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Building a Better Trial—But is it Ethical?

How can researchers test the effects of drugs without compromising their results, or their ethics?

Rachael Moeller Gorman // Summer 2006
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Accounting for the varying (and newly discovered) effects of placebos could improve randomized controlled trials. But doing so may involve deceiving test subjects, which defies the Declaration of Helsinki, the World Medical Association’s ethical principles governing research on humans. This creates a catch-22: Deceive subjects and you may glean lifesaving information about the drugs being tested (though at the cost of behaving unethically); tell them exactly what you’re up to and you’ll probably compromise the outcome of the trial, because the information alters subjects’ expectations, a major part of the placebo effect.

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The Placebo Problem


In some trials, subjects have responded just as well to sugar pills as they have to real treatment. So how can you trust any trial results?

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