One Patient Stands Out
One patient stands out in the memory of Stephen Straus, M.D., for her remarkable recovery, more than 10 years ago, from chronic fatigue syndrome. The woman, then in her 30s, was "very significantly impaired," says Straus, chief of the Laboratory of Clinical Investigation at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "She had no energy, couldn't work, and spent most of her time at home." But her strength was restored during a study to test the effectiveness of an experimental chronic fatigue drug.
"She and her parents were so thrilled with her recovery that they were blessing me and my colleagues," recalls Straus, the principal investigator on that study.
Like many drug studies, the chronic fatigue medication trial was a "placebo-controlled" study, meaning that a portion of the patients took the experimental drug, while others took look-alike pills with no active ingredient, with neither researchers nor patients knowing which patients were getting which.
It's human nature, Straus explains, for patients and investigators alike to try and guess in each case: Is it the real drug or a dummy pill? But people shouldn't kid themselves, he says, that they can consistently tell the actual drug from the sham by seeking out tell-tale signs of improvement.
Turns out, the woman's quick turnaround from chronic fatigue occurred after taking placebo pills, not the experimental drug. Straus says, "She was amazed by the revelation that she'd gotten better on placebo."
Research has confirmed that a fake treatment, made from an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution, can have a "placebo effect"--that is, the sham medication can sometimes improve a patient's condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful. For a given medical condition, it's not unusual for one-third of patients to feel better in response to treatment with placebo.
"Expectation is a powerful thing," says Robert DeLap, M.D., head of one of the Food and Drug Administration's Offices of Drug Evaluation. "The more you believe you're going to benefit from a treatment, the more likely it is that you will experience a benefit."
Placebo-Controlled Drug Studies
To separate out this power of positive thinking and some other variables from a drug's true medical benefits, companies seeking FDA approval of a new treatment often use placebo-controlled drug studies. If patients on the new drug fare significantly better than those taking placebo, the study helps support the conclusion that the medicine is effective.