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Severe adverse events seen in placebo arm of cancer clinical trials



A significant number of patients who receive only a placebo in a clinical trial of cancer immunotherapy still experience grade three or grade four adverse events, research suggests.

Writing in JAMA Network Open, researchers reported the outcomes of a systematic review and meta-analysis of 10 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, phase 3 trials of targeted therapy or immunotherapy drugs for cancer, in which patients in the placebo group were treated only with placebo and no other anticancer drugs.

Among the 4,873 patients who were randomized to placebo, a mean of 85.1% experienced some sort of placebo adverse event. The overall incidence of grade 3-4 placebo adverse events was 18% but was as high as 25% in two trials – one in renal cell carcinoma and one in melanoma – and as low as 11% in one trial.

Hypertension was the most frequent grade 3-4 adverse event among patients on placebo, experienced by a mean of 2.8% of patients, followed by fatigue (1%) and diarrhea (0.8%).

Neither route of administration nor cancer type made a significant difference in terms of the rate of placebo adverse events. No deaths attributed to the placebo were reported, but the mean rate of discontinuation due to placebo adverse events was 3.9%, and was higher than 5% for four trials.

The median duration of placebo administration ranged from 10 to 15 months for all but one study, and the authors noted that the longer the placebo exposure, the higher the proportion of grade 3-4 adverse events.

The investigators – Matías Rodrigo Chacón, MD, and his colleagues in the research department at the Argentine Association of Clinical Oncology – said that studies with a lower incidence of grade 3-4 adverse events in the treatment arm also had a lower incidence of grade 3-4 placebo adverse events, while the higher incidences of placebo adverse events were seen in studies that also had a higher incidence of treatment-related adverse events.

They suggested that “contextual factors,” such as the information given during the informed consent process, could contribute to negative expectations of adverse events.

“To illustrate this point, in an RCT [randomized controlled trial] of aspirin as a treatment for unstable angina, a higher incidence of gastrointestinal irritation was reported in centers that specified its potential occurrence in the informed consent compared with research units that did not include that risk,” they wrote.

They also suggested that patients may experience anxiety associated with the uncertainty about whether they had received active treatment or placebo, and this could also affect their distress levels.

No conflicts of interest were declared.

SOURCE: Chacón M et al. JAMA Network Open. 2018 Dec 7. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.5617.

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