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Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2010 Mar;22(3):285-e81. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2982.2009.01440.x. Epub 2009 Dec 22.

Serum correlates of the placebo effect in irritable bowel syndrome.

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  • 1Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.


BACKGROUND In diseases defined primarily by the subjective nature of patient self-report, placebo effects can overwhelm the capacity of randomized controlled trials to detect medication-placebo differences. Moreover, it is unclear whether such placebo effects represent genuine psychobiological phenomena or just shifts in selective attention. Knowledge of predictors of the placebo response could improve the design of clinical trials and the delivery of personalized medical care. METHODS In patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a subset of our previous study that were randomized to placebo treatment (sham acupuncture) or no-treatment group (waitlist), we tested an enriched panel of 10 serum biomarkers at the enrolment and the 3rd week of intervention, using a multiplex electrochemiluminescent immunoassay. KEY RESULTS More pronounced changes overtime in serum levels of osteoprotegerin (OPG) have been found in patients who received placebo treatment compared with the waitlist group (P = 0.039). Moreover, serum levels of OPG at baseline were found to be higher (P = 0.0167) in patients who subsequently achieved adequate relief (AR) of their IBS symptoms, independently of their treatment group. Besides, serum levels of TNF-related weak inducer of apoptosis (TWEAK) at baseline were also higher (P = 0.0144) in patients who reported AR and in particular in those who received the placebo treatment. CONCLUSIONS & INFERENCES These two measurable biological parameters associated with placebo, namely serum OPG and TWEAK, provide a proof of principle for discovering putative molecular signatures of placebo response in IBS and perhaps in other illnesses with patient self-reported outcomes.

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