From the Journals

Are head-to-head cancer drug trials rigged?


More than half of studies testing anticancer drugs against each other have rules with regard to dose modification and growth support that favor the experimental drug arm, a new analysis suggests.

“We found it sobering that this practice is so common,” Timothée Olivier, MD, with Geneva University Hospital and the University of California, San Francisco, said in an interview.

Trials may be “rigged” in a way where the new therapy appears more effective than if the trial would have been designed with fairer rules, he explained.

This leaves open the question of whether new drugs are truly superior to older ones or if instead different outcomes are caused by more aggressive dosing or growth factor support, the investigators said.

Dr. Olivier, with UCSF coinvestigators Alyson Haslam, PhD, and Vinay Prasad, MD, reported their findings online in the European Journal of Cancer.

‘Highly concerning’

Different drug modification rules or growth factor support guidance may affect the results of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of testing new cancer agents.

For their study, Dr. Olivier and colleagues did a cross-sectional analysis of all 62 head-to-head registration RCTs that led to Food and Drug Administration approval between 2009 and 2021.

All of the trials examined anticancer drugs in the advanced or metastatic setting where a comparison was made between arms regarding either dose modification rules or myeloid growth factors recommendations.

The researchers assessed imbalance in drug modification rules, myeloid growth factor recommendations, or both, according to prespecified rules.

They discovered that 40 of the 62 trials (65%) had unequal rules for dose medication, granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) use, or both.

Six trials (10%) had rules favoring the control arm, while 34 (55%) had rules favoring the experimental arm. Among these, 50% had unequal drug modification rules, 41% had unequal G-CSF rules, and 9% had both.

Dr. Olivier said in an interview the results are “highly concerning because when you are investigating the effect of a new drug, you don’t want to have a false sense of a drug’s effect because of other factors not directly related to the drug’s efficacy.”

“If you introduce unfair rules about dose modification or supporting medication that favors the new drug, then you don’t know if a positive trial is due to the effect of the new drug or to the effect of differential dosing or supporting medication,” he added.

Blame industry?

Dr. Olivier said the fact that most registration trials are industry-sponsored is likely the primary explanation of the findings.

“Industry-sponsored trials may be designed so that the new drug has the best chance to get the largest ‘win,’ because this means more market share and more profit for the company that manufactures the drug. This is not a criticism of the industry, which runs on a business model that naturally aims to gain more market share and more profit,” Dr. Olivier said.

“However, it is the role and duty of regulators to reconcile industry incentives with the patients’ best interests, and there is accumulating data showing the regulators are failing to do so,” he added.

Addressing this problem will likely take buy-in from multiple stakeholders.

Awareness of the problem is a first step and understanding the influence of commercial incentives in drug development is also key, Dr. Olivier said.

Institutional review boards and drug regulators could also systematically evaluate drug dosing modification and supportive medication rules before a trial gets underway.

Regulators could also incentivize companies to implement balanced rules between arms by not granting drug approval based on trials suffering from such flaws.

“However, financial conflict of interest is present at many levels of drug development, including in drug regulation,” Dr. Olivier noted.

He pointed to a recent study that found when hematology-oncology medical reviewers working at the FDA leave the agency, more than half end up working or consulting for the pharmaceutical industry.

Dr. Olivier wondered: “How can one fairly and independently appraise a medical intervention if one’s current or future revenue depends on its source?”

The study was funded by Arnold Ventures, through a grant paid to UCSF. Dr. Olivier and Dr. Haslam had no relevant disclosures. Dr. Prasad reported receiving royalties from Arnold Ventures.

A version of this article first appeared on

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