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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

School Winner: The healing power of what we believe

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    01 Dec

    Science fact

    Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy. 

    Find out more

    nazifa-khanom-the-ncs15c-1-nazifa-khanom-the-ncsIt is said that in the English Language, many of the words and phrases we express come from the imagination of the great literature playwright Shakespeare. My favourite that I have come across so far is: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” This statement made in the play Hamlet, made me wonder about a topic that is prominent in science today: the placebo effect. PLACEBO: "a substance given to someone who is told that it is a particular medicine, either to make that person feel as if they are getting better or to compare the effect of the particular medicine when given to others" Cambridge English dictionary The placebo effect has caused much debate over the years due to the ethical issues it raises. However, there have been many cases and examples that appear to support the use of this ‘fake medicine’. One historic example is related to the army doctor Henry Beecher, who had his nurses supply a saline solution injection to injured soldiers as his quantity of morphine was extremely scarce during the Second World War II.

    He found that it worked for many soldiers as they did start to feel better and recover from their injuries.

    However, the effectiveness of these placebo medicines is dependent on many factors. Pills that are a flat are deemed less effective than capsules but capsules are deemed less effective than injections. Also, the higher the quantity of the ‘medicine’ the greater effect it has on a patient. Aside from reducing the use of scarce medicine, placebos have also been used as a control for clinical drug testing by giving half of the test subjects the new drug and the other half a placebo. Although this may seem to provide accurate results and comparisons, it has been argued that it would be much more beneficial for drug companies to give half the test subjects an old drug for the same purpose rather than a placebo to make comparisons on how effective the new drug is.

    So why do we not encourage the use of placebos in clinical care?

    Well, the major problem we have to acknowledge is that it's pretty much the equivalent of a doctor lying to their patient which violates the trust that a patient has with them and also undermines the credibility of a doctor. Despite this, BBC news reported that in a survey, it was discovered that 97% of GPs have prescribed a placebo at least once. So, next time you get a prescription think about whether or not it's really medicine to make you feel better or just a little sugar pill that you believe will make you feel better.

    Nazifa Khanom
    The NCS (Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre)
    "My name is Nazifa and I am a year 12 student currently studying Biology, Chemistry, Maths and English Literature. I would like to pursue a career in pharmacy."