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 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.
In early 2020, Moderna Inc. was a barely-known biotechnology company with an unproven approach. It wanted to produce messenger RNA molecules to carry instructions into the body, teaching it to ward off disease. Experts doubted the Boston-based company would meet success.
Today, Moderna is a pharmaceutical power thanks to its success developing an effective Covid-19 vaccine. The company is worth $124 billion, more than giants including GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, and evidence has emerged that Moderna's shots are more protective than those produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and other vaccine makers. Pressure is building on the company to deliver more of its doses to people around the world, especially in poorer countries, and Moderna is working on vaccines against other pathogens, including Zika, influenza and cytomegalovirus.
But Moderna encountered such difficulties over the course of its eleven-year history that some executives worried it wouldn't survive. Two unlikely scientists helped save the company. Their breakthroughs paved the way for Moderna's Covid-19 shots but their work has never been publicized nor have their contributions been properly appreciated.
Derrick Rossi, a scientist at MIT, and Noubar Afeyan, a Cambridge-based investor, launched Moderna in September 2010. Their idea was to create mRNA molecules capable of delivering instructions to the body's cells, directing them to make proteins to heal ailments and cure disease. Need a statin, immunosuppressive, or other drug or vaccine? Just use mRNA to send a message to the body's cells to produce it. Rossi and Afeyan were convinced injecting mRNA into the body could turn it into its own laboratory, generating specific medications or vaccines as needed.
At the time, the notion that one might be able to teach the body to make proteins bordered on heresy. Everyone knew mRNA was unstable and set off the body's immune system on its way into cells. But in the late 2000's, two scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, had figured out how to modify mRNA's chemical building blocks so the molecule could escape the notice of the immune system and enter the cell. Rossi and Afeyan couldn't convince the University of Pennsylvania to license Karikó and Weissman's patent, however, stymying Moderna's early ambitions. At the same time, the Penn scientists' technique seemed more applicable to an academic lab than a biotech company that needed to produce drugs or shots consistently and in bulk. Rossi and Afeyan's new company needed their own solution to help mRNA evade the body's defenses.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start.
The Scientist Who Modified mRNA: Jason Schrum
In 2010, Afeyan's firm subleased laboratory space in the basement of another Cambridge biotech company to begin scientific work. Afeyan chose a young scientist on his staff, Jason Schrum, to be Moderna's first employee, charging him with getting mRNA into cells without relying on Karikó and Weissman's solutions.
Schrum seemed well suited for the task. Months earlier, he had received a PhD in biological chemistry at Harvard University, where he had focused on nucleotide chemistry. Schrum even had the look of someone who might do big things. The baby-faced twenty-eight-year-old favored a relaxed, start-up look: khakis, button-downs, and Converse All-Stars.
Schrum felt immediate strain, however. He hadn't told anyone, but he was dealing with intense pain in his hands and joints, a condition that later would be diagnosed as degenerative arthritis. Soon Schrum couldn't bend two fingers on his left hand, making lab work difficult. He joined a drug trial, but the medicine proved useless. Schrum tried corticosteroid injections and anti-inflammatory drugs, but his left hand ached, restricting his experiments.
"It just wasn't useful," Schrum says, referring to his tender hand.
He persisted, nonetheless. Each day in the fall of 2010, Schrum walked through double air-locked doors into a sterile "clean room" before entering a basement laboratory, in the bowels of an office in Cambridge's Kendall Square neighborhood, where he worked deep into the night. Schrum searched for potential modifications of mRNA nucleosides, hoping they might enable the molecule to produce proteins. Like all such rooms, there were no windows, so Schrum had to check a clock to know if it was day or night. A colleague came to visit once in a while, but most of the time, Schrum was alone.
Some of Moderna's founders doubted Schrum could find success and they worried if their venture was doomed from the start. An established MIT scientist turned down a job with the start-up to join pharmaceutical giant Novartis, dubious of Moderna's approach. Colleagues wondered if mRNA could produce proteins, at least on a consistent basis.
As Schrum began testing the modifications in January 2011, he made an unexpected discovery. Karikó and Weissman saw that by turned one of the building blocks for mRNA, a ribonucleoside called uridine, into a slightly different form called pseudouridine, the cell's immune system ignored the mRNA and the molecule avoided an immune response. After a series of experiments in the basement lab, Schrum discovered that a variant of pseudouridine called N1- methyl-pseudouridine did an even better job reducing the cell's innate immune response. Schrum's nucleoside switch enabled even higher protein production than Karikó and Weissman had generated, and Schrum's mRNAs lasted longer than either unmodified molecules or the modified mRNA the Penn academics had used, startling the young researcher. Working alone in a dreary basement and through intense pain, he had actually improved on the Penn professors' work.
Years later, Karikó and Weissman who would win acclaim. In September 2021, the scientists were awarded the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. Some predict they eventually will win a Nobel prize. But it would be Schrum's innovation that would form the backbone of both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech's Covid-19 vaccine, not the chemical modifications that Karikó and Weissman developed. For Schrum, necessity had truly been the mother of invention.
The Scientist Who Solved Delivery: Kerry Benenato
For several years, Moderna would make slow progress developing drugs to treat various diseases. Eventually, the company decided that mRNA was likely better suited for vaccines. By 2017, Moderna and the National Institutes of Health were discussing working together to develop mRNA–based vaccines, a partnership that buoyed Moderna's executives. There remained a huge obstacle in Moderna's way, however. It was up to Kerry Benenato to find a solution.
Benenato received an early hint of the hurdle in front of her three years earlier, when the organic chemist was first hired. When a colleague gave her a company tour, she was introduced to Moderna's chief scientific officer, Joseph Bolen, who seemed unusually excited to meet her.
"Oh, great!" Bolen said with a smile. "She's the one who's gonna solve delivery."
Bolen gave a hearty laugh and walked away, but Benenato detected seriousness in his quip.
It was a lot to expect from a 37-year-old scientist already dealing with insecurities and self-doubt. Benenato was an accomplished researcher who most recently had worked at AstraZeneca after completing post-doctoral studies at Harvard University. Despite her impressive credentials, Benenato battled a lack of confidence that sometimes got in her way. Performance reviews from past employers had been positive, but they usually produced similar critiques: Be more vocal. Do a better job advocating for your ideas. Give us more, Kerry.
Benenato was petite and soft-spoken. She sometimes stuttered or relied on "ums" and "ahs" when she became nervous, especially in front of groups, part of why she sometimes didn't feel comfortable speaking up.
"I'm an introvert," she says. "Self-confidence is something that's always been an issue."
To Benenato, Moderna's vaccine approach seemed promising—the team was packaging mRNAs in microscopic fatty-acid compounds called lipid nanoparticles, or LNPs, that protected the molecules on their way into cells. Moderna's shots should have been producing ample and long-lasting proteins. But the company's scientists were alarmed—they were injecting shots deep into the muscle of mice, but their immune systems were mounting spirited responses to the foreign components of the LNPs, which had been developed by a Canadian company.
This toxicity was a huge issue: A vaccine or drug that caused sharp pain and awful fevers wasn't going to prove very popular. The Moderna team was in a bind: Its mRNA had to be wrapped in the fatty nanoparticles to have a chance at producing plentiful proteins, but the body wasn't tolerating the microscopic encasements, especially upon repeated dosing.
The company's scientists had done everything they could to try to make the molecule's swathing material disappear soon after entering the cells, in order to avoid the unfortunate side effects, such as chills and headaches, but they weren't making headway. Frustration mounted. Somehow, the researchers had to find a way to get the encasements—made of little balls of fat, cholesterol, and other substances—to deliver their payload mRNA and then quickly vanish, like a parent dropping a teenager off at a party, to avoid setting off the immune system in unpleasant ways, even as the RNA and the proteins the molecule created stuck around.
Benenato wasn't entirely shocked by the challenges Moderna was facing. One of the reasons she had joined the upstart company was to help develop its delivery technology. She just didn't realize how pressing the issue was, or how stymied the researchers had become. Benenato also didn't know that Moderna board members were among those most discouraged by the delivery issue. In meetings, some of them pointed out that pharmaceutical giants like Roche Holding and Novartis had worked on similar issues and hadn't managed to develop lipid nanoparticles that were both effective and well tolerated by the body. Why would Moderna have any more luck?
Stephen Hoge insisted the company could yet find a solution.
"There's no way the only innovations in LNP are going to come from some academics and a small Canadian company," insisted Hoge, who had convinced the executives that hiring Benenato might help deliver an answer.
Benenato realized that while Moderna might have been a hot Boston-area start- up, it wasn't set up to do the chemistry necessary to solve their LNP problem. Much of its equipment was old or secondhand, and it was the kind used to tinker with mRNAs, not lipids.
"It was scary," she says.
When Benenato saw the company had a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, which allows chemists to see the molecular structure of material, she let out a sigh of relief. Then Benenato inspected the machine and realized it was a jalopy. The hulking, aging instrument had been decommissioned and left behind by a previous tenant, too old and banged up to bring with them.
Benenato began experimenting with different chemical changes for Moderna's LNPs, but without a working spectrometer she and her colleagues had to have samples ready by noon each day, so they could be picked up by an outside company that would perform the necessary analysis. After a few weeks, her superiors received an enormous bill for the outsourced work and decided to pay to get the old spectrometer running again.
After months of futility, Benenato became impatient. An overachiever who could be hard on herself, she was eager to impress her new bosses. Benenato felt pressure outside the office, as well. She was married with a preschool-age daughter and an eighteen-month-old son. In her last job, Benenato's commute had been a twenty-minute trip to Astra-Zeneca's office in Waltham, outside Boston; now she was traveling an hour to Moderna's Cambridge offices. She became anxious—how was she going to devote the long hours she realized were necessary to solve their LNP quandary while providing her children proper care? Joining Moderna was beginning to feel like a possible mistake.
She turned to her husband and father for help. They reminded her of the hard work she had devoted to establishing her career and said it would be a shame if she couldn't take on the new challenge. Benenato's husband said he was happy to stay home with the kids, alleviating some of her concerns.
Back in the office, she got to work. She wanted to make lipids that were easier for the body to chop into smaller pieces, so they could be eliminated by the body's enzymes. Until then, Moderna, like most others, relied on all kinds of complicated chemicals to hold its LNP packaging together. They weren't natural, though, so the body was having a hard time breaking them down, causing the toxicity.
Benenato began experimenting with simpler chemicals. She inserted "ester bonds"—compounds referred to in chemical circles as "handles" because the body easily grabs them and breaks them apart. Ester bonds had two things going for them: They were strong enough to help ensure the LNP remained stable, acting much like a drop of oil in water, but they also gave the body's enzymes something to target and break down as soon as the LNP entered the cell, a way to quickly rid the body of the potentially toxic LNP components. Benenato thought the inclusion of these chemicals might speed the elimination of the LNP delivery material.
This idea, Benenato realized, was nothing more than traditional, medicinal chemistry. Most people didn't use ester bonds because they were pretty unsophisticated. But, hey, the tricky stuff wasn't working, so Benenato thought she'd see if the simple stuff worked.
Benenato also wanted to try to replace a group of unnatural chemicals in the LNP that was contributing to the spirited and unwelcome response from the immune system. Benenato set out to build a new and improved chemical combination. She began with ethanolamine, a colorless, natural chemical, an obvious start for any chemist hoping to build a more complex chemical combination. No one relied on ethanolamine on its own.
Benenato was curious, though. What would happen if she used just these two simple modifications to the LNP: ethanolamine with the ester bonds? Right away, Benenato noticed her new, super-simple compound helped mRNA create some protein in animals. It wasn't much, but it was a surprising and positive sign. Benenato spent over a year refining her solution, testing more than one hundred variations, all using ethanolamine and ester bonds, showing improvements with each new version of LNP. After finishing her 102nd version of the lipid molecule, which she named SM102, Benenato was confident enough in her work to show it to Hoge and others.
They immediately got excited. The team kept tweaking the composition of the lipid encasement. In 2017, they wrapped it around mRNA molecules and injected the new combination in mice and then monkeys. They saw plentiful, potent proteins were being produced and the lipids were quickly being eliminated, just as Benenato and her colleagues had hoped. Moderna had its special sauce.
That year, Benenato was asked to deliver a presentation to Stephane Bancel, Moderna's chief executive, Afeyan, and Moderna's executive committee to explain why it made sense to use the new, simpler LNP formulation for all its mRNA vaccines. She still needed approval from the executives to make the change. Ahead of the meeting, she was apprehensive, as some of her earlier anxieties returned. But an unusual calm came over her as she began speaking to the group. Benenato explained how experimenting with basic, overlooked chemicals had led to her discovery.
She said she had merely stumbled onto the company's solution, though her bosses understood the efforts that had been necessary for the breakthrough. The board complimented her work and agreed with the idea of switching to the new LNP. Benenato beamed with pride.
"As a scientist, serendipity has been my best friend," she told the executives.
Over the next few years, Benenato and her colleagues would improve on their methods and develop even more tolerable and potent LNP encasement for mRNA molecules. Their work enabled Moderna to include higher doses of vaccine in its shots. In early 2020, Moderna developed Covid-19 shots that included 100 micrograms of vaccine, compared with 30 micrograms in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That difference appears to help the Moderna vaccine generate higher titers and provide more protection.
"You set out in a career in drug discovery to want to make a difference," Benenato says. "Seeing it come to reality has been surreal and emotional."
Editor's Note: This essay is excerpted from A SHOT TO SAVE THE WORLD: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19 Vaccine by Gregory Zuckerman, now on sale from Portfolio/Penguin.
In just 100 years, scientific breakthroughs could completely transform humanity and our planet for the better. Here's a glimpse at what our future may hold.
The Next 100 Years of Scientific Progress
Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.