Wednesday, February 27, 2013

It's Not Them, It's You

Are competing trials slowing yours down? Probably not.

If they don't like your trial, EVERYTHING ELSE IN
THE WORLD is competition for their attention.
Rahlyn Gossen has a provocative new blog post up on her website entitled "The Patient Recruitment Secret". In it, she makes a strong case for considering site commitment to a trial – in the form of their investment of time, effort, and interest – to be the single largest driver of patient enrollment.

The reasoning behind this idea is clear and quite persuasive:
Every clinical trial that is not yours is a competing clinical trial. 
Clinical research sites have finite resources. And with research sites being asked to take on more and more duties, those resources are only getting more strained. Here’s what this reality means for patient enrollment. 
If research site staff are working on other clinical trials, they are not working on your clinical trial. Nor are they working on patient recruitment for your clinical trial. To excel at patient enrollment, you need to maximize the time and energy that sites spend recruiting patients for your clinical trial.
Much of this fits together very nicely with a point I raised in a post a few months ago, showing that improvements in site enrollment performance may often be made at the expense of other trials.

However, I would add a qualifier to these discussions: the number of active "competing" trials at a site is not a reliable predictor of enrollment performance. In other words, selecting sites who are not working on a lot of other trials will in no way improve enrollment in your trial.

This is an important point because, as Gossen points out, asking the number of other studies is a standard habit of sponsors and CROs on site feasibility questionnaires. In fact, many sponsors can get very hung up on competing trials – to the point of excluding potentially good sites that they feel are working on too many other things.

This came to a head recently when we were brought in to consult on a study experiencing significant enrollment difficulty. The sponsor was very concerned about competing trials at the sites – there was a belief that such competition was a big contributor to sluggish enrollment.

As part of our analysis, we collected updated information on competitive trials. Given the staggered nature of the trial's startup, we then calculated time-adjusted Net Patient Contributions for each site (for more information on that, see my write-up here).

We then cross-referenced competing trials to enrollment performance. The results were very surprising: the quantity of other trials had no effect on how the sites were doing.  Here's the data:

Each site's enrollment performance as it relates to number of other trials it's running.
Competitive trials do not appear to substantially impact rates of enrollment.
 Each site is a point. Good sites (higher up) and poor enrollers (lower) are virtually identical in terms of how many concurrent trials they were running.

Since running into this result, I've looked at the relationship between the number of competing trials in CRO feasibility questionnaires and final site enrollment for many of the trials we've worked on. In each case, the "competing" trials did not serve as even a weak predictor of eventual site performance.

I agree with Gossen's fundamental point that a site's interest and enthusiasm for your trial will help increase enrollment at that site. However, we need to do a better job of thinking about the best ways of measuring that interest to understand the magnitude of the effect that it truly has. And, even more importantly, we have to avoid reliance on substandard proxy measurements such as "number of competing trials", because those will steer us wrong in site selection. In fact, almost everything we tend to collect on feasibility questionnaires appears to be non-predictive and potentially misleading; but that's a post for another day.

[Image credit: research distractions courtesy of Flikr user ronocdh.]

Friday, February 8, 2013

The FDA’s Magic Meeting

Can you shed three years of pipeline flab with this one simple trick?

"There’s no trick to it ... it’s just a simple trick!" -Brad Goodman

Getting a drug to market is hard. It is hard in every way a thing can be hard: it takes a long time, it's expensive, it involves a process that is opaque and frustrating, and failure is a much more likely outcome than success. Boston pioneers pointing their wagons west in 1820 had far better prospects for seeing the Pacific Ocean than a new drug, freshly launched into human trials, will ever have for earning a single dollar in sales.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the semi-official industry estimates are: about 6-8 years, a couple billion dollars, and more than 80% chance of ultimate failure.

Is there a secret handshake? Should we bring doughnuts?
(We should probably bring doughnuts.)
Finding ways to reduce any of those numbers is one of the premier obsessions of the pharma R&D world. We explore new technologies and standards, consider moving our trials to sites in other countries, consider skipping the sites altogether and going straight to the patient, and hire patient recruitment firms* to speed up trial enrollment. We even invent words to describe our latest and awesomest attempts at making development faster, better, and cheaper.

But perhaps all we needed was another meeting.

A recent blog post from Anne Pariser, an Associate Director at FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research suggests that attending a pre-IND meeting can shave a whopping 3 years off your clinical development timeline:
For instance, for all new drugs approved between 2010 and 2012, the average clinical development time was more than 3 years faster when a pre-IND meeting was held than it was for drugs approved without a pre-IND meeting. 
For orphan drugs used to treat rare diseases, the development time for products with a pre-IND meeting was 6 years shorter on average or about half of what it was for those orphan drugs that did not have such a meeting.
That's it? A meeting? Cancel the massive CTMS integration – all we need are a couple tickets to DC?

Pariser's post appears to be an extension of an FDA presentation made at a joint NORD/DIA meeting last October. As far as I can tell, that presentation's not public, but it was covered by the Pink Sheet's Derrick Gingery on November 1.  That presentation covered just 2010 and 2011, and actually showed a 5 year benefit for drugs with pre-IND meetings (Pariser references 2010-2012).

Consider the fact that one VC-funded vendor** was recently spotted aggressively hyping the fact that its software reduced one trial’s timeline by 6 weeks. And here the FDA is telling us that a single sit-down saves an additional 150 weeks.

In addition, a second meeting – the End of Phase II meeting – saves another year, according to the NORD presentation.  Pariser does not include EOP2 data in her blog post.

So, time to charter a bus, load up the clinical and regulatory teams, and hit the road to Silver Spring?

Well, maybe. It probably couldn't hurt, and I'm sure it would be a great bonding experience, but there are some reasons to not take the numbers at face value.
  • We’re dealing with really small numbers here. The NORD presentation covers 54 drugs, and Pariser's appears to add 39 to that total. The fact that the time-savings data shifted so dramatically – from 5 years to 3 – tips us off to the fact that we probably have a lot of variance in the data. We also have no idea how many pre-IND meetings there were, so we don't know the relative sizes of the comparison groups.
  • It's a survivor-only data set. It doesn't include drugs that were terminated or rejected. FDA would never approve a clinical trial that only looked at patients who responded, then retroactively determined differences between them.  That approach is clearly susceptible to survivorship bias.
  • It reports means. This is especially a problem given the small numbers being studied. It's entirely plausible that just one or two drugs that took a really long time are badly skewing the results. Medians with quartile ranges would have been a lot more enlightening here.
All of the above make me question how big an impact this one meeting can really have. I'm sure it's a good thing, but it can't be quite this amazing, can it?

However, it would be great to see more of these metrics, produced in more detail, by the FDA. The agency does a pretty good job of reporting on its own performance – the PDUFA performance reports are a worthwhile read – but it doesn't publish much in the way of sponsor metrics. Given the constant clamor for new pathways and concessions from the FDA, it would be truly enlightening to see how well the industry is actually taking advantage of the tools it currently has.

As Gingery wrote in his article, "Data showing that the existing FDA processes, if used, can reduce development time is interesting given the strong effort by industry to create new methods to streamline the approval process." Gingery also notes that two new official sponsor-FDA meeting points have been added in the recently-passed FDASIA, so it would seem extremely worthwhile to have some ongoing, rigorous measurement of the usage of, and benefit from, these meetings.

Of course, even if these meetings are strongly associated with faster pipeline times, don’t be so sure that simply adding the meeting will cut your development so dramatically. Goodhart's Law tells us that performance metrics, when turned into targets, have a tendency to fail: in this case, whatever it was about the drug, or the drug company leadership, that prevented the meeting from happening in the first place may still prove to be the real factor in the delay.

I suppose the ultimate lesson here might be: If your drug doesn't have a pre-IND meeting because your executive management has the hubris to believe it doesn't need FDA input, then you probably need new executives more than you need a meeting.

[Image: Meeting pictured may not contain actual magic. Photo from FDA's Flikr stream.]

*  Disclosure: the author works for one of those.
** Under the theory that there is no such thing as bad publicity, no link will be provided.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Our New Glass House: GSK's Commitment to AllTrials

No stones, please.

Yesterday, Alec Gaffney was kind enough to ask my opinion on GSK's signing on to the AllTrials initiative to bring full publication of clinical trial data. Some of my comments made it into his thorough and excellent article on the topic. Today, it seems worthwhile to expand on those comments.

1. It was going to happen: if not now, then soon

As mentioned in the article, I – and I suspect a fair number of other people in the industry -- already thought that full CSR publication was inevitable.  In the last half of 2012, the EMA began moving very decisively in the direction of clinical trial results publication, but that's just the culmination of a long series of steps towards greater transparency in the drug development process. Starting with the establishment of the registry in 1997, we have witnessed a near-continuous increase in requirements for public registration and reporting around clinical trials.

It's important to see the AllTrials campaign in this context. If AllTrials didn't exist, something very much like it would have come along. We had been moving in this direction already (the Declaration of Helsinki called for full publication 4 years before AllTrials even existed), and the time was ripe. In fact, the only thing that I personally found surprising about AllTrials is that it started in the UK, since over the past 15 years most of the advances in trial transparency had come from the US.

2. It's a good thing, but it's not earth-shattering

Practically speaking, releasing the full CSR probably won't have a substantial impact on everyday clinical practice by doctors. The real meat of the CSR that doctors care about has already been mandated on – full results posting was required by FDAAA in 2008.

There seems to be pretty clear evidence that many (perhaps most) practicing physicians do not read the complete articles on clinical trials already, but rather gravitate to abstracts and summary tables. It is highly doubtful, therefore, that a high percentage of physicians will actually read through a series of multi-hundred-page documents to try to glean fresh nuances about the drugs they prescribe.

Presumably, we'll see synopsizing services arise to provide executive summaries of the CSR data, and these may turn out to be popular and well-used. However, again, most of the really important and interesting bits are going to be on in convenient table form (well, sort-of convenient – I admit I sometimes have a fair bit of difficulty sifting through the data that’s already posted there).

3. The real question: Where will we go with patient-level data?

In terms of actual positive impact on clinical research, GSK's prior announcement last October – making full patient-level data available to researchers – was a much bigger deal. That opens up the data to all sorts of potential re-analyses, including more thorough looks at patient subpopulations.

Tellingly, no one else in pharma has followed suit yet. I expect we’ll see a few more major AllTrials signatories in fairly short order (and I certainly intend to vigorously encourage all of my clients to be among the first wave of signatories!), but I don’t know that we’ll see anyone offer up the complete data sets.  To me, that will be the trend to watch over the next 2-3 years.

[Image: Transparent abode courtesy of flikr user seier+seier.]

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The World's Worst Coin Trick?

Ben Goldacre – whose Bad Pharma went on sale today – is fond of using a coin-toss-cheating analogy to describe the problem of "hidden" trials in pharmaceutical clinical research. He uses it in this TED talk:
If it's a coin-toss conspiracy, it's the worst
one in the history of conspiracies.
If I flipped a coin a hundred times, but then withheld the results from you from half of those tosses, I could make it look as if I had a coin that always came up heads. But that wouldn't mean that I had a two-headed coin; that would mean that I was a chancer, and you were an idiot for letting me get away with it. But this is exactly what we blindly tolerate in the whole of evidence-based medicine. 
and in this recent op-ed column in the New York Times:
If I toss a coin, but hide the result every time it comes up tails, it looks as if I always throw heads. You wouldn't tolerate that if we were choosing who should go first in a game of pocket billiards, but in medicine, it’s accepted as the norm. 
I can understand why he likes using this metaphor. It's a striking and concrete illustration of his claim that pharmaceutical companies are suppressing data from clinical trials in an effort to make ineffective drugs appear effective. It also dovetails elegantly, from a rhetorical standpoint, with his frequently-repeated claim that "half of all trials go unpublished" (the reader is left to make the connection, but presumably it's all the tail-flip trials, with negative results, that aren't published).

Like many great metaphors, however, this coin-scam metaphor has the distinct weakness of being completely disconnected from reality.

If we can cheat and hide bad results, why do we have so many public failures? Pharmaceutical headlines in the past year were mostly dominated by a series of high-profile clinical trial failures. Even drugs that showed great promise in phase 2 failed in phase 3 and were discontinued. Less than 20% of drugs that start up in human testing ever make it to market ... and by some accounts it may be less than 10%. Pfizer had a great run of approvals to end 2012, with 4 new drugs approved by the FDA (including Xalkori, the exciting targeted therapy for lung cancer). And yet during that same period, the company discontinued 8 compounds.

Now, this wasn't always the case. Mandatory public registration of all pharma trials didn't begin in the US until 2005, and mandatory public results reporting came later than that. Before then, companies certainly had more leeway to keep results to themselves, with one important exception: the FDA still had the data. If you ran 4 phase 3 trials on a drug, and only 2 of them were positive, you might be able to only publish those 2, but when it came time to bring the drug to market, the regulators who reviewed your NDA report would be looking at the totality of evidence – all 4 trials. And in all likelihood you were going to be rejected.

That was definitely not an ideal situation, but even then it wasn't half as dire as Goldacre's Coin Toss would lead you to believe. The cases of ineffective drugs reaching the US market are extremely rare: if anything, FDA has historically been criticized for being too risk-averse and preventing drugs with only modest efficacy from being approved.

Things are even better now. There are no hidden trials, the degree of rigor (in terms of randomization, blinding, and analysis) has ratcheted up consistently over the last two decades, lots more safety data gets collected along the way, and phase 4 trials are actually being executed and reported in a timely manner. In fact, it is safe to say that medical research has never been as thorough and rigorous as it is today.

That doesn't mean we can’t get better. We can. But the main reason we can is that we got on the path to getting better 20 years ago, and continue to make improvements.

Buying into Goldacre's analogy requires you to completely ignore a massive flood of public evidence to the contrary. That may work for the average TED audience, but it shouldn't be acceptable at the level of rational public discussion.

Of course, Goldacre knows that negative trials are publicized all the time. His point is about publication bias. However, when he makes his point so broadly as to mislead those who are not directly involved in the R&D process, he has clearly stepped out of the realm of thoughtful and valid criticism.

I got my pre-ordered copy of Bad Pharma this morning, and look forward to reading it. I will post some additional thoughts on the book as I get through it. In the meantime,those looking for more can find a good skeptical review of some of Goldacre's data on the Dianthus Medical blog here and here.

[Image: Bad Pharma's Bad Coin courtesy of flikr user timparkinson.]