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Does the placebo effect modulate drug bioavailability? Randomized cross-over studies of three drugs

  • Hammami, Muhammad M1, 2
  • Yusuf, Ahmed1
  • Shire, Faduma S.1
  • Hussein, Rajaa1
  • Al-Swayeh, Reem1
  • 1 King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, Clinical Studies and Empirical Ethics Department, P O Box # 3354 (MBC 03), Riyadh, 11211, Saudi Arabia , Riyadh (Saudi Arabia)
  • 2 Alfaisal University College of Medicine, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia , Riyadh (Saudi Arabia)
Published Article
Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine
BioMed Central
Publication Date
May 23, 2017
DOI: 10.1186/s12952-017-0075-2
Springer Nature


BackgroundMedication effect is the sum of its drug, placebo, and drug*placebo interaction effects. It is conceivable that the interaction effect involves modulating drug bioavailability; it was previously observed that being aware of caffeine ingestion may prolong caffeine plasma half-life. This study was set to evaluate such concept using different drugs.MethodsBalanced single-dose, two-period, two-group, cross-over design was used to compare the pharmacokinetics of oral cephalexin, ibuprofen, and paracetamol, each described by its name (overt) or as placebo (covert). Volunteers and study coordinators were deceived as to study aim. Drug concentrations were determined blindly by in-house, high performance liquid chromatography assays. Terminal-elimination half-life (t½) (primary outcome), maximum concentration (Cmax), Cmax first time (Tmax), terminal-elimination-rate constant (λ), area-under-the-concentration-time-curve, to last measured concentration (AUCT), extrapolated to infinity (AUCI), or to Tmax of overt drug (AUCOverttmax), and Cmax/AUCI were calculated blindly using standard non-compartmental method. Covert-vs-overt effect on drug pharmacokinetics was evaluated by analysis-of-variance (ANOVA, primary analysis), 90% confidence interval (CI) using the 80.00–125.00% bioequivalence range, and percentage of individual pharmacokinetic covert/overt ratios that are outside the +25% range.ResultsFifty, 30, and 50 healthy volunteers (18%, 10%, and 6% females, mean (SD) age 30.8 (6.2), 31.4 (6.6), and 31.2 (5.4) years) participated in 3 studies on cephalexin, ibuprofen, and paracetamol, respectively. Withdrawal rate was 4%, 0%, and 4%, respectively. Eighteen blood samples were obtained over 6, 10, and 14 h in each study period of the three drugs, respectively. ANOVA showed no significant difference in any pharmacokinetic parameter for any of the drugs. The 90% CIs for AUCT, AUCI, Cmax, AUCOverttmax, and Cmax/AUCI were within the bioequivalence range, except for ibuprofen Cmax (76.66–98.99), ibuprofen Cmax/AUCI (77.19–98.39), and ibuprofen (45.32–91.62) and paracetamol (51.45–98.96) AUCOverttmax. Out of the 126 individual covert/overt ratios, 2.0–16.7% were outside the +25% range for AUCT, 2.0–4.2% for AUCI, 25.0–44.9% for Cmax, 67.3–76.7% for AUCOverttmax, and 45.8–71.4% for Tmax.ConclusionsThis study couldn’t confirm that awareness of drug ingestion modulates its bioavailability. However, it demonstrates the trivial effect of blinding in bioequivalence studies and the extent of bio-variability that would be expected when comparing a drug product to itself.Trial identifier: NCT01501747 (registered Dec 26, 2011).

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