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  • The Tribulations of Trials

Photonics Spectra
Sep 1999
Stephanie A. Weiss, Executive Editor

It's human nature to try to thwart a double-blind clinical trial of a new drug: Am I taking the real drug or a placebo? A pharmaceutical company is investigating ways of using photonics to ensure that nobody finds the answer.

Deep inside a pharmaceutical plant, technicians court eyestrain, poring over labels for bottles, inhalers, cartons and other packages of drugs destined for clinical trials.

Many of these clinical trials are double-blind: Neither the physician nor the patient knows what drug the patient is taking -- or how much. This type of trial attempts to counteract the placebo effect that occurs when the human mind effects a cure simply because it believes that a drug is at work -- even when there is no drug.

Keeping these trials "blind" is no simple task, thanks to human beings' innate curiosity. Comparing two labels or packages might show a change in printer ribbons or label placement that might indicate the package contents are different.

The primary objective of technicians in AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals' Investigational Products Section in Newark, Del., is to ensure that nobody notices a difference from one box to the next. Quality assurance employees elsewhere in the pharmaceutical industry and in unrelated packaging applications face similar responsibilities. In this case, smiles reflect the technicians' joy over a new photonics co-worker who is taking over their least-favorite chore. Their experience is a reality check for those who think machine vision just plugs in and works; their reaction to the technology is illuminating for naysayers who say it's more trouble than it's worth.

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