Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the United States today. Researchers are constantly trying to find ways to fight this fatal disease. One new approach includes placebos.

CBS news reports on Dr. Kaptchuk’s new study. Kaptchuk is the director of the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter at Harvard University and Beth Israel Medical Center.

Kaptchuk found that many cancer patients felt better after taking placebos. He has spent over fifteen years studying this theory.

How was the study conducted?

Kaptchuk took 80 patients with irritable bowel syndrome, a disorder that affects the large intestine and also leads to bloating, gas and abdominal pain. “Half of the patients received no treatment. The rest were given pills marked ‘placebo pill’ and were told that the medication was fake,” according to CBS news.

This study is known as an open-label placebo clinical trial run. The team of patients who received the fake pills reported twice as much improvement as the group that received no treatment at all. Kaptchuk even found that the patients were asking for more placebo pills after the study was over.     

Kevin Fontaine, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Health Behavior in the University of Alabama Birmingham School of Public Health commented on the study. He said, “We've known that placebos can produce benefits for over 50 years, but Ted has shown that you don't have to deceive patients by making them think they are taking a real drug.” Even when patients know it is a placebo, numerous people still report decreased symptoms and some even manifest physiological changes as if they had taken a real medication.

Now Kaptchuk is starting a new study. He will test first of its kind, open label placebo trial on patients who survived cancer.

Experts will begin recruiting cancer survivors who completed treatments at least six months before the trial but are still experiencing moderate to dangerous levels of cancer related fatigue and weakness. Many patients have reported that the worst symptom of cancer related treatments is the fatigue.

For the duration of the seven-week trial, participants will be divided into two groups: one that will receive the placebo pill and another group to act as a control. CBS explains, “After a week-long break, know in drug studies as a wash-out period, they will switch places. A wash-out period is used to give participants time to clear one medication out of their system before starting another.”

Experts are going to analyze the differences between both groups and the patients. Experts will also put together saliva samples of the patients and analyze them for any evidence of a genetic predisposition to a positive response to a placebo pill.

Researchers are saying the biggest challenge they have had with this study is helping people understand the significance of placebo effect research.

“The concept that a patient can respond to something that is supposed to be nothing is a bit difficult for scientists to accept. These types of placebo studies challenge everything we understand about clinical trials and 'neutral' comparators,” according to CBS.

Researchers are saying that in reality, a placebo is not actually neutral at all. It is full of all kinds of symbolic meaning and ritual like hope, trust in one's doctor, and the clinical trial encounter.


Gerry Oginski
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NY Medical Malpractice & Personal Injury Trial Lawyer
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