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.
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads, Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?"
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Dr. Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar and his team knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of C. difficile infection and they wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy.
Convalescent plasma – first used to treat diphtheria in 1890 – has been dusted off the shelf to treat COVID-19. Does it work? Should we rely strictly on the altruism of donors or should people be paid for it?
The biologic theory is that a person who has recovered from a disease has chemicals in their blood, most likely antibodies, that contributed to their recovery, and transferring those to a person who is sick might aid their recovery. Whole blood won't work because there are too few antibodies in a single unit of blood and the body can hold only so much of it.
Plasma comprises about 55 percent of whole blood and is what's left once you take out the red blood cells that carry oxygen and the white blood cells of the immune system. Most of it is water but the rest is a complex mix of fats, salts, signaling molecules and proteins produced by the immune system, including antibodies.
A process called apheresis circulates the donors' blood through a machine that separates out the desired parts of blood and returns the rest to the donor. It takes several times the length of a regular whole blood donation to cycle through enough blood for the process. The end product is a yellowish concentration called convalescent plasma.
It was used extensively during the great influenza epidemic off 1918 but fell out of favor with the development of antibiotics. Still, whenever a new disease emerges – SARS, MERS, Ebola, even antibiotic-resistant bacteria – doctors turn to convalescent plasma, often as a stopgap until more effective antibiotic and antiviral drugs are developed. The process is certainly safe when standard procedures for handling blood products are followed, and historically it does seem to be beneficial in at least some patients if administered early enough in the disease.
With few good treatment options for COVID-19, doctors have given convalescent plasma to more than a hundred thousand Americans and tens of thousand of people elsewhere, to mixed results. Placebo-controlled trials could give a clearer picture of plasma's value but it is difficult to enroll patients facing possible death when the flip of a coin will determine who will receive a saline solution or plasma.
And the plasma itself isn't some uniform pill stamped out in a factory, it's a natural product that is shaped by the immune history of the donor's body and its encounter not just with SARS-CoV-2 but a lifetime of exposure to different pathogens.
Researchers believe antibodies in plasma are a key factor in directly fighting the virus. But the variety and quantity of antibodies vary from donor to donor, and even over time from the same donor because once the immune system has cleared the virus from the body, it stops putting out antibodies to fight the virus. Often the quality and quantity of antibodies being given to a patient are not measured, making it somewhat hit or miss, which is why several companies have recently developed monoclonal antibodies, a single type of antibody found in blood that is effective against SARS-CoV-2 and that is multiplied in the lab for use as therapy.
Plasma may also contain other unknown factors that contribute to fighting disease, say perhaps signaling molecules that affect gene expression, which might affect the movement of immune cells, their production of antiviral molecules, or the regulation of inflammation. The complexity and lack of standardization makes it difficult to evaluate what might be working or not with a convalescent plasma treatment. Thus researchers are left with few clues about how to make it more effective.
Many Americans living along the border with Mexico regularly head south to purchase prescription drugs at a significant discount. Less known is the medical traffic the other way, Mexicans who regularly head north to be paid for plasma donations, which are prohibited in their country; the U.S. allows payment for plasma donations but not whole blood. A typical payment is about $35 for a donation but the sudden demand for convalescent plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 commands a premium price, sometimes as high as $200. These donors are part of a fast-growing plasma industry that surpassed $25 billion in 2018. The U.S. supplies about three-quarters of the world's needs for plasma.
Payment for whole blood donation in the U.S. is prohibited, and while payment for plasma is allowed, there is a stigma attached to payment and much plasma is donated for free.
The pharmaceutical industry has shied away from natural products they cannot patent but they have identified simpler components from plasma, such as clotting factors and immunoglobulins, that have been turned into useful drugs from this raw material of plasma. While some companies have retooled to provide convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19, often paying those donors who have recovered a premium of several times the normal rate, most convalescent plasma has come as donations through traditional blood centers.
In April the Mayo Clinic, in cooperation with the FDA, created an expanded access program for convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19. It was meant to reduce the paperwork associated with gaining access to a treatment not yet approved by the FDA for that disease. Initially it was supposed to be for 5000 units but it quickly grew to more than twenty times that size. Michael Joyner, the head of the program, discussed that experience in an extended interview in September.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) also created associated reimbursement codes, which became permanent in August.
Mayo published an analysis of the first 35,000 patients as a preprint in August. It concluded, "The relationships between mortality and both time to plasma transfusion, and antibody levels provide a signature that is consistent with efficacy for the use of convalescent plasma in the treatment of hospitalized COVID-19 patients."
It seemed to work best when given early in infection and in larger doses; a similar pattern has been seen in studies of monoclonal antibodies. A revised version will soon be published in a major medical journal. Some criticized the findings as not being from a randomized clinical trial.
Convalescent plasma is not the only intervention that seems to work better when used earlier in the course of disease. Recently the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly stopped a clinical trial of a monoclonal antibody in hospitalized COVID-19 patients when it became apparent it wasn't helping. It is continuing trials for patients who are less sick and begin treatment earlier, as well as in persons who have been exposed to the virus but not yet diagnosed as infected, to see if it might prevent infection. In November the FDA eased access to this drug outside of clinical trials, though it is not yet approved for sale.
Show Me the Money
The antibodies that seem to give plasma its curative powers are fragile proteins that the body produces to fight the virus. Production shuts down once the virus is cleared and the remaining antibodies survive only for a few weeks before the levels fade. [Vaccines are used to train immune cells to produce antibodies and other defenses to respond to exposure to future pathogens.] So they can be usefully harvested from a recovered patient for only a few short weeks or months before they decline precipitously. The question becomes, how does one mobilize this resource in that short window of opportunity?
The program run by the Mayo Clinic explains the process and criteria for donating convalescent plasma for COVID-19, as well as links to local blood centers equipped to handle those free donations. Commercial plasma centers also are advertising and paying for donations.
A majority of countries prohibit paying donors for blood or blood products, including India. But an investigation by India Today touted a black market of people willing to donate convalescent plasma for the equivalent of several hundred dollars. Officials vowed to prosecute, saying donations should be selfless.
But that enforcement threat seemed to be undercut when the health minister of the state of Assam declared "plasma donors will get preference in several government schemes including the government job interview." It appeared to be a form of compensation that far surpassed simple cash.
The small city of Rexburg, Idaho, with a population a bit over 50,000, overwhelmingly Mormon and home to a campus of Brigham Young University, at one point had one of the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 in the current wave of infection. Rumors circulated that some students were intentionally trying to become infected so they could later sell their plasma for top dollar, potentially as much as $200 a visit.
Troubled university officials investigated the allegations but could come up with nothing definitive; how does one prove intentionality with such an omnipresent yet elusive virus? They chalked it up to idle chatter, perhaps an urban legend, which might be associated with alcohol use on some other campus.
Doctors, hospitals, and drug companies are all rightly praised for their altruism in the fight against COVID-19, but they also get paid. Payment for whole blood donation in the U.S. is prohibited, and while payment for plasma is allowed, there is a stigma attached to payment and much plasma is donated for free. "Why do we expect the donors [of convalescent plasma] to be the only uncompensated people in the process? It really makes no sense," argues Mark Yarborough, an ethicist at the UC Davis School of Medicine in Sacramento.
"When I was in grad school, two of my closest friends, at least once a week they went and gave plasma. That was their weekend spending money," Yarborough recalls. He says upper and middle-income people may have the luxury of donating blood products but prohibiting people from selling their plasma is a bit paternalistic and doesn't do anything to improve the economic status of poor people.
"Asking people to dedicate two hours a week for an entire year in exchange for cookies and milk is demonstrably asking too much," says Peter Jaworski, an ethicist who teaches at Georgetown University.
He notes that companies that pay plasma donors have much lower total costs than do operations that rely solely on uncompensated donations. The companies have to spend less to recruit and retain donors because they increase payments to encourage regular repeat donations. They are able to more rationally schedule visits to maximize use of expensive apheresis equipment and medical personnel used for the collection.
It seems that COVID-19 has been with us forever, but in reality it is less than a year. We have learned much over that short time, can now better manage the disease, and have lower mortality rates to prove it. Just how much convalescent plasma may have contributed to that remains an open question. Access to vaccines is months away for many people, and even then some people will continue to get sick. Given the lack of proven treatments, it makes sense to keep plasma as part of the mix, and not close the door to any legitimate means to obtain it.