Day: September 3, 2009


Sugar Pills, now more effective!

Well, all sugar is not bad for you. Apparently, when given to you in pill form by someone wearing a white coat with a pleasant demeanour, it can cure all kinds of ills.

It’s not that the old meds are getting weaker, drug developers say. It's as if the placebo effect is somehow getting stronger.The fact that an increasing number of medications are unable to beat sugar pills has thrown the industry into crisis. The stakes could hardly be higher. In today's economy, the fate of a long-established company can hang on the outcome of a handful of tests.

Via Wired

An interesting article that takes the reader through a recent history of placebos, why they seem to work better now than they used to, and tangentially, why the competitive research paradigm of the pharmaceutical industry delayed recognition, and continues to delay possible fixes and therapies.

A few things about the placebo effect:

  1. There appears to be a physiological and neurological basis to the effect, something that can actually be turned off by deactivating the body’s natural production of opioids.
  2. This effect is triggered by various patient stimuli, including exposure to advertising, faith in the medicine, doctor bedside manner, etc. It appears that for minor ailments, these effects could be as strong as the medication prescribed.
  3. It is not short lived, the effects can linger well after consumption of sugar pills.
  4. Despite all this, the article states that we are no closer to finding the most appropriate way to administer placebos (Hmm, or are we? Read on!).

Pharmaceutical companies conduct hundreds of clinical trials every year. They are not required to publish them in most countries, so negative results, failures, etc. which reflect badly on the company’s stock price are routinely hushed up. This means that the mounds of data that show tested drugs as no better than placebo are not accessible for research. This is one of the greatest drawbacks of competitive research paradigms, the lack of cooperation, the inefficiency that comes from duplication of negative results, and the lack of statistical power that comes from inability to use all the data available. In a milieu where knowledge = stock price, this is the logical approach, but something to note next time an Ayn Rand acolyte comes bleating to you about the beauty and perfection of the market. You might ask “What are some options to the current patent exclusivity driven regime”? My favourite economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economics and Policy Research has written extensively about the drug development process and alternatives in his excellent (and free to download) book The Conservative Nanny State, I suggest reading at least the chapter on drug development and patents!

Anyway, back to placebos, what to do? How to administer sugar pills in a quasi-official setting for minor ailments. It’s almost like you need a parallel paradigm of medicine that dispenses sugar pills that did not have to go through double blind randomised clinical trials. it would help if this paradigm uses vaguely scientific terminology while doing very little harm. It would work in conjunction with the conventional approach, not in competition so there is little danger of people taking sugar pills for malaria!

I give you, Homeopathy!!! This blog(ger) is no stranger to this wonderful form of medicine, involving concepts such as the memory of water, similars, dilution, etc. When I wrote about homeopathy last year, it was more in relation to the psychological aspects of my experience with it. I (and I assume you did not click through to read!) wrote about my parents’ great and enduring relationship with their homeopath, and the benefits it brought them. Back in India this time around, it was suggested that I take some homeopathy for a cold I was developing, which I did (yum, sugar!). The cold went away in a few days 🙂 There was some swine flu medicine being passed around as well (I did not partake), which worked too, nobody at home got swine flu 🙂

So, how to make it work? It already works in India because belief in the efficacy of homeopathy is well established. As long as the homeopath is well qualified in basic diagnosis, and crucially, knows when to punt the patient into conventional therapy, the system works to a certain extent. But what about a society with no such foundation? Do you go to a clinic with both an allopath and a homeopath, and if your ailment is one where placebo works about as well, let the homeopath make some well diluted similars for you to consume? How to settle turf wars? Would it be better for the allopath to feign develop an expertise in homeopathy and make that work for her in treating the patient? Would they apply the most important lessons in homeopathic treatment, Listen, Empathise, Soothe?

I don’t know. It is not my nature to believe in sugar pills, faith, or advertising. So it is hard for me to say what would work. But given that sugar pills work well, it is vital for society to find a way.