Defining Success in Clinical Trials: Is Learning Something Enough?

Posted by Judi Space on Thu,Jul 25, 2013 @ 06:00 PM

Avastin discussed at ASCOAt last month’s ASCO conference, rapt attention was given to a presentation on the clinical trial results for the drug Avastin for patients recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), according to an article by Clinton Leaf appearing in the New York Times, which is summarized below, with our comments added. The presentation by Dr. Mark R. Gilbert, professor of neuro-oncology at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, revealed earlier clinical trial results that were encouraging:  tumors shrank and the disease appeared to stall for months in two smaller single-arm studies.

No Difference

However, Dr. Gilbert’s larger double blind study of over 600 brain cancer patients found no difference in the survival rate for patients given a placebo with standard treatment vs. those given Avastin with standard treatment.  In effect, the larger, more reliable double blind study eliminated doubt as to the general effectiveness of the drug.   In other words, the trial was “a success” because it had a clear result, but we learned that the drug has no statistically significant impact on the disease as a whole. But is that enough for the trial to truly be deemed a success?

It depends on how you define success. On one hand, doctors have no additional information on how to successfully treat brain cancer as a result of the study. On the other, one possible solution has been eliminated, so doctors and pharmaceutical companies can continue their quest for an effective drug armed with the knowledge from the study.

Not so Fast

The problem is that it is not quite as cut and dried as all that. Some patients who take Avastin do significantly better than those who do not. However, the trial failed to reveal the responders that make this result possible. Despite 400 clinical trials over 16 years, no correlation has been made as to why Avastin works or fails to work in certain patients. Again, given that we don’t know, can we deem the trial a success?  

Individualized Factors May Hold the Key

Researchers are learning that individualized pathology and physiology may be significant factors in developing effective drugs for treating certain diseases.  The variability of tumors and cancers at the genetic level can be great, as can the way our genes affect our response to drugs. So the solution to some diseases may lie in identifying the drugs that best align with the individualized factors associated with a given disease.

Failure rates in clinical trials tend to increase significantly as the drug moves from phase I to phase II. In the final phase it is not unusual for trials to wholly contradict earlier trials, or for the benefits to be far less than what was first reported, according to a 2005 paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Ioannidis, an authority on statistical analysis.

The Difficulty of Matching Clinical Trial Populations to Patients

Rules governing statistical trial enrollment typically produce trial populations of younger and healthier members than those likely to use the drug. In addition, trial populations typically have had far less medical treatment. These factors combine to form somewhat of a mismatch between the trial population and patients. Given that the vast majority of drugs that enter clinical testing fail to get approved (95%), finding ways to match clinical trial participants with the appropriate genetic or molecular signature may be paramount to finding drugs that work.  

That’s the approach taken by Genentech in developing Herceptin, a breast cancer drug that targets tumor cells with an abundance of the HER2 protein. Small clinical trials were designed that enrolled only those with the required molecular or genetic signature. 60% of the new drugs in development at Genentech/Roche are being developed in concert with a diagnostic test to determine patients most likely to benefit. They did not go that route when they developed Avastin and tested it in patients with GBM.

Back to the Question at Hand

So, is it enough to simply learn something from a clinical trial, even if we don’t find a solution to treat a disease? Given that there is so much riding on finding drugs that improve and extend the lives of those suffering, anything that moves us forward, even if only eliminating what was thought to be a potential solution, is a step in the right direction.


Pennside Partners is a leading pharmaceutical and biotech consulting firm with over 25 years experience. They are headquartered in the United States, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.

Tags: FDA, Oncology, Targeted Therapy, Cancer Drug Development, Oncology Clinical Trial Design, Breast Cancer, Breast Cancer Drug Development, Breast Cancer Oncology, Glioblastoma, ASCO

NCI Improvements: Drug Development Opportunity for Pharma and Biotech

Posted by Judi Space on Tue,Mar 12, 2013 @ 06:00 PM

Three years ago the Institute of medicine declared that the nation’s cooperative group system for conducting clinical trials was so moribund as to not be an effective vehicle for the generation of scientific data in a timely fashion. In a report generated in 2010, the IOM recommended that the number of cooperative oncology groups be reduced from 10 down to 5[1], improve speed and efficacy of the trial processes as well as incorporate new scientific discovery into clinical protocols. Along with this, the report said it was critical to create a data platform that would assist in the administration of trials across all of the remaining cooperative groups. This would be a system to which both large academic centers and community cancer centers could adhere.

NCI Less of a Barrier; More of a Facilitator

To a large extent, the NCI was  a barrier to the conduct of clinical trials due to their role of providing oversight. The IOM report urged that NCI become part of the solution by helping to prioritize and design trials as well as directing patients to relevant studies so that enrolment could proceed more rapidly. In addition, CMS was tasked with removing barriers to enrollment by supporting appropriate costs associated with patient treatment during the trials.

Efforts Bearing Fruit

Now, nearly three years later, we can see the effects of this report. In a two day workshop[2] that took place in Washington last month, improvements in the national cooperative group trial system were documented[3]. Among the improvements noted:

  • The time between concept and activation of phase II trials sponsored by NCI has shrunk by more than a third. Trials not meeting timelines will be terminated!
  • Time to activation for phase III trials has been halved since the overhaul process began
  • The number of cooperative groups has actually been cut in half – now there are only 5
  • A common enrollment and data management system has been put into place
  • Patients can enroll 24/7 and they may participate in ANY Ph III trial in the system regardless of origin
  • There are now  standardized agreements for industry collaborations
  • A new  review process has been launched for grading the quality of trials
  • Integrated biospecimen banks are being created

Still to come are more innovative Ph II trials based on molecular biology of the tumors and the extensive use of biomarkers and genomic profiling.

Ecology of Clinical Trials

Community Cancer Centers are Key

The key to moving clinical research forward more rapidly will be enhanced participation of community cancer centers. Investigators at these sites are often hesitant to take part as many of the costs associated with the trials are not covered.  After more provisions of the Affordable Care Act go into effect, next January, this may no longer be a barrier. Federal law will require insurers cover the cost of routine patient care in clinical trials.

Design and Conduct of Trials Improving in UK As Well 

Interestingly, the US is not the only place that has had a sea change in the way it conducts clinical research for cancer. Over the same period, the UK’s National Health Service has recognized that clinical research is an important part of its mission, and therefore has provided incentives for patients to participate in trials. The key here is that cancer patients do not get access to novel agents unless they participate in the trials. The result is a trials network that rivals anything in the US but existing in a much smaller country.

 

Implications for Drug Development:

Drug approval process improving in the UK as well as the US

Pharma  and biotech companies can harness the power of the NCI to get things done faster than they have become accustomed to in the past, and the improvements will continue into the foreseeable future. This is also good news for cancer patients who will be able to access more cutting edge clinical trials no matter what part of the country they are from.

 


[1] http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2010/A-National-Cancer-Clinical-Trials-System-for-the-21st-Century-Reinvigorating-the-NCI-Cooperative/NCI%20Cancer%20Clinical%20Trials%202010%20%20Report%20Brief.pdf

[2] http://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/Disease/NCPF/2013-FEB-11/Agenda%20-%20IOM%20ASCO%20Implementation%20Workshop.pdf

[3] http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=18273


Pennside Partners is a leading pharmaceutical and biotech consulting firm with over 25 years experience. They are headquartered in the United States, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.

Tags: FDA, Drug Developers, Oncology, Predictive Biomarkers, Targeted Therapy, Data Standardization, NCI, Cancer Drug Development, Oncology Clinical Trial Design

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