Tuesday, May 23, 2017

REMOTE Redux: DTP trials are still hard

Maybe those pesky sites are good for something after all. 

It's been six years since Pfizer boldly announced the launch of its "clinical trial in a box". The REMOTE trial was designed to be entirely online, and involved no research sites: study information and consent was delivered via the web, and medications and diaries were shipped directly to patients' homes.

Despite the initial fanfare, within a month REMOTE's registration on ClinicalTrials.gov was quietly reduced from 600 to 283. The smaller trial ended not with a bang but a whimper, having randomized only 18 patients in over a year of recruiting.

Still, the allure of direct to patient clinical trials remains strong, due to a confluence of two factors. First, a frenzy of interest in running "patient centric clinical trials". Sponsors are scrambling to show they are doing something – anything – to show they have shifted to a patient-centered mindset. We cannot seem to agree what this means (as a great illustration of this, a recent article in Forbes on "How Patients Are Changing Clinical Trials" contained no specific examples of actual trials that had been changed by patients), but running a trial that directly engages patients wherever they are seems like it could work.

The less-openly-discussed other factor leading to interest in these DIY trials is sponsors' continuing willingness to heap almost all of the blame for slow-moving studies onto their research sites. If it’s all the sites’ fault – the reasoning goes – then cutting them out of the process should result in trials that are both faster and cheaper. (There are reasons to be skeptical about this, as I have discussed in the past, but the desire to drop all those pesky sites is palpable.)

However, while a few proof-of-concept studies have been done, there really doesn't seem to have been another trial to attempt a full-blown direct-to-patient clinical trial. Other pilots have been more successful, but had fairly lightweight protocols. For all its problems, REMOTE was a seriously ambitious project that attempted to package a full-blown interventional clinical trial, not an observational study.

In this context, it's great to see published results of the TAPIR Trial in vasculitis, which as far as I can tell is the first real attempt to run a DIY trial of a similar magnitude to REMOTE.

TAPIR was actually two parallel trials, identical in every respect except for their sites: one trial used a traditional group of 8 sites, while the other was virtual and recruited patients from anywhere in the country. So this was a real-time, head-to-head assessment of site performance.

And the results after a full two years of active enrollment?
  • Traditional sites: 49 enrolled
  • Patient centric: 10 enrolled
Even though we’re six years later, and online/mobile communications are even more ubiquitous, we still see the exact same struggle to enroll patients.

Maybe it’s time to stop blaming the sites? To be fair, they didn’t exactly set the world on fire – and I’m guessing the total cost of activating the 8 sites significantly exceeded the costs of setting up the virtual recruitment and patient logistics. But still, the site-less, “patient centric” approach once again came up astonishingly short.

ResearchBlogging.org Krischer J, Cronholm PF, Burroughs C, McAlear CA, Borchin R, Easley E, Davis T, Kullman J, Carette S, Khalidi N, Koening C, Langford CA, Monach P, Moreland L, Pagnoux C, Specks U, Sreih AG, Ytterberg S, Merkel PA, & Vasculitis Clinical Research Consortium. (2017). Experience With Direct-to-Patient Recruitment for Enrollment Into a Clinical Trial in a Rare Disease: A Web-Based Study. Journal of medical Internet research, 19 (2) PMID: 28246067