Research And Denial At St Jude Medical 2

Research and development is the cornerstone of medical progress, but sometimes R&D turns into its evil twin brother, research and denial.

Yesterday I reported on the the RESPECT (Randomized Evaluation of Recurrent Stroke Comparing PFO Closure to Established Current Standard of Care Treatment) trial presented at the TCT meeting in Miami. The trial missed its primary endpoint, and although there were definite hints of possible benefit in the trial, most outside observers seemed to agree that the trial did not establish a firm basis for the routine clinical use of PFO closure devices in stroke. FDA approval of the device based on RESPECT seems unlikely.

This wasn’t the first we’d heard of RESPECT. Last summer, as I reported here, during an earnings call, St. Jude CEO Dan Starks gave a preview of the RESPECT results: “we are optimistic that these will be favorable results,” he said. Then, yesterday, the company doubled down on its position and issued a press release stating that the trial “provides clinical evidence of risk reduction” and offers “compelling evidence” for use of the St. Jude device “over conventional medical management alone.” A St Jude spokesman told me that the company “absolutely intends to move forward with our regulatory process and will file our PMA submission” in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Deepak Bhatt, an influential interventional cardiologist at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s hospital, offered a very reasonable assessment of the trial in an interview with Bloomberg News: “We need a definitive trial of this approach if it’s going to be broadly used for PFO closure. Anecdotally, there are patients who seem to benefit. It’s unfortunate that none of the trials have been able to absolutely nail that down.”

The stock market provided further evidence that St. Jude’s view of the trial was not the prevailing view. Despite what the company called “compelling evidence,” St. Jude’s stock price dropped 3.6% when the news of RESPECT was released.

In contrast to St. Jude, Gore, which is conducting REDUCE, a separate study of its own device for PFO closure, said that the RESPECT data “suggest [my emphasis] closure therapy for PFO may be beneficial, but further research is required.” Gore reaffirmed its intent to complete the REDUCE trial and pursue the indication for PFO closure. Of course, by the time REDUCE is completed there’s no guarantee that Gore won’t enter its own reality distortion field. Commercial pressures can be a heavy burden on the objective assessment of reality. But for now Gore’s perspective is sensible.

Closing the Hole in Medical Progress

The mutation of research and development into research and denial has worse consequences than a drop in stock price. It can paralyze medical progress. For more than a decade the value of PFO closure in stroke has been an unanswered question. Trial enrollment has been notoriously slow and difficult. The main reason is that many interventional cardiologists don’t want to randomize their patients because they strongly believe, despite the lack of evidence, in the value of PFO closure. So expensive procedures continue to be performed, despite a lack of evidence, and despite the likelihood that good evidence will ever emerge. It’s a frustrating siutation.

Earlier this year, in an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, S. Claiborne Johnston wrote about the harmful effect that off-label use of PFO closure devices has on research. He recommended that reimbursement for PFO closure be limited to patients participating in a clinical trial. Seems like a good idea to me.

During the 9 years it took for the results of this trial [CLOSURE 1] to be reported, approximately 80,000 patients have had a patent foramen ovale closed with the use of a device at an average cost of $10,000 per procedure. Even if only half these patients were treated by this method for the purpose of preventing stroke, it would suggest that during that period of time $400 million was spent on a procedure that had no apparent benefit, to say nothing of the potential clinical risks involved. By limiting the use of device closure to within the remaining clinical trials, such an expense could be curtailed and completion of these trials might be accelerated. In this setting, a strategy of withholding reimbursement for unproven device therapy unless such treatment is part of a randomized trial seems justified.

 

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TCT: Two PFO Closure Trials Miss Primary Endpoints 1

Two trials presented today at the TCT meeting in Miami testing the benefits of PFO closure in patients with cryptogenic stroke have failed to convincingly demonstrate any significant  benefit for the controversial procedure.

The RESPECT (Randomized Evaluation of Recurrent Stroke Comparing PFO Closure to Established Current Standard of Care Treatment) trial randomized 980 patients  to PFO closure with the Amplatzer PFO Occluder device or medical therapy. According to the lead investigator John Carroll, the rate of recurrent stroke was low in both arms of the trial: 1.6% in the closure group and 3% in the medical group.

This difference vetween the groups did not achieve significance in the intention-to-treat (ITT) analyses:

  • ITT raw count: 46% risk reduction (p=0.157)
  • ITT Kaplan Meier: 50.8% risk reduction, (p= 0.083

However, statistical significance was achieved in the per protocol and as treated analyses:

  • Per protocol Kaplan Meier: 63.4 risk reduction (p=0.032)
  • As treated Kaplan Meier: 72.7% (p=0.007)

The investigators reported that there were very few device- or procedure-related complications. There were a similar amount of serious adverse events in the two groups (23% in the device group and 21.6% in the control group).

The investigators concluded that “for carefully selected patients with history of cryptogenic stroke and PFO, the RESPECT Trial provides evidence of benefit in stroke risk reduction from closure with the AMPLATZER PFO Occluder over medical management alone.”

“The optimal secondary prevention strategy following a cryptogenic ischemic stroke in patients who are found to have a PFO has been unknown,” said Carroll, in a TCT press release. “This need to know is particularly intense for young stroke patients who have no or minimal traditional risk factors for ischemic stroke, yet face a risk of recurrent stroke for many decades. RESPECT makes progress in both removing the ‘unknown’ or cryptogenic cause of some strokes and providing high quality data from a large, long-term randomized trial.”

A similar pattern occurred in the smaller PC (Percutaneous Closure of Patent Foramen Ovale versus Medical Treatment in Patients with Cryptogenic Embolism) Trial, in which 414 patients were randomized to PFO closure or medical therapy. The primary endpoint, the composite of death, non-fatal stroke, TIA, and peripheral embolism, occurred in 3.4% of the treatment group compared to 5.2% of the control group (relative risk reduction: 37%, p=0.34). The incidence of stroke was 0.5% versus 2.4% (relative risk reduction 80%, p=0.14).

Study investigator Stephan Windecker said that because of a lower than expected rate of events after a mean followup of 4 years the trial ended up being underpowered to detect meaningful differences. He concluded that “the observed difference in stroke… may be clinically relevant if confirmed in further studies.”

We need a definitive trial of this approach if it’s going to be broadly used for PFO closure,” said Deepak Bhatt, in an interview with Bloomberg News. “Anecdotally, there are patients who seem to benefit. It’s unfortunate that none of the trials have been able to absolutely nail that down.”

Earning Respect?

As reported here over the summer, during an earnings call St. Jude CEO Dan Starks told investors that the results of RESPECT were “favorable.” As I wrote then, the danger of this sort of statement  is that the company’s initial evaluation of the results may clash with the eventual judgement of the medical community. Companies are simply in no position to be objective about their own products or trials. Caution in this case was particularly warranted because of the sorry history of negative trials in this area, as highlighted by the failed MIST trial of the STARFlex Septal Closure System. The results of the RESPECT and PC Trials demonstrate that the communication of medical information should not be left in the hands of industry. (St. Jude stock dropped 3.5% on the announcement of the trial results.)
Click to read the TCT press releases on RESPECT and PC…