Is more better? An analysis of toxicity and response outcomes from dose-finding clinical trials in cancer

Kristian Brock, Victoria Homer, Gurjinder Soul, Claire Potter, Cody Chiuzan, Shing Lee

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BACKGROUND: The overwhelming majority of dose-escalation clinical trials use methods that seek a maximum tolerable dose, including rule-based methods like the 3+3, and model-based methods like CRM and EWOC. These methods assume that the incidences of efficacy and toxicity always increase as dose is increased. This assumption is widely accepted with cytotoxic therapies. In recent decades, however, the search for novel cancer treatments has broadened, increasingly focusing on inhibitors and antibodies. The rationale that higher doses are always associated with superior efficacy is less clear for these types of therapies.

METHODS: We extracted dose-level efficacy and toxicity outcomes from 115 manuscripts reporting dose-finding clinical trials in cancer between 2008 and 2014. We analysed the outcomes from each manuscript using flexible non-linear regression models to investigate the evidence supporting the monotonic efficacy and toxicity assumptions.

RESULTS: We found that the monotonic toxicity assumption was well-supported across most treatment classes and disease areas. In contrast, we found very little evidence supporting the monotonic efficacy assumption.

CONCLUSIONS: Our conclusion is that dose-escalation trials routinely use methods whose assumptions are violated by the outcomes observed. As a consequence, dose-finding trials risk recommending unjustifiably high doses that may be harmful to patients. We recommend that trialists consider experimental designs that allow toxicity and efficacy outcomes to jointly determine the doses given to patients and recommended for further study.

Original languageEnglish
Article number777
JournalBMC Cancer
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2021


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