ARLINGTON, VirginiaResearch in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is possible and feasible, said Andrew Vickers, DPhil, but the key issues are practical and not conceptual. Those who work in CAM rarely have the research skills, the technicians, or the access to suitable patients that mainstream institutions or researchers have, he pointed out.
Dr. Vickers, assistant attending research methodologist, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, discussed methodologic issues in CAM research with others at a session of the Comprehensive Cancer Care 2000 conference, jointly sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Dr. Vickers pointed out that survival is a statistically complex outcome, and it is difficult to judge anecdotal data without high-quality research.
He noted the differences between phase I and II trials of CAM and conventional therapies. A phase I CAM trial would not likely use a substance whose toxicity was very high, nor would toxicity be viewed as a surrogate for efficacy, as it might for conventional chemotherapy.
In phase II CAM trials, Dr. Vickers said that a tumor response, especially a rapid one, is unlikely, so alternative endpoints, like progression or survival, are needed.
Ultimately, however, some form of randomized (or at least controlled) experiment is required to establish the validity of the intervention, he emphasized.
If there are criticisms of CAM research, said Carmen Tamayo, MD, director, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Division, Foresight Links Corporation, they concern the placebo effect, short-term trials, and reporting bias. Doctors and patients have to ask: Is the outcome applicable elsewhere? Is it reproducible? Have cultural differences been accounted for? she said.
Dr. Tamayo believes that objective information can still be gained from trials that are not randomized and double-blinded. At the very least, she said, observational studies can influence the design of clinical trials.
Alejandro Jadad, MD, DPhil, who has written a book on randomized controlled trials, said that while such trials remain the gold standard by which to judge the quality of medical research, even they must be used cautiously.
Dr. Jadad is chief of the Health Information Research Unit, and director of the McMaster Evidence-Based Practice Center at McMaster University.
He argued that very few trials address issues important to stakeholdersie, patients. Too often they are designed to meet only the needs of researchers or government regulators.
There is an instinctive selection of the most promising therapies, which results in excellent phase I/II trials, and phase III trials that look good vs placebo, he said. Once approval is granted, marketing begins (more often, directly to consumers)and then defensive postmarketing research gets underway.
We should concentrate instead on pragmatic trials to help patients and purchasers, he said. This would include not only excellent phase I and II trials but also phase III trials that test the therapy against both placebo and the best available alternatives.
The So What? Test
In any case, he said, every test should have to pass the So what? test. Does it work? Does it work better than other options? Is it equally effective, but safer? Or as safe but more effective? Or the same but cheaper? Is the effect worthwhile?
Finally there is the question of bias, in its many forms. Randomized controlled trials tend to favor interventions, he said. Studies funded by industry have been shown to be more poorly designed than federally sponsored trials and to be more likely to favor the sponsors product.
Negative studies are less likely to be published, and more studies with positive results are likely to be published in English. One way to overcome this particular bias, he said, would be to have compulsory registration of clinical trials, now the case only with federally sponsored research.
Finally, Dr. Jadad said, the interpretation of trials is vulnerable to manipulation by readers. Journalists tend to favor positive results, as do desperate patients. Even scientific readers can introduce a biased view of trial reports when professional rivalry, territoriality, the influence of prestigious journals, and the desire to just do something are strong.