Rambam Grand Rounds

Randomized Trials Built on Sand: Examples from COPD, Hormone Therapy, and Cancer

Samy Suissa


The randomized controlled trial is the fundamental study design to evaluate the effectiveness of medications and receive regulatory approval. Observational studies, on the other hand, are essential to address post-marketing drug safety issues but have also been used to uncover new indications or new benefits for already marketed drugs. For example, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), effective for menopausal symptoms, was reported in several observational studies during the 1980s and 1990s to also significantly reduce the incidence of coronary heart disease. This hypothesis was disproved in 2002 by the large-scale Women’s Health Initiative randomized trial. An example of a new indication for an old drug is that of metformin, an anti-diabetic medication, which is being hailed as a potential anti-cancer agent, primarily on the basis of several recent observational studies that reported impressive reductions in cancer incidence and mortality. These observational studies have also sparked the conduct of large-scale randomized controlled trials in cancer. We show in this paper that the spectacular effects on new indications or new outcomes reported in many observational studies in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), HRT, and cancer are the result of time-related biases, such as immortal time bias, that tend to seriously exaggerate the benefits of a drug and that eventually disappear with the proper statistical analysis. In all, while observational studies are central to assess the effects of drugs, their proper design and analysis are essential to avoid bias. The scientific evidence on the potential beneficial effects in new indications of existing drugs will need to be more carefully assessed before embarking on long and expensive unsubstantiated trials.

Rambam Maimonides Med J 2012;3(3):e0014