It is largely expected that in a randomised, double-blind clinical trial, individuals assigned to placebo will experience some level of improvement in relevant outcomes and this can lead to an underestimation of the effectiveness of the therapy being tested.
Consequently, researchers often use a combination of objective and subjective measures when assessing the response to treatment. For instance, it is known that subjective measures, for example, pain scores can be high, hence the need for independent, objective measures. However, in a new analysis of the placebo response among patients in trials for rheumatoid arthritis therapies, a team from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, USA, found significant improvements in both measures. The team examined the placebo arm responses for five double-blind trials conducted internationally of at least 24 weeks duration between 2005 and 2009 among patients with rheumatoid arthritis. They extracted the individual level patient data from trials and focused on pain scores (subjective) and C-reactive protein (CRP) and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) values, both of which are objective measures. Pain scores were assessed using a standardised measure, namely a 0 to 100 mm visual analogue scale (VAS) and CPR and ESR were measured by blood testing. As some patients in the trials crossed-over to the active treatment, the researchers pre-selected 12 weeks from baseline to assess responses. Study medications included methotrexate and other disease-modifying antirheumatics.
The data set included 788 patients (82% women) with a mean age of 51 years. There was a statistically significant reduction in pain intensity (-14mm, 95% CI – 12 to 16 mm), CRP levels (-0.51mg/dl 95% CI -0.47 to -0.56) and ESR (-11mm/h, 95% CI -10 to -12), all with p values less than 0.001. Commenting on their findings, the authors were surprised by the clinically meaningful reductions in subjective and objective measures observed in placebo participants, indicating that it was more than a psychological placebo effect.
Furthermore, the cautioned that simply using objective rather than subjective measures in future trials would not necessarily lead to clearer results and that there was a need to further understand the effect of confounding factors and baseline covariates in placebo responders.
Vollett J et al. Assessment of placebo response in objective and subjective outcome measures in rheumatoid arthritis clinical trials. JAMA Netw Open 2020;3(9):e2013196. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.13196