English 165LB: Literature & Biotechnology (W11)

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Placebos Are Getting More Effective (Wired)

Posted by rraley on February 22, 2011

In relation to our conversation last week about Atwood:

“…From 2001 to 2006, the percentage of new products cut from development after Phase II clinical trials, when drugs are first tested against placebo, rose by 20 percent. The failure rate in more extensive Phase III trials increased by 11 percent, mainly due to surprisingly poor showings against placebo. Despite historic levels of industry investment in R&D, the US Food and Drug Administration approved only 19 first-of-their-kind remedies in 2007—the fewest since 1983—and just 24 in 2008. Half of all drugs that fail in late-stage trials drop out of the pipeline due to their inability to beat sugar pills.”

From “Placebos Are Getting More Effective,” Wired (August 2009)


6 Responses to “Placebos Are Getting More Effective (Wired)”


    Here’s an article I found in the same website (Wired):


    It’s regarding an FDA approved cancer drug. At first, I became astonished by the extreme price the annual treatment of this drug (Avastin) costs (about $90,000). I don’t know anybody in my immediate and/or extended family (12 uncles/ants and about 35 adult cousins) who consider themselves “middle” or “lower-middle” class that would be able to afford this drug. I kept reading and the article says:

    “Why does Avastin cost so much? Not because of research and development investments, or even promotional expenditures: as reported by the New York Times in 2006, the price of Avastin reflects the tag placed by Genentech on the value of life. Whether that’s ethical or not is a judgement that investors must make for themselves — but at least they should know what they’re profiting from.”

    The “tag placed by Genetech on the value of life.”, that’s the single sentence with the most impact in this paragraph. I do understand that a producer has the right to profit from its product, but to make profit off of desperation and unfortunate health circumstances is repulsive. Even though this is not an exact parallel scenario to Atwood’s “BlyssPluss Pill” it raises similar ethical questions that should definitely raise some eyebrows.

    • Eric Perez said

      I can’t believe that corporations like these are allowed to do such things. They become rich off of other people’s misfortunes. I don’t see why restrictions aren’t placed on these companies. When reflecting on the fact that the founder of the polio vaccination simply gave it away, really shows the corporate greed of the pharmaceutical companies today.

    • Kellyn Trummer said

      I came across this video tonight, which gives an informative and amusing breakdown of the various effects of placebos. The video demonstrates the “great trick our minds play on us, that by believing and expecting something to work, it actually does.” It highlights some seemingly arbitrary reasons that enhance or detract from the potency of the placebo.

      For instance, the larger the pill, the greater the effect of the placebo. In addition, branded placebos have a greater effect than non-branded placebo pills, and more expensive placebos ameliorate symptoms better than the cheaper variety (even if the pills themselves are identical). In the same manner, an identical placebo can either increase pain, or decrease pain depending on which is outcome is suggested.

      It’s really quite amazing what we can fool our minds into believing will cure us (or harm us). It seems that the presentation of the placebo is the most important part of the placebo effect. The flashier and more expensive a placebo is, the better. I wonder if the high price of Avastin, while not a placebo itself, enhances it’s cancer-fighting effects? The more expensive the drug is, the more effective it must be—right? (But only for those who can afford such high priced drugs. This seems like poor reasoning if the drug is not available to many who need it because of it’s high cost…)

      • Joanne Cock said

        I just came across an article similar to this discussion, where test subjects were exposed to pain and then given remifentanil as a pain killer. However, the first time, subjects were told the pain killer was just a placebo and they rated their pain 15 points lower, then the second time, they were told it truly was remifentanil and they rated their pain 31 points lower.

        “The overall treatment outcome is substantially modified by the patient’s individual expectations and prior experience with treatments and physicians,” said Dr. Ulrike Bingel, a neurologist at University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf and one of the study authors.

        Dr. Randy Gollub, one of the researchers, also points out that remifentanil was a “good choice for the study” as “‘There’s nobody you give remifentanil to who won’t feel less pain.'” The interesting thing Gollub says is “‘Here is a beautiful paper showing we can double or half the potency of the drug,'” hinting how powerful the mind is in response to what it is told to believe.

        The complete article is here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41626861/ns/health-mental_health/

    • Jay Healy said

      In response to CHAYANM E. GARCIA:

      I really like exploring the future consequences that the practices of pharmaceutical and biotech companies will have on the global economy. I think Chayanm makes a very relevant connection between the real-life practices of corporations like Genentech and the near-future dystopian world in which these corporations complete dominate global governance. On page 211, Crake is explaining to Jimmy that the economic goal of these companies is to create a medicine (and the disease too, in Atwood’s dystopia) that milks the consumer dry of all of their earnings: “Ideally… the patient should either get well or die just before all of his or her money runs out. It’s a fine calculation.”
      This practice reminds me of the current criminal behavior taking place in the financial world, and how when companies own politicians, the companies virtually own the government. One of Atwood’s most pronounced themes, I believe, is the future of the 1st world being reduced to an artificial suburban-like compound for the biotech company employees, and the rest of the world being equalized and reduced into the feared and savage space of the Pleeblands. Like George Orwell’s dichotomy of the Prole and the Bourgeois, and Marx before him, Atwood’s dichotomy between 1st and 3rd world spheres highlights the global relations created by corporate expansion and outsourcing.
      Also, a large part of Atwood’s novel discusses the importance, techniques, and manipulation of language in relation to corporate promotions and to humanity itself. I have been imagining Jimmy’s work as a word doctor for AnooYoo as only a slight hyperbole of the promotional messages on products today. The amount of money associated with these high-tech, large-investment biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms combined with the continuous corruption scandals in Washington, make me believe that modern politics has corrupted government associations like the FDA. I mean, conspiracy theories aside, the competition involved in production of pharmaceutical drugs must be fierce seeing as it’s a kajillion dollar/year industry, so naturally expendable funds could theoretically be used to push one synthetic or biotechnique through the patenting process and FDA approval. My point in all of this is that the guarantees behind these large corporations are becoming ever-more transparent, guaranteeing nothing yet boasting FDA approval, and their drugs cause complacency in the millions of individuals buying these products (Prozac, Anti-anxiolytics, BlyssPluss): a vicious financial cycle controlled by drug companies patenting and marketing more and more drugs to the 1st world public.

  2. Lauren Loreto said

    I find the concept of placebos to be quite interesting. The human mind is capable of convincing itself of almost anything. Placebos have been used in medical studies for years; ironically the placebos can be as effective or more effective than the actual medicines tested. The question that can be asked is why pay for pharmeceuticals when the placebos work just as well? Often times people with chronic diseases cannot afford the majority of medicine that is prescribed to them. It has to make you wonder where all the money is going, if they cant even create a pill more effective than a placebo.

    I have seen the “placebo effect” in action; meaning I have witnessed someone convince themselves of the effectiveness of something that was actually not what they thought it was. My friends and I decided to test this effect by giving someone non-alcoholic beer and telling them that it was regular beer. By the end of the night, the person had convinced themselves they were drunk, slurred speech and all. Obviously they werent, since it was non-alcoholic beer, but it was still interesting to watch them convince themselves. The placebo effect is both interesting and effective.

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