Paving the way towards better clinical trials

“The annals of ALS clinical trials is strewn with failed studies. Only two out of more than 70 clinical trials have been positive, and even these showed only very modest benefit.  Is this dismal record strictly due to the extraordinary complexity of neurodegenerative disease in general, and ALS in particular?  Or is it due to methodological flaws that could be repaired?” 

Robert G Miller, Professor of Neurology, Stanford University

Although there is not much we can do about disease complexity, improving the way treatments are trialed is something that can be achieved. Imagine a world without clinical trials, where independent companies or individuals would be allowed to sell their self-made ‘drugs’ without any evidence that they were ever used on anyone with the disease, let alone that they would improve one’s condition. No one would know what the drug is (which could simply be a water solution), how it works and whether as soon as the drug is taken, we would be poisoned.

Thankfully, this is not the case and clinical trials, although not perfect, are considered the gold standard for approving any treatment.  However, there are still some improvements that can be done to make trials easier to access and provide more accurate estimates of drugs’ effectiveness much faster.

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Clinical trials: Highlights from Glasgow

This blog is part of the ‘Highlights from Glasgow’ collection of articles, where you can read about the content of some of the talks and posters presented at the 29th International Symposium on ALS/MND.

In the Clinical trials and trial design (4B) session we heard from two speakers looking at ways to improve current design of clinical trials. In his plenary talk, Mahesh Parmar (C20) provided his perspective on the necessity of changes from his experience working on cancer trials, highlighting that any efforts to improve clinical trials should be focused on Phase 3 where the most money and time is spent. One solution that stuck with a lot of clinicians attending Prof Parmar’s talk was the design used in the STAMPEDE trial, a large clinical trial assessing effectiveness of new treatments for people affected by prostate cancer, which has been running since 2005. The innovation of this approach is the ongoing protocol that allows to test multiple treatments within the same established clinical trial, allowing new drug candidates to be tested (relatively) straight away, avoiding the creation of a brand new clinical trial. This design improves efficacy of testing new treatments, systematic approach to testing, and access to a large pool of participants who could take part in multiple treatment trials over time.

Brian Dickie, the Director of Research Development at the MND Association said: “Prof Parmar’s presentation generated a lot of interest amongst clinicians who are regularly involved in MND trials and there was a strong feeling that this is the direction that we need to be taking with MND as it could increase the efficiency and reduce the cost. That said, it will take a while to put the building blocks in place and we certainly wouldn’t want to hold up trials that are already in advances stages of planning, so I would expect to see a gradual introduction of changes to trials design over the coming years.”

You can learn more about the multi-arm multi-stage trial design from Prof Parmar here.

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