of charged atoms according to their weight and charge.
The top four compounds in our breath
In an initial study, Owlstone captured VOCs in breath to see which ones could help them tell the difference between people with and without liver disease. They tested the breath of 46 patients with liver disease - most of them in the earlier stages of cirrhosis - and 42 healthy people. Using this data, they were able to create a diagnostic model. Individually, compounds like 2-Pentanone and limonene performed well as markers for liver disease. Owlstone achieved even better performance by examining the levels of the top four compounds together, distinguishing between liver disease cases and controls with 95 percent accuracy.
“It was a good proof of principle since it looks like there are breath biomarkers that can discriminate between diseases,” Boyle says. “That was a bit of a stepping stone for us to say, taking those identified, let’s try and dose with specific concentrations of probes. It's part of building the evidence and steering the clinical trials to get to liver disease sensitivity.”
Sabine Szunerits, a professor of chemistry in Institute of Electronics at the University of Lille, sees the potential of Owlstone’s technology.
“Breath analysis is showing real promise as a clinical diagnostic tool,” says Szunerits, who has no ties with the company. “Owlstone Medical’s technology is extremely effective in collecting small volatile organic biomarkers in the breath. In combination with pattern recognition it can give an answer on liver disease severity. I see it as a very promising way to give patients novel chances to be cured.”
Improving the breath sampling process
Challenges remain. With more than one thousand VOCs found in the breath, it can be difficult to identify markers for liver disease that are consistent across many patients.
Julian Gardner is a professor of electrical engineering at Warwick University who researches electronic sensing devices. “Everyone’s breath has different levels of VOCs and different ones according to gender, diet, age etc,” Gardner says. “It is indeed very challenging to selectively detect the biomarkers in the breath for liver disease.”
So Owlstone is putting chemicals in the body that they know interact differently with patients with liver disease, and then using the breath sampler to measure these specific VOCs. The chemicals they administer are called Exogenous Volatile Organic Compound) probes, or EVOCs.
Most recently, they used limonene as an EVOC probe, testing 29 patients with early cirrhosis and 29 controls. They gave the limonene to subjects at specific doses to measure how its concentrations change in breath. The aim was to try and see what was happening in their livers.
“They are proposing to use drugs to enhance the signal as they are concerned about the sensitivity and selectivity of their method,” Gardner says. “The approach of EVOC probes is probably necessary as you can then eliminate the person-to-person variation that will be considerable in the soup of VOCs in our breath.”
Through these probes, Owlstone could identify patients with liver disease with 83 percent sensitivity. By targeting what they knew was a disease mechanism, they were able to amplify the signal. The company is starting a larger clinical trial, and the plan is to eventually use a panel of EVOC probes to make sure they can see diverging VOCs more clearly.
“I think the approach of using probes to amplify the VOC signal will ultimately increase the specificity of any VOC breath tests, and improve their practical usability,” says Roger Yazbek, who leads the South Australian Breath Analysis Research (SABAR) laboratory in Flinders University. “Whilst the findings are interesting, it still is only a small cohort of patients in one location.”
The future of breath diagnosis
Owlstone wants to partner with pharmaceutical companies looking to learn if their drugs have an effect on liver disease. They’ve also developed a microchip, a miniaturized version of mass spectrometry instruments, that can be used with the breathalyzer. It is less sensitive but will enable faster detection.
Boyle says the company's mission is for their tests to save 100,000 lives. "There are lots of risks and lots of challenges. I think there's an opportunity to really establish breath as a new diagnostic class.”