Progression Free Survival (PFS) in Oncology Trials
Progression Free Survival (PFS) continues to be a frequently used endpoint in oncology trials. It is the time from randomization to the first of either objectively measured tumor progression or death from any cause. It is a surrogate outcome because it does not directly assess mortality, morbidity, quality of life, symptom relief or functioning. Even if a valid trial reports a statistically significant improvement in PFS and the reported effect size is large, PFS only provides information about biologic activity of the cancer and tumor burden or tumor response. Even though correlational analysis has shown associations between PFS and overall survival (OS) in some cancers, we believe that extreme caution should be exercised when drawing conclusions about efficacy of a new drug. In other words, PFS evidence alone is insufficient to establish a clinically meaningful benefit for patients or even a reasonable likelihood of net benefit. Many tumors do present a significant clinical burden for patients; however, clinicians frequently mistakenly believe that simply having a reduction in tumor burden equates with clinical benefit and that delaying the growth of a cancer is a clear benefit to patients.
PFS has a number of limitations which increases the risk of biased results and is difficult for readers to interpret. Unlike OS, PFS does not “identify” the time of progression since assessment occurs at scheduled visits and is likely to overestimate time to progression. Also, it is common to stop or add anti-cancer therapies in PFS studies (also a common problem in trials of OS) prior to documentation of tumor progression which may confound outcomes. Further, measurement errors may occur because of complex issues in tumor assessment. Adequate blinding is required to reduce the risk of performance and assessment bias. Other methodological issues include complex calculations to adjust for missed assessments and the need for complete data on adverse events.
Attrition and assessment bias are made even more difficult to assess in oncology trials using time-to-event methodologies. The intention-to-treat principle requires that all randomly assigned patients be observed until they experience the end point or the study ends. Optimal follow-up in PFS trials is to follow each subject to both progression and death.
FDA approval based on PFS may result in acceptance of new therapies with greater harms than benefits. The limitations listed above, along with a concern that investigators may be less willing to conduct trials with OS as an endpoint once a drug has been approved, suggest that we should use great caution when considering evidence from studies using PFS as the primary endpoint. We believe that PFS should be thought of as any other surrogate marker—i.e., it represents extremely weak evidence (even in studies judged to be at low risk of bias) unless it is supported by acceptable evidence of improvements in quality of life and overall survival.
When assessing the quality of a trial using PFS, we suggest the following:
- Remember that although in some cases PFS appears to be predictive of OS, in many cases it is not.
- In many cases, improved PFS is accompanied by unacceptable toxicity and unacceptable changes in quality of life.
- Improved PFS results of several months may be due to methodological flaws in the study.
- As with any clinical trial, assess the trial reporting PFS for bias such as selection, performance, attrition and assessment bias.
- Compare characteristics of losses (e.g., due to withdrawing consent, adverse events, loss to follow-up, protocol violations) between groups and, if possible, between completers and those initially randomized.
- Pay special attention to censoring due to loss-to-follow-up. Administrative censoring (censoring of subjects who enter a study late and do not experience an event) may not result in significant bias, but non-administrative censoring (censoring because of loss-to-follow-up or discontinuing) is more likely to pose a threat to validity.
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