The XPRESS trial, published in AJRCCM Sept. 1st, (http://ajrccm.atsjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/176/5/483) was mandated by the FDA as a condition of the approval of drotrecogin-alfa for severe sepsis. According to the authors of this study, the basic jist is to see if heparin interferes with the efficacy of Xigris (drotrecogin-alfa) in severe sepsis. The trial is finally published in a peer-reviewed journal, although Lilly has been touting the findings as supportive of Xigris for quite a while already.
The stated hypothesis was that Xigris+placebo is equivalent to Xigris+heparin (LMWH or UFH). [Confirmation of this hypothesis has obvious utility for Lilly and users of this drug because it would allay concerns of coadministration of Xigris and heparinoids, the use of the latter which is staunchly entrenched in ICU practice).
The hypothesis was NOT that Xigris+heparin is superior to Xigris alone. If Lilly had thought this, they would have conducted a superiority trial. They did not. Therefore, they must have thought that the prior probability of superiority was low. If the prior probability of a finding (e.g., superiority) is low, we need a strong study result to raise the posterior probability into a reasonable range - that is, a powerful study which produces a very small p-value (e.g., <0.001)>
The design of this study and its very conception as an equivalence trial with a mortality endpoint is totally flawed. Equivalence was not demonstrated even with a design that would seem to favor its demonstration. (Interestingly, if a non-inferiority design had been chosen, superiority of Xigris+heparin would in fact have been demonstrated! [with 90, but NOT with 95% CIs] ).
The biggest problem I'm going to have is when the Kaplan-Meier curve presented in Figure 3A with its prominently featured "near miss" p-value of 0.09 is used as ammunition for the argument that Xigris+heparin trended toward superior in this study. If it had been a superiority trial, I would be more receptive of that trend. But you can't have your cake and eat it too. You either do a superiority trial, or you do an equivalence trial. In this case, the equivalence trial appeared to backfire.
Having said all that, I think we can be reassured that Xigris+heparin is not worse than Xigris+placebo and the concern that heparin abrogates the efficacy of Xigris should be mostly dispelled. And because almost all critically ill patients are at high frisk of DVT/PE, they should all be treated with heparinoids, and the administration of Xigris should not change that practice.
I just think we should stop letting folks get away with these non-inferiority/equivalence shenanigans. In this case, there is little ultimate difference. But in many cases a non-inferiority or equivalence trial such as this will allow the manufacture of a false reality. So I'll call this a case of "attempted manufacture of a false reality".
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