Placebos are an important part of clinical research. A placebo is a harmless substance that looks identical to the treatment being tested in a clinical trial, but contains no active ingredient. So, for example, if a new oral drug is being tested, then the placebo might be something like a sugar pill.
What is a placebo-controlled trial?
Some clinical research requires the use of a placebo. If a study is placebo-controlled, it means some patients will be given the investigational drug and others will be given a placebo. This is so the researchers can compare the two groups, in order to fully understand whether the drug under investigation works and is effective. Placebo-controlled trials can be single-blinded or double-blinded.
What is a single-blind study?
A single-blind trial is one where the person taking part does not know if they are receiving the investigational treatment or a placebo. This is to try and reduce the placebo effect.
What is the placebo effect?
If a person is on a placebo, the idea that they might be taking an actual treatment can mean they feel better or respond to it anyway, as a result of wishful thinking. This is known as the placebo effect. If they think a treatment is going to give them negative side effects, they can experience the side effects simply because they thought they would. It is thought that the placebo effect results from the way the mind can affect the body.
What is a double-blind study?
A double-blind study means that both the researchers and the people taking part in a study do not know if they have been given the investigational drug or the placebo. This ensures that the researchers treat all of the participants in the same way, regardless of the treatment they are receiving. This way, the researchers won’t be able to disclose who is on the treatment and who is not, or influence the study in any way. This ensures that any benefits reported by the doctor or the patient aren’t a result of the placebo effect, or any other kind of human bias. Most studies involving a placebo are double-blind.
Why are placebos used?
Some people disagree with the use of placebos in clinical trials because they believe that no one should be denied access to the treatment. This has been taken into consideration in clinical trials for children, where the participants are often given the placebo for a short period, before being given the investigational treatment. Some clinical trials in adults work like this as well.
Placebos are an important part of clinical studies as they provide researchers with a comparison point for new therapies, so they can prove they are safe and effective. They can provide them with the evidence required to apply to regulatory bodies for approval of a new drug. Placebos can play a vital role in getting new treatments to the people that need them.