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Disability outcome measures in therapeutic trials of relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis: effects of heterogeneity of disease course in placebo cohorts


OBJECTIVES Recent phase III clinical trials of immunomodulatory therapies in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis have shown significant benefits of active treatment on relapse related end points, but effects on disability outcomes have been inconsistent. These apparent discrepancies could be due to differences in the clinical end points employed, the behaviour of placebo cohorts, or both.

METHODS Disability data from the placebo cohorts of two large phase III studies, the United States glatiramer acetate trial (Copolymer 1 Multiple Sclerosis Study Group) and the multinational interferon β-1a trial (PRISMS Study Group) were combined and masked (n=313). Two groups of disability outcome measures were assessed. Firstly, measures of disability change (2 year EDSS difference and area under the EDSS/time curve, AUC) were calculated. Secondly, conventional disease progression end points (“confirmed progression” and “worsening to EDSS 6.0”) were evaluated by using Kaplan-Meier analysis and compared with a categorical classification based on EDSS trends.

RESULTS The average increase in disability for the entire cohort as assessed by mean 2 year EDSS change (<0.5 EDSS point) or mean AUC (+0.57 EDSS-years) was small. For the “confirmed progression” end points, increasing the stringency of the definition lowered their incidence (from 32% with 1.0 point at 3 months, to 9% with 2.0 points at 6 months), but did not improve the positive predictive accuracy for “sustained progression” maintained to the end of the study. The error rate for this outcome was about 50%. Worsening to EDSS 6.0 was a more reliable end point, but had even lower sensitivity (incidence <10%). EDSS trend analysis showed markedly heterogeneous disease courses, which were then categorised into “stable” (26%), “relapsing-remitting” (59%), and “progressive” (15%) courses. Patients with the last course had deteriorated considerably by the end of 2 years (mean worsening of 2.0 EDSS points).

CONCLUSION In relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis treatment trials, the conventional measure of mean EDSS change has low sensitivity, whereas the widely applied confirmed progression end points have high error rates regardless of their definition stringency. Alternative methods with better data utilisation include AUC summary measures and categorical disease trend analysis. The heterogeneity of disability outcomes in short trials, combined with unreliable clinical end points, diminishes the credibility of therapeutic claims aimed at reducing irreversible neurological deficits. The behaviour of patients treated with placebo should be carefully analysed before conclusions are drawn on the efficacy of putative treatments.

  • multiple sclerosis
  • disability outcome measures
  • treatment trials

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