On 1 May, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics held a roundtable discussion with the Health Research Authority (HRA) on the issue of placebo surgery.

In its 2012 report, Novel neurotechnologies: intervening in the brain, the Council identified the ethical issues of ‘sham’ (or placebo) surgery, in particular in relation to developments within the field of neural stem cell therapies, and the prospect of clinical trials in this area.

In the report, the Council recommended that guidance should be developed on the kinds of circumstances in which placebo neurosurgery may, or may not, be an appropriate part of clinical trials.

The workshop looked at the issue of placebo surgery more widely, including neurosurgery and orthopaedic surgery, bringing together surgeons, researchers, regulators, research ethics committees and patient representatives.

Discussions focused on whether and when placebo surgery is appropriate; the concerns of those carrying out and receiving the procedures; the current regulatory framework within which research is carried out; and whether further clarification, guidance or advice is needed.