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.
Harsh Mathur was a graduate physics student at Yale University in late 1989 when faculty announced they had failed to replicate claims made by scientists at the University of Utah and the University of Wolverhampton in England.
Such work is routine. Replicating or attempting to replicate the contraptions, calculations and conclusions crafted by colleagues is foundational to the scientific method. But in this instance, Yale’s findings were reported globally.
“I had a ringside view, and it was crazy,” recalls Mathur, now a professor of physics at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
Yale’s findings drew so much attention because initial experiments by Stanley Pons of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of Wolverhampton led to a startling claim: They were able to fuse atoms at room temperature – a scientific El Dorado known as “cold fusion.”
Nuclear fusion powers the stars in the universe. However, star cores must be at least 23.4 million degrees Fahrenheit and under extraordinary pressure to achieve fusion. Pons and Fleischmann claimed they had created an almost limitless source of power achievable at any temperature.
Like fusion, superconductivity can only be achieved in mostly impractical circumstances.
But about six months after they made their startling announcement, the pair’s findings were discredited by researchers at Yale and the California Institute of Technology. It was one of the first instances of a major scientific debunking covered by mass media.
Some scholars say the media attention for cold fusion stemmed partly from a dazzling announcement made three years prior in 1986: Scientists had created the first “superconductor” – material that could transmit electrical current with little or no resistance. It drew global headlines – and whetted the public’s appetite for announcements of scientific breakthroughs that could cause economic transformations.
But like fusion, superconductivity can only be achieved in mostly impractical circumstances: It must operate either at temperatures of at least negative 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or under pressures of around 150,000 pounds per square inch. Superconductivity that functions in closer to a normal environment would cut energy costs dramatically while also opening infinite possibilities for computing, space travel and other applications.
In July, a group of South Korean scientists posted material claiming they had created an iron crystalline substance called LK-99 that could achieve superconductivity at slightly above room temperature and at ambient pressure. The group partners with the Quantum Energy Research Centre, a privately-held enterprise in Seoul, and their claims drew global headlines.
Their work was also debunked. But in the age of internet and social media, the process was compressed from half-a-year into days. And it did not require researchers at world-class universities.
One of the most compelling critiques came from Derrick VanGennep. Although he works in finance, he holds a Ph.D. in physics and held a postdoctoral position at Harvard. The South Korean researchers had posted a video of a nugget of LK-99 in what they claimed was the throes of the Meissner effect – an expulsion of the substance’s magnetic field that would cause it to levitate above a magnet. Unless Hollywood magic is involved, only superconducting material can hover in this manner.
That claim made VanGennep skeptical, particularly since LK-99’s levitation appeared unenthusiastic at best. In fact, a corner of the material still adhered to the magnet near its center. He thought the video demonstrated ferromagnetism – two magnets repulsing one another. He mixed powdered graphite with super glue, stuck iron filings to its surface and mimicked the behavior of LK-99 in his own video, which was posted alongside the researchers’ video.
VanGennep believes the boldness of the South Korean claim was what led to him and others in the scientific community questioning it so quickly.
“The swift replication attempts stemmed from the combination of the extreme claim, the fact that the synthesis for this material is very straightforward and fast, and the amount of attention that this story was getting on social media,” he says.
But practicing scientists were suspicious of the data as well. Michael Norman, director of the Argonne Quantum Institute at the Argonne National Laboratory just outside of Chicago, had doubts immediately.
Will this saga hurt or even affect the careers of the South Korean researchers? Possibly not, if the previous fusion example is any indication.
“It wasn’t a very polished paper,” Norman says of the Korean scientists’ work. That opinion was reinforced, he adds, when it turned out the paper had been posted online by one of the researchers prior to seeking publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Although Norman and Mathur say that is routine with scientific research these days, Norman notes it was posted by one of the junior researchers over the doubts of two more senior scientists on the project.
Norman also raises doubts about the data reported. Among other issues, he observes that the samples created by the South Korean researchers contained traces of copper sulfide that could inadvertently amplify findings of conductivity.
The lack of the Meissner effect also caught Mathur’s attention. “Ferromagnets tend to be unstable when they levitate,” he says, adding that the video “just made me feel unconvinced. And it made me feel like they hadn't made a very good case for themselves.”
Will this saga hurt or even affect the careers of the South Korean researchers? Possibly not, if the previous fusion example is any indication. Despite being debunked, cold fusion claimants Pons and Fleischmann didn’t disappear. They moved their research to automaker Toyota’s IMRA laboratory in France, which along with the Japanese government spent tens of millions of dollars on their work before finally pulling the plug in 1998.
Fusion has since been created in laboratories, but being unable to reproduce the density of a star’s core would require excruciatingly high temperatures to achieve – about 160 million degrees Fahrenheit. A recently released Government Accountability Office report concludes practical fusion likely remains at least decades away.
However, like Pons and Fleischman, the South Korean researchers are not going anywhere. They claim that LK-99’s Meissner effect is being obscured by the fact the substance is both ferromagnetic and diamagnetic. They have filed for a patent in their country. But for now, those claims remain chimerical.
In the meantime, the consensus as to when a room temperature superconductor will be achieved is mixed. VenGennep – who studied the issue during his graduate and postgraduate work – puts the chance of creating such a superconductor by 2050 at perhaps 50-50. Mathur believes it could happen sooner, but adds that research on the topic has been going on for nearly a century, and that it has seen many plateaus.
“There's always this possibility that there's going to be something out there that we're going to discover unexpectedly,” Norman notes. The only certainty in this age of social media is that it will be put through the rigors of replication instantly.
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor specimens and the Foresight team is analyzing this data, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
This article is republished from our archives to coincide with Blood Cancer Awareness Month, which highlights progress in cancer diagnostics and treatment.
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.