Friday, July 15, 2016

Protocol amendment in clinical trials

For every clinical trial, study protocol is the centerpiece and study protocol dictates how the study should be conducted, what data will be collected, and how the data will be analyzed. Usually, after the IND (Investigational New Drug) including the study protocol is filed and FDA does not provide any comments (or put it on clinical hold) within 30 days, the sponsor will consider the study protocol is granted approval to proceed. However, it is very common that during the study conduct, some aspects of the study protocol needs to be changed or amended.

Protocol amendment is guided by the Code of Federal Register (CFR) section 312.30 Protocol amendments. CFR states the followings regarding the protocol amendments:
(b) Changes in a protocol. (1) A sponsor shall submit a protocol amendment describing any change in a Phase 1 protocol that significantly affects the safety of subjects or any change in a Phase 2 or 3 protocol that significantly affects the safety of subjects, the scope of the investigation, or the scientific quality of the study. Examples of changes requiring an amendment under this paragraph include:
(i) Any increase in drug dosage or duration of exposure of individual subjects to the drug beyond that in the current protocol, or any significant increase in the number of subjects under study.
(ii) Any significant change in the design of a protocol (such as the addition or dropping of a control group).
(iii) The addition of a new test or procedure that is intended to improve monitoring for, or reduce the risk of, a side effect or adverse event; or the dropping of a test intended to monitor safety.
One question that is often asked is whether or not the protocol needs to be amended if the only changes to the protocol are about the statistical analyses or the sample size. The changes in statistical analysis or the sample size can be considered as changes “that significantly affects the scope of the investigation, or scientific quality of the study”, therefore subject to the protocol amendment. Notice the word ‘significantly’, which implies that some changes may be allowed without amending the protocol, for example small increase (usually less than 10% of total subjects) in sample size, and changes in the statistical analysis methods for secondary or exploratory endpoints, 

In the latest issue of “Therapeutic Innovation and Regulatory Science”, Getz et al published a paper “the impact of protocol amendment on clinical trial performance and cost”. They found that 57% of protocols had at least one substantial amendment, and nearly half (45%) of these amendments were deemed ‘avoidable’. Phase II and III protocols had a mean number of 2.2 and 2.3 global amendments, respectively. My experiences with clinical trials in rare diseases indicates even a high percentage (almost every protocol) of protocols with amendments and a high number of protocol amendments.
The protocol amendments has great impact on the conduct of the clinical trials:
  • Significant impact on the cost
  • Significant impact on the timeline
  • Significant impact on the resources
  • May have significant impact on the credibility of the study results
  • May result in more protocol deviations

“Unplanned delays, disruptions, and costs associated with implementing protocol amendments have long challenged drug development companies and their contract research partners. Despite a rigorous and extensive internal review and approval process, the majority of finalized protocols are amended multiple times – particularly those directing later-stage phase III studies.
 The frequency of protocol amendments varies by therapeutic area and is highly correlated with more scientifically and operationally complex protocols. Increased amendment frequency per protocol is associated with protocols that have a higher relative number of protocol procedures and eligibility criteria, and more investigative sites dispersed across more countries.
Amendments are implemented for a wide variety of reasons, including the introduction of new standards of care, changes to medications permitted before and during the clinical trial, the availability of new safety data, and requests from regulatory agencies and other oversight organizations (eg, ethical review boards). The top reason for amending a protocol is to modify study volunteer eligibility criteria due to changes in study design strategy and difficulties recruiting patients. “
Some large pharmaceutical companies start to look at the impact of the protocol amendment on the overall cost and the timeline. I even heard (unconfirmed) that GSK used the number of protocol amendment as one of the performance evaluation criteria. The less number of the protocol amendments, the better the performance is.

The number of protocol amendments may be the results of a specific study design. A recent discussion about the phase I dose cohort expansion study results in unlimited number of protocol amendments. This specific design has been discussed in my previous posting. As an example, a dose cohort expansion study by Merck has 50 protocol amendments and still counting.

Adaptive design has been a hot topic in clinical trial field for last ten years. The enthusiasm about the adaptive design has died down a little bit except in oncology area. One of the key advantages for adaptive design is to implement the changes based on pre-specified criteria and therefore avoid the protocol amendment. For example, if all criteria for pruning the treatment arms or for increasing the sample size are pre-specified, when the criteria are met, there is no need for protocol amendment to implement the changes. This could be good in saving the time/cost, but may be bad due to the loss in learning opportunities.  

For traditional study designs, it is always desirable to minimize the number of the protocol amendments. In reality, the protocol amendments are ubiquitous. The reason for protocol amendments may include the followings (it is not intended to be an exclusive list).
  • Lack of internal expertise in the therapeutics area
  • Lack of consultation from external experts
  • Lack of Engagement with steering committee
  • Lack of engagement with CRO who may have the first hand experiences about the sites.
  • Lack of experience from other countries – standard care may be very different in other countries
  • Too late in engaging the statisticians – statistician should engage in the study design including endpoint selection, not just calculating the sample size.
  • Sign off the final protocol too early, for example the protocol was signed off before pre-IND meeting with FDA
  • Submitting the final protocol when the concept protocol, protocol synopsis, or draft protocol suffice
  • Inadequate or unrealistic inclusion/exclusion criteria
  • Lack of quality control in protocol review / approval process.
It is often that the protocol amendment is triggered by the following – eventually the protocol may go through several round of amendments before the first patients is enrolled into the study.
  • Protocol amendment after FDA pre-IND meeting
  • Protocol amendment per external committees requests – such as Data Monitoring Committee (DMC), Steering Committee
  • Protocol amendment after the investigator meeting
  • Protocol amendment after FDA’s IND comments
  • Protocol amendment due to the difficulties in patient enrollment
  • Protocol amendment after blinded interim analysis
  • Protocol amendment due to expansion in the number of countries
For multi-national clinical trials, there may be situations that a particular country's regulatory authority will require a slight deviation to an IND study protocol. This may be implemented through country-specific protocol amendments. However, for "country-specific" protocol amendments for international studies, if the data will support a marketing application, FDA will want to know what was done differently in those countries, so the amendments would need to be submitted to FDA. If the study is under an IND at the non-U.S. sites, then these amendments would need to be submitted as specified under 21 CFR 312.30. If the international sites are not officially under the IND, this information would need to accompany the data in the marketing application at the very least.

It is not a good idea to have a country specific protocol amendment with significant deviation to an IND study protocol. For example, I used to work on a randomized, placebo controlled study where the regulatory authority in one of the targeted countries did not approve the inclusion of the placebo arm in the study. I was asked if a country-specific protocol could be used so that the placebo arm could be dropped from the protocol for this specific country. In this case, the deviation to the IND study protocol seems to be too big. The country-specific protocol is not a good solution and this specific country may need to be excluded from the study participation.

A small tip for CRF/eCRF revision due to the protocol amendment :
When inclusion/exclusion criteria are revised in protocol amendment, to avoid the potential impact on the CRF data collection and the downstream activities, it is better to:
  • Keep the inclusion / exclusion number intact (i.e., skip the number) if one or more of them are removed, for example if the inclusion criteria #3 is removed, the amended protocol will have inclusion criteria 1, 2, 4, 5 (i.e., #3 is skipped).
  • Add additional inclusion/exclusion criteria after the last existing inclusion or exclusion riterion if additional inclusion/exclusion criteria need to be added, 

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Some Blinding Techniques in Clinical Trials

In randomized controlled clinical trials, the blinding is one of the key components. The purpose of the blinding to the treatment assignment is to avoid the conscious or unconscious biases in assessing the efficacy and safety endpoints, therefore, to maintain the integrity of the study. How much important of the blinding? Look at the investigator initiated studies, early phase trials – many of them had positive results, but later was demonstrated untrue.

In terms of the blinding technique, researchers should look for 3 qualities: it must successfully conceal the group allocation; it must not impair the ability to accurately assess outcomes; and it must be acceptable to the individuals that will be assessing outcomes. In some clinical trials, not all these three qualities can be met.

Based on how the blinding is maintained, the clinical trials can be categorized as open-label study, single-blind study, and double-blind study.

The open label study (may be called 'open study' in EU countries) is a study with both the investigator and the subject knowing the treatment the subject is receiving. The open label study can be a study without any control group or can be a randomized, controlled, open label study.

The single blind study is a study with investigator knowing the treatment assignment and with the subject not knowing which treatment he/she is receiving.

The double blind study is a study with both investigator and subject not knowing which treatment the subject is receiving.

  • The blinding is defined based on whether or not the investigator and subject know the treatment assignment, however, in industry, additional parties who are involved in the managing and conducting the clinical trials may also be blinded to the treatment assignment. For example, in double-blind studies, the study team on the sponsor side, the CRO, and vendors are usually also blinded.

  • There is an extended term ‘triple blind study' which is defined as a double-blind study in which, in addition, the identities of those enrolled in the study and control groups and/or the details about the nature of the interventions (experimental medications), are withheld from the statistician(s) who conduct the analysis of the data. Since the study statisticians (with exception of the DMC statisticians) are part of the study team and usually remain blinded to the treatment assignments during the study, the ‘double blind study’ is usually operated as a triple blind study in practice. This is why we rarely see the term ‘triple blind study’ is actually used in clinical trials.

  • In practice, for a single blind study, it is usually better to be conservative to treat the single blind study as if a double blind study for the study teams.
The blinding is usually easy to operate if the investigational products are pills. The pills for investigational products and the control products can be manufactured to be identical in size, color, smell,...   There are clinical trials where the comparison involves different route of drug administrations, different type of surgical procedures, or different devices. In these situations, the blinding of the treatment assignments seems to be impossible. However, this may not be entirely true. There are still some techniques or approaches that can be employed to have certain levels of the blinding to minimize the biases in assessing the efficacy and safety endpoints. 

Using sham treatment: Sham treatment is an inactive treatment or procedure (usually a medical procedure) that is intended to mimic as closely as possible a therapy in a clinical trial. Sham treatment is given to the subjects in the control group to mimic the investigational treatment group. With the use of the sham treatment, a seemly impossibly blinded study can now be blinded. Here are some examples that sham treatment is used in the study. 

Separating the treating physician and the evaluation or examining physician: in clinical trials where a separate physician other than the treating physician or investigator is employed to assess the efficacy or safety. The treating physician and the examining physician are separate and do not communicate about the assessment results. Treating physician can be unblinded to treatment assignment, but the examining physician is blinded. Therefore, the blinding is maintained. This type of arrangements is useful and necessary in neurological trials especially in multiple sclerosis trials where many subjective scales are used. In EMA (2006) GUIDELINEON CLINICAL INVESTIGATION OF MEDICINAL PRODUCTS FOR THE TREATMENT OF MULTIPLESCLEROSIS, the following is described:
“As several subjective decisions and assessments will have to be performed, with a considerable risk of bias, all possible efforts should be done to keep the design double blind. In cases where double blind is not possible (some active comparator trials, some easily unblinded treatments,...) a blind observer design with a blinded examining physician different than the treating physician may be used. All measures to ensure reliable single blind evaluation should be guaranteed (i.e. patches that cover injection sites to hide reddening or swellings, education of examining physicians,…).”
Similarly, in FDA's guidance for industry "Rare Diseases: Common Issues in Drug Development", it stated: 

...As another example, effective blinding of treatments can reduce concern about bias in the subjective aspects of an assessment, as can conduct of endpoint evaluation by people not involved in other aspects of the trial (e.g., radiologists, exercise testers).

Some of the examples are: 

Central reader with the blinded clinical data: using central reader for image endpoints where the central reader is blinded to the clinical data to avoid the biases. Additional blinding can also be employed through blinding of the baseline image and the subsequent images so that the changes (for example the tumor size) assessed by the central reader can be more reliable.

"In unblinded clinical trials, clinical information may bias a site-based image interpretation because the expected relation of clinical features to outcome is known and, therefore, local reading will raise concern about potential unblinding. A centralized image interpretation process, fully blinded, may greatly enhance the credibility of image assessments and better ensure consistency of image assessments. Some imaging modalities also may prove vulnerable to site-specific image quality problems, and a centralized imaging interpretation process may help minimize these problems. For example, the National Lung Screening Trial’s experience with computed tomography of the chest suggested that centralized image quality monitoring was important to the reduction of imaging defects (Gierada, Garg, et al. 2009). Hence, a centralized image interpretation process may be used to help control image quality as well as to provide the actual imaging-based endpoint measurements."
"In a time-sequential presentation, a subject’s complete image set (from baseline through the follow-up evaluations) is shown in the order in which the images were obtained. In this process (unless prespecified and justified in the charter), the reader does not initially know the total number of time points in each subject’s image set.
 In a hybrid, randomized image presentation, a subject’s complete image set (or only the postbaseline images) are shown fully randomized. After the read results have been locked for each time point, the images are shown again in known chronological order for re-read. Changes in any of the randomized assessments are tracked and highlighted in the final assessment. In within-subject-control trials (e.g., comparative imaging), images obtained before and after the investigational drug should be presented in fully randomized unpaired fashion and in randomized paired fashion in two separate image evaluations. The minimum number of images in each randomized block necessary to minimize recall should be considered."
Firewall to prevent the sponsor from performing the aggregate analysis: Building a firewall between the sponsor and the Data Monitoring Committee is a technique that is necessary to make sure that the study integrity is maintained. The firewall between the sponsor the investigator/clinical research organization can also be implemented in an open label study or single-blind study so that the sponsor is prevented to access the cumulative data for the primary efficacy endpoint for analysis. The primary efficacy endpoint information is accessible to the investigator and the CROs, but withheld from the sponsor. While the investigator and CRO may have some biases due to knowing the treatment assignment, but the biases from the sponsor side may be prevented.

Additional reading:

1.      Kenneth F Schulz, David A Grimes (2002) Blinding in randomised trials: hiding who got what
2.      Karanicolas et al (2009) Blinding:Who, what, when, why, how?