In this blog I am going to have a closer look at an issue that has niggled away at me for a long time. Placebos. In part I was stimulated to write on this following an article that Maryanne Demasi published on the CrossFit site ‘Sometimes a placebo is not a placebo.’ 1
There are many, many different issues about placebos. Most of which people don’t even consider. Such as, is there really such a thing as the placebo effect? And if there is, how come we haven’t managed to sort out what it actually might be? I know most people reading this will retort. ‘Of course, there’s a placebo effect. It’s a known thing.’ Personally, I am not so sure. Like many known things it begins to fall apart under a bit of critical examination.
‘Whether you know you’re taking a placebo pill or not, it will still have a beneficial effect, new research has revealed. Scientists from Harvard University and the University of Basel prescribed a group of minor burn victims with a “treatment” cream, telling only some of them that it was a placebo. After the cream was applied, both groups reported benefits, despite the placebo cream containing no medicine.
The study goes against traditional medical thinking surrounding the placebo effect, which has always revolved around the idea that it was necessary to deceive patients in order for “sugar pills” to be clinically effective.’ 2
In short, you get the placebo effect whether you know, or don’t know, that you are receiving a placebo. Which kind of blows a major hole in rationale underpinning double-blind, placebo controlled clinical trials.
However, I am not exploring that particular rabbit hole today.
Today I am going to look at the question. What is in a placebo? You may well believe you know the answer to this. A placebo is an inert formulation containing no active ingredients.
This is a reasonable assumption to make as the medical definition of a placebo, as taken from the Merriam-Webster medical dictionary, is:
‘1a: a usually pharmacologically inert preparation prescribed more for the mental relief of the patient than for its actual effect on a disorder
b: an inert or innocuous substance used especially in controlled experiments testing the efficacy of another substance (such as a drug)’
A few years ago, I was speaking to an investigative journalist from the Netherlands who was trying to get hold of the placebo tablets used in a particular clinical trial. He wanted to establish exactly what was in them, and if they were truly inert. No such luck, these placebos were very carefully guarded, as was any information about what they contained.
He gave up, but I did file his tale in my mind, recognising this was something that needed to be looked in greater detail at some point in the future. Can it be true that placebos are not actually inert?
Surely, it’s possible to ask the pharmaceutical company running the trial what’s in the placebo. Well, you can try. To quote a section of Maryanne’s article
‘The process of obtaining regulatory documents, however, is by no means straightforward. In fact, it is often complicated and time consuming. I have made multiple appeals to a European drug regulator (Medicines Evaluation Board) to obtain information (Certificate of Analysis) regarding the ingredients of a placebo used in a controversial statin study (JUPITER trial), but so far, they have fallen on deaf ears. So, too, have my requests to the trial’s lead investigator, Dr. Paul Ridker.
Medical journals will need to take responsibility and insist that published papers report on the methodological details of “inactive” placebos. Recently, Shader of Clinical Therapeutics stated, “It will no longer be sufficient to simply indicate that a placebo was used.”
“We will require that a full description of any placebo or matched control used in a clinical trial be given in the Methods section. This means that color; type (capsule or pill or liquid); contents (e.g, lactose), including dyes; taste (if there is any); and packaging (e.g, double-dummy) must be noted,” he stated. “We are instituting this change as part of our ongoing effort to facilitate replication of findings from trials. All too often this valuable information is omitted from published trial results.”
In short, you can’t find out what is contained within the placebos. Or at least, it is exceedingly difficult – to impossible.
This is very disturbing indeed, because it has become increasingly clear that placebos are often far from inactive or inert. In fact, they often contain some quite unpleasant substances. For example, here from an article in Medical News Today
‘The authors outline an example where a particular placebo skewed the results of several studies. In studies that investigated oseltamivir, which people may know by its brand name Tamiflu, scientists often added dehydrocholic acid to the placebo.
Dehydrocholic acid has a bitter taste, as does oseltamivir. The researchers chose to add this chemical to the placebo so that the participants would not know whether they had received the active drug or the placebo.
However, both dehydrocholic acid and oseltamivir cause gastrointestinal side effects. When scientists attempted to calculate the rate of gastrointestinal side effects due to oseltamivir, they compared them with side effects from the placebo.
As the placebo also caused these types of symptoms, scientists underestimated the overall gastrointestinal side effect rate for oseltamivir.’ 3
Essentially, and you may find this rather shocking, a company doing a clinical trial can stick almost any nasty substance they like into a placebo and tell no-one. There are no regulations to prevent this happening, or at least none that I can find.
From time to time, however, the secret ingredients are revealed, or discovered, such as dehydrocholic acid. Here is Maryanne on the Gardasil (HPV) vaccine. In this case the ‘secret ingredient’ in the placebo was also identified.
[RIAT = Restoring invisible and abandoned trials. Good people]
‘In trials of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, participants were told they were either receiving a “vaccine or placebo.” The vaccine manufacturer defines a placebo as an “inactive pill, liquid, or powder that has no treatment value.”
However, participants in the placebo group did not receive an inactive substance of no treatment value. “Instead,” RIAT researchers state in the BMJ, “they received an injection containing amorphous aluminium hydroxyphosphate (AAHS), a proprietary adjuvant system used in the Gardasil vaccine to boost immune response.”‘ 4
This is worrying. Many of those who are concerned about the potential for vaccine damage, believe it may well be the amorphous aluminium hydroxyphosphate (AAHS) itself which is the substance that can cause the adverse effects seen with many vaccines.
If both placebo, and vaccine, contain this adjuvant, then… it’s a free pass for the vaccine. In order to hide adverse effects with the vaccine, the placebo contained the substance suspected to cause adverse effects. Anyone who thinks that is remotely acceptable needs a long hard look in the mirror…
However, important thought it may be, it is time to move onto my favourite subject, statins – and placebos. For years I been highly suspicious of the adverse effect rates seen in the statin clinical trials. My concerns, and the concerns of others, formed part of a letter written to the then Health Secretary (Jeremy Hunt), and also to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence 5
Here was the section on adverse events:
- Conflicting levels of adverse events
In emphasising the cost per Quality Adjusted Life Year (QALY), NICE is clearly making a major assumption that the key issue is mortality reduction, and that statins lead to very few adverse effects. We would question this very strongly.
The levels of adverse events reported in the statin trials contain worrying anomalies. For example, in the West of Scotland Coronary Prevention Study (WOSCOPS, the first primary prevention study done), the cumulative incidence of myalgia was 0.6% in the statin arm, and 0.6% in the placebo arm*
However, the METEOR study found an incidence of myalgia of 12.7% in the Rosuvastatin arm, and 12.1% in the placebo arm
Whilst it can be understood that a different formulation of statin could cause a different rate of myalgia, it is difficult to see how the placebo could, in one study, cause a rate of myalgia of 0.6%, and 12.1% in another. This is a twenty-fold difference in a trial lasting less than half as long*.
Furthermore, the rate of adverse effects in the statin and placebo arms of all the trials has been almost identical. Exact comparison between trials is not possible, due to lack of complete data, and various measures of adverse effects are used, in different ways.
However, here is a short selection of major statins studies.
AFCAPS/TEXCAPS: Total adverse effects lovastatin 13.6%: Placebo 13.8%
4S: Total adverse effects simvastatin 6%: Placebo 6%
CARDS: Total adverse effects atorvastatin 25%: Placebo 24%
HPS: Discontinuation rates simvastatin 4.5%: Placebo 5.1%
METEOR: Total adverse effects rosuvastatin 83.3%: Placebo 80.4%
LIPID: Total adverse effects 3.2% Pravastatin: Placebo 2.7%
JUPITER: Discontinuation rate of drug 25% Rosuvastatin 25% placebo. Serious Adverse events 15 % Rosuvastatin 15.5% placebo
WOSCOPS: Total adverse effects. Pravastatin 7.8%: Placebo 7.0%
Curiously, the adverse effect rate of the statin is always very similar to that of placebo. However, placebo adverse effect rates range from 2.7% to 80.4%, a thirty-fold difference.
How can the adverse effects of placebo range from 2.7% to 80.4%? Yes, there can be differences in the way that adverse effects are recorded, and that could explain, perhaps a five-fold difference – being extremely generous. But a thirty-fold difference?
Also, how can it be possible that the adverse effects of the placebo, and the statin, are always, almost exactly the same, in all trails – no matter the absolute figure. I believe that this could not possibly occur unless:
- The placebos in each trial were carefully formulated to cause adverse effects at the same rate as the statin
- The statistics on adverse effects were manipulated
Neither possibility should fill anyone with joy, nor confidence in the regulatory systems.
I have raised this issue with a number of different people, but they all seem determinedly disinterested. I suppose that if either of my two statements are true, it means that the entire database of randomised double-blind placebo-controlled trials can no longer be trusted. This is not a nettle to be grasped. It is a fifty-thousand-volt power line with a sign reading ‘Danger of Death!’ attached.
I can well understand the reluctance to investigate. However, I do not believe that we can possibly allow the formulation of placebos to remain a well-kept secret in future, current, or past trials.
If my suspicions about placebos are wrong, then can someone please prove me wrong.
*in the letter I had calculated this figure wrongly. It was not 0.06%, it was 0.6%. So, I have changed the text in the blog to reflect that.