Sunday, March 24, 2013

Why Most Clinical Trials Fail: The Case of Eritoran and Immunomodulatory Therapies for Sepsis

The experimenter's view of the trees.
The ACCESS trial of eritoran in the March 20, 2013 issue of JAMA can serve as a springboard to consider why every biological and immunomodulatory therapy for sepsis has failed during the last 30 years.  Why, in spite of extensive efforts spanning several decades have we failed to find a therapy that favorably influences the course of sepsis?  More generally, why do most clinical trials, when free from bias, fail to show benefit of the therapies tested?

For a therapeutic agent to improve outcomes in a given disease, say sepsis, a fundamental and paramount precondition must be met:  the agent/therapy must interfere with part of the causal pathway to the outcome of interest.  Even if this precondition is met, the agent may not influence the outcome favorably for several reasons:
  • Causal pathway redundancy:  redundancy in causal pathways may mitigate the agent's effects on the downstream outcome of interest - blocking one intermediary fails because another pathway remains active
  • Causal factor redundancy:  the factor affected by the agent has both beneficial and untoward effects in different causal pathways - that is, the agent's toxic effects may outweigh/counteract its beneficial ones through different pathways
  • Time dependency of the causal pathway:  the agent interferes with a factor in the causal pathway that is time dependent and thus the timing of administration is crucial for expression of the agent's effects
  • Multiplicity of agent effects:  the agent has multiple effects on multiple pathways - e.g., HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors both lower LDL cholesterol and have anti-inflammatory effects.  In this case, the agent may influence the outcome favorably, but it's a trick of nature - it's doing so via a different mechanism than the one you think it is.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Falling to Pieces: Hemolysis of the Hemoglobin Hypothesis

A paramount goal of this blog is to understand the evidence as it applies to the epistemology of medical knowledge, hypothesis testing, and overarching themes in the so-called evidence based medicine movement.  Swedberg et al report the results of a large[Amgen funded] randomized controlled trial of darbepoetin [to normalize hemoglobin values] in congestive heart failure (published online ahead of print this weekend) which affords us the opportunity to explore these themes afresh in the context of new and prior data.

The normalization heuristic, simply restated, is the tendency for all healthcare providers including nurses, respiratory therapists, nutritionists, physicians, and pharmacists among others, to believe intuitively or explicitly that values and variables that can be measured should be normalized if interventions to this avail are at their disposal.  As an extension, modifiable variables should be measured so that they can be normalized.  This general heuristic is deeply flawed, and indeed practically useless as a guide for clinical care.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

HFOV Fails as a Routine Therapy for moderate-to-severe ARDS. Musings on the Use and Study of “Rescue Therapies”.

Ferguson et al report the results of the OSCILLATE randomized controlled trial of HFOV for moderate to severe ARDS in this week’s NEJM.  (A similar RCT of HFOV, the OSCAR trial, is reported in the same issue but I limit most of my commentary to OSCILLATE because I think it’s a better and more interesting trial and more data are presented in its report.)  A major question is answered by this trial, but an important question remains open:  is HFOV an acceptable and rational option as “rescue therapy” in certain patients with “refractory” ARDS?  I remain undecided about this question, and its implications are the subject of this post.

Before I segue to the issue of the study and efficacy of rescue therapies, let’s consider some nuances of this trial:

·         Patients in both groups received high doses of sedatives (average midazolam dose for the first week: 8.3 mg/hour in the HFOV group versus 5.9 mg/hour in the control group – a 41% increase in HFOV).  Was this “too much” sedation?  What if propofol had been used instead?

·         Patients in the HFOV group received significantly more paralytics.  If you believe the Papazian data (I don’t) paralytics should confer a mortality benefit in early ARDS and this should contribute to LOWER mortality in the HFOV group.  What if paralytics had been used less frequently?

·         Does HFOV confer a nocebo effect by virtue of its “unnatural” pattern of ventilation, its “requirement” for more sedation and paralysis, or the noise associated with its provision, or its influence on the perceptions of caregivers and patient’s families (recognizing that deaths after withdrawal of life support were similar in HFOV versus conventional ventilation (55 versus 49%, P=0.12)?

·         The respiratory frequency in the HFOV group (5.5 Hz) was at the low end of the usual range (3-15 Hz).  If a higher frequency (and a lower tidal volume) had been delivered, would the result have changed?  (Probably not.)

·         What about the high plateau pressure in the control group (32 cm H2O) despite the low tidal volume of 6.1 ml/kg PBW?  Why was not tidal volume reduced such that plateau pressure was lower than the commonly recommended target of 30 cm H2O?  Did this make a difference?  (Probably not.)

·         Why was mortality higher in the minority (12%) of control patients who were changed to HFOV (71% mortality)?  Is this related to confounding by indication or reflective of the general harmful effects of HFOV?

·         Why was there a difference between the OSCILLATE study and the OSCAR study, reported in the same issue, in terms of mortality?  Because OSCILLATE patients were sicker?  Because OSCAR control patients received higher tidal volumes, thereby curtailing the advantage of conventional ventilation?  I find this last explanation somewhat compelling.