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Clin Epidemiol. 2010; 2: 57–66.
Published online 2010 August 9.
PMCID: PMC2943189

Interpreting meta-analysis according to the adequacy of sample size. An example using isoniazid chemoprophylaxis for tuberculosis in purified protein derivative negative HIV-infected individuals



To illustrate the utility of statistical monitoring boundaries in meta-analysis, and provide a framework in which meta-analysis can be interpreted according to the adequacy of sample size. To propose a simple method for determining how many patients need to be randomized in a future trial before a meta-analysis can be deemed conclusive.

Study design and setting:

Prospective meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials (RCTs) that evaluated the effectiveness of isoniazid chemoprophylaxis versus placebo for preventing the incidence of tuberculosis disease among human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-positive individuals testing purified protein derivative negative. Assessment of meta-analysis precision using trial sequential analysis (TSA) with LanDeMets monitoring boundaries. Sample size determination for a future trials to make the meta-analysis conclusive according to the thresholds set by the monitoring boundaries.


The meta-analysis included nine trials comprising 2,911 trial participants and yielded a relative risk of 0.74 (95% CI, 0.53–1.04, P = 0.082, I2 = 0%). To deem the meta-analysis conclusive according to the thresholds set by the monitoring boundaries, a future RCT would need to randomize 3,800 participants.


Statistical monitoring boundaries provide a framework for interpreting meta-analysis according to the adequacy of sample size and project the required sample size for a future RCT to make a meta-analysis conclusive.

Keywords: meta-analysis, trial sequential analysis (TSA), randomized clinical trials (RCTs), isoniazid chemoprophylaxis, adequacy of sample size, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), tuberculosis, purified protein derivative negative


Meta-analyses of randomized clinical trials (RCTs) are considered the highest level of evidence for assessment of the benefits and harms of an intervention.1,2 While comprehensively conducted meta-analyses may provide strong inferences about the quality and generalizability of the available evidence,13 they can provide misleading or inadequate inferences about the reliability of the evidence, the consistency of evidence, and the definitive effectiveness of a treatment.411 This is particularly the case when an insufficient number of events and patients exist from trials that have been pooled.610,12,13

As with conventional RCTs, we require an estimate of the reliability of the evidence according to statistical inferences made possible through an adequate number of events and patients in the individual trials.14 Many now claim that it is unethical to conduct a clinical trial with an insufficient sample size, as inferences of effectiveness may be insufficient to make clinical recommendations.15 While we do not believe this is an issue of ethics,16 a similar clinical difficulty arises in interpreting meta-analysis if the analysis includes an insufficient number of trials, patients, and ultimately, events.68,1013 While sample size calculations are almost consistently mandated for single trials,17 there has been comparatively little discussion of the need for adequate power in a meta-analysis.

Systematic evaluations reveal that many published meta-analysis and systematic reviews are deemed inconclusive or moderately conclusive by authors.18 Meta-analyses are frequently updated and subjected to significance testing as new trials emerge. This scenario is akin to interim analyses and data monitoring in RCTs, where data safety monitoring committees (DSMBs) meet at planned and/or unplanned times to discuss if the interim results are sufficiently convincing to recommend termination of the trial and conclude that the experimental treatment is superior, equivalent, or inferior to the control treatment.68,10,12,13,19,20 In this setting, DSMBs rely on sample size calculations and use of formal monitoring boundaries to control the risk of false positive and overly positive findings caused by the play of chance (random error) and/or repeated significance testing (multiplicity).2022

Some argue that the reliability of the evidence in a meta-analysis should only be established in rigorous decision-making frameworks similar to those of DSMBs for single RCTs.6,7,19 The sample size required for a conclusive and reliable meta-analysis has typically been referred to as the required or optimal information size,68,10,11 The concatenation of meta-analysis, information size calculations and formal monitoring boundaries (or stopping rules), such as the Lan-DeMets alpha-spending monitoring boundary, has been dubbed trial sequential analysis (TSA) – analogous to group sequential analysis in single RCTs.10 A growing body of evidence from empirical studies, simulation studies, and application examples has underlined the importance of incorporating TSA to achieve reliable answers in meta-analysis and systematic reviews.69,12,13,2328 In addition, TSA may be useful for determining how many patients need to undergo further randomization before the meta-analysis can be deemed conclusive and reliable.8,10,12,13,19 Thus, determining the sample size of future RCTs in the setting of a prospective meta-analysis using TSA may be preferable to conventional sample size calculations.16,29

To illustrate the utility of TSA in meta-analysis, we apply it to a pressing clinical and public health issue, the use of isoniazid chemoprophylaxis (IHZ) for tuberculosis (TB) disease in purified protein derivative negative (PPD) human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected individuals.

Isoniazid chemoprophylaxis (IHZ)

IHZ has long been considered an effective chemoprophylaxis for preventing TB incidence among HIV-infected individuals, particularly among those testing positive for purified protein derivative (PPD+).30,31 However, the impact of IHZ has remained unclear among those who are testing PPD−, many of whom may have cutaneous anergy related to advanced HIV progression. Existing analyses have been limited by weak inferences about the effectiveness of IHZ in this population.32 Trials evaluating the effectiveness of IHZ among PPD− HIV-infected individuals have thus continued to use placebo controls.3335 Given the unacceptably high mortality rates among HIV-positive and TB co-infected individuals,36 there is a critical need to establish definitively whether IHZ can effectively prevent TB among individuals who test PPD−. We aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of IHZ for prevention of TB disease among HIV-positive adults testing PPD.3740


Eligibility criteria

We included any RCT that evaluated the effectiveness of IHZ chemoprophylaxis versus placebo for preventing the incidence of TB among HIV-positive individuals testing PPD−. We included studies from any location and of any duration. Due to difficulties associated with diagnosis of TB among HIV-positive infants and children,41 we focused our review of studies on adult populations and excluded those evaluating the effect of IHZ versus placebo on younger age groups (<13 years). We excluded studies where participants had current or previous diagnosis of TB. We included studies where patients had negative PPD skin tests. We defined our primary outcome as active TB, probable or confirmed by microbiological, histological, or clinical methods.

Search strategy

In consultation with a medical librarian, we established a search strategy (available from corresponding author on request). We searched independently, in duplicate, the following 10 databases (from inception to August 2009): MEDLINE; EMBASE (Exerpta Medica); Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL); Allied and Complementary Medicine Database (AMED); Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL); TOXNET; Development and Reproductive Toxicology; Hazardous Substances Databank; Psych-info; and Web of Science, that included the full text of journals (OVID, ScienceDirect, and Ingenta, including articles in full text from approximately 1700 journals since 1993). In addition, we searched the bibliographies of published systematic reviews.3032 We contacted the authors of studies for clarifications, where required.

Study selection

Two investigators (AA, EM) working independently, in duplicate, scanned all abstracts and obtained the full-text reports of records, that indicated or suggested that the study met inclusion criteria for the outcomes of interest. After obtaining full reports of the candidate trials the same reviewers independently assessed eligibility from full text papers. We judged RCTs to be of adequate quality if their generation of allocation sequences was unpredictable, if methods of allocation concealment ensured patients and investigators could not foresee treatment assignment, and if patient attrition was clearly described.

Data collection

The same two reviewers conducted data extraction independently using a standardized pre-piloted form. Reviewers collected information about the: study date; location; duration; trial size; mean age of participants; treatment regimens of control and active arms; and incidence of TB. We entered the data into an electronic database such that duplicate entries existed for each study, when the two entries did not match, we resolved differences by consensus.

Data analysis

We first calculated the Phi(Φ)-statistic in order to assess inter-rater reliability on inclusion of articles. This provides a measure of inter-observer agreement independent of chance.42 We calculated the pooled relative risk (RR) using the DerSimonian-Laird random-effects meta-analysis.3,43 We calculated the I2 statistic for each analysis as a measure of the proportion of the overall variation that is attributable to between-study heterogeneity.44 Forest plots displaying individual study RR with 95% confidence intervals (CIs), and the DerSimonian-Laird pooled estimate were conducted using Review Manager version 5.2

TSA and meta-analysis sample size requirements

A single-trial sample size calculation is typically based on expected event rates, expected relative risks, an alpha set at 0.05, and power of 0.80.45 In meta-analysis, however, more conservative alpha and beta-levels may be required to ensure that the evidence is sufficiently compelling to justify recommendation of the experimental treatment for widespread use, or to ensure that the evidence is so convincing that further RCTs are not required.6,7,19 Due to heterogeneity across included trial populations, treatments and methods, the required meta-analysis information size additionally need adjustment for variation across trials.8,1013 Such adjustments are analogous to adjustments for variation across centers in a multi-center trial as they account for the proportion of total meta-analysis variation expected to be explained by variation across (and not within) trials.8,10,11

We determined the required meta-analysis information size for detecting a 25% relative risk reduction in TB, assuming a control group incidence rate of 5% (approximately the median rate across trials) and assuming that 20% of the total variation in the meta-analysis would be explained by variation across trials (heterogeneity). We calculated the information size required to yield “moderate” meta-analytic evidence based on an alpha = 5% significance level, and beta = 20% (80% power). We also calculated the information size required to yield “strong” meta-analytic evidence based on an alpha = 1% significance level, and beta = 10% (90% power).

Significance testing in RCTs and meta-analysis make use of a standardized test statistic (Z-statistic) which can be transformed to a P-value and subsequently used to evaluate if the observed effects in the two treatments groups differ significantly. Z-statistics that lie outside the interval −1.96 to 1.96 correspond to P-values smaller than 0.05, and Z-statistics that lie outside the interval −2.57 to 2.57 correspond to P-values smaller than 0.01. In monitoring of RCTs it is common to establish formal stopping rules for the Z-statistic rather than the P-value.46 In this vein, group sequential monitoring boundaries for the cumulative Z-statistic are calculated every time a new group of randomized patients are added to the analysis up till the point where the number of patients randomized surpasses the required sample size.21,22,46 In meta-analysis, the monitoring boundaries may be applied analogously every time one or more trials are added up till the point where the number of patients in the meta-analysis surpasses the required meta-analysis information size.68,10,12,13

We applied TSA by utilizing the Lan-DeMets alpha-spending approach with monitoring boundaries corresponding to the O’Brien-Fleming boundaries to assess the reliability of pooled inferences from our meta-analysis on TB.10,22 Three systematic reviews on the topic have previously been published in year 1998, 1999, and 2004.3032 We therefore constructed monitoring boundaries to test for statistical significance in the meta-analysis including all trials up to year 1998, up to year 1999, and up to year 2004, albeit no new trials were published in 1999.

Topping up a sample size evaluation

Consider the situation where a new RCT on a topic is in the planning stage and where a fully updated meta-analysis on the same topic is deemed inconclusive. Once the RCT is completed (published) it will be added to the meta-analysis. The question then remains, how large does the new RCT need to be to make the meta-analysis conclusive? In our example, we deemed the meta-analysis conclusive once the cumulative Z-statistic crossed the statistical monitoring boundaries constructed with TSA. Because we performed meta-analysis information size calculations to achieve both moderate (alpha = 5% and beta = 20%) and strong (alpha = 1% and beta = 10%) evidence and constructed the statistical monitoring boundaries separately for each degree of evidence, we made similar distinctions about the degree of conclusiveness that can be achieved from adding a new RCT. Assuming that the control group event rate in the new RCT will be 5%, and that the RCT will yield a 25% relative risk reduction in TB, we approximated the required sample size for a future RCT in order to make the meta-analysis moderately and strongly conclusive. In technical terms, we approximated the sample size of a future RCT required for the cumulative meta-analysis Z-statistic to cross the TSA monitoring boundaries demonstrating moderate evidence and the TSA monitoring boundaries demonstrating strong evidence.


In our initial review, we identified 25 articles that potentially fit our study criteria. Upon in-depth review, we excluded 16 trials from our analysis. Four RCTs did not meet our eligibility criteria since they did not include a placebo group.3740 We excluded an additional study on the basis that it examined outcomes of isoniazid prophylaxis on HIV-positive children.47 We excluded an RCT of IHZ with placebo control because it did not disaggregate outcomes of TB incidence by treatment group,48 and another because it evaluated only PPD+ patients.49 We excluded a study because it focused on the impact of IHZ on recurrent incidence of TB.33 Two manuscripts were long-term follow-up studies of RCTs already identified by our review.50,51 We excluded three conference abstracts on the basis that study findings have since been published in full text.34,52,53 Finally, we excluded two additional conference posters and one manuscript since they were cohort studies.5456 We included nine trials in our meta-analysis, comprising a total of 2,911 trial participants (Φ = 0.9, see Table 1). A total of 1,526 study participants received INH and 1,385 placebo. Figure 1 presents the meta-analysis forest plot. The meta-analysis relative risk is 0.74 (95% CI, 0.53–1.04, P = 0.082, I2 = 0%, P = 0.69).

Figure 1
Forest plot of the individual trial RR estimates and 95% CIs, and the DerSimonian-Laird pooled RR estimate.
Table 1
Study characteristic and outcomes for patients testing purified protein derivative – negative (PPD−)

Trial sequential analysis

We estimated that a meta-analysis information size of 10,508 patients was required to yield moderate evidence, and that a meta-analysis information size of 19,920 patients was required to yield strong evidence. From our current analysis, the cumulative Z-statistic did not cross the TSA monitoring boundaries for moderate or strong evidence (Figure 2). This suggests that the pooled meta-analytic evidence of effectiveness is neither reliable nor definitive.

Figure 2
Trial sequential analysis (TSA) monitoring boundaries for moderate and strong evidence (the downward sloping lines) in the current meta-analysis.

Topping up a sample size evaluation

We calculated that an additional 3,800 patients would need to be randomized (1,900 randomized to IHZ, and 1,900 randomized to placebo) for the meta-analysis to yield moderate evidence of a 25% relative risk reduction. In technical terms, we calculated that a new trial showing a 5% control group incidence rate and a 25% relative risk reduction would have to include 3,800 patients for the meta-analysis to cross the monitoring boundaries for moderate evidence (ie, the monitoring boundaries based on the information size for moderate evidence, 10,508 patients). Figure 3 displays the scenario where such a trial has been added to the meta-analysis. Adding this trial to the meta-analysis would yield a meta-analysis information size of 6,711. The meta-analysis could thus be considered moderately conclusive 3,979 patients before reaching its required information size of 10,508.

Figure 3
Trial sequential analysis (TSA) monitoring boundaries for moderate evidence (the downward sloping line) after adding a ‘fake trial’ with 3800 patients.

We calculated that an additional 9000 patients would need to be randomized for the meta-analysis to yield strong evidence of a 25% relative risk reduction. In technical terms, we calculated that a new trial showing a 5% control group incidence rate and a 25% relative risk reduction would have to include 9000 patients for the meta-analysis to cross the monitoring boundaries for strong evidence (ie, the monitoring boundaries based on the information size for strong evidence, 19,920 patients). Figure 4 displays the scenario where such a trial has been added to the meta-analysis. Adding this trial to the meta-analysis would yield a meta-analysis information size of 11,911. The meta-analysis could thus be considered moderately conclusive 8,009 patients before reaching its required information size of 19,920.

Figure 4
Trial sequential analysis (TSA) monitoring boundaries for strong evidence (the downward sloping line) after adding a ‘fake trial’ with 9000 patients.


Our study examined a public health and clinically important topic that was able to include data from 9 RCTs. Despite a relative consistency of treatment effect across the trials, our meta-analysis is both inconclusive and lacking information to adequately guide clinical decision-making. Based on our application of the TSA, we find that further trials including approximately 3,800 participants at a similar risk would be required to provide moderate evidence, and much more to provide strong evidence. To the extent that our example analysis applies to other meta-analyses, including Cochrane reviews, many apparently conclusive meta-analyses may in fact provide indefinite answers.8,12,13

Trial sequential analysis represents one of several new developments in interpreting the utility of existing meta-analyses and other forms of evidence for clinical and policy decision-making. The GRADE Working Group, a guideline development panel that has created the GRADE profiler tool for inferring the quality of evidence, has recently included precision as one of five general components which determine the quality of evidence.3 As a recent GRADE publication points out, inferring the precision of an intervention is based on more than the CIs of a study result and we should infer the plausibility of differing treatment effects according to precision and consistency of treatment effects.3

In addition to trial sequential analysis of the current meta-analysis data, our analysis provides an inference on the number of patients that would be required to be further randomized to provide stronger evidence. We refer to this as ‘topping-up’ a sample size calculation, whereby if we plan a new clinical trial, we approximate the new number of patients required, with a similar risk profile, that must be randomized to create moderate quality meta-analytic evidence. In this example, it is 3,800 patients.

As with any analysis, there are strengths and limitations to consider. Our analysis is based on available data on an important public-health topic. We based our analysis on data from real RCTs and aimed to reduce publication bias and extraction of data bias by extensive searching and double data extraction. It is possible that other trials exist that we are unaware of. Furthermore, we distinctly chose this example of IHZ for TB prevention in HIV+ patients because we were aware that event rates were small and that this important public-health topic remains unanswered. It is possible that if we had chosen many other topics, we would not be able to demonstrate insufficiency, and hence this study is used as an example.

Furthermore, as with conventional sample size calculations for RCTs, our analyses are only reliable to the extent that the projected control group incidence rate and intervention effect is a good approximation of the “truth”. Our projected control group incidence rate and intervention effect, reflect what we might realistically expect, given the current data. However, some future RCTs may include design features (high or low methodological quality, high or low risk population groups, variants of the intervention, etc.) which will render a higher or lower control group incidence rate and intervention effect. Deviations from the projected event rates may also occur due to the play of chance. As a result, a future RCT including the projected 3,800 patients will, in some situations, not be enough to make the meta-analysis conclusive (ie, cross the monitoring boundaries for moderate evidence). We are, however, not too concerned with this issue. Firstly, in clinical research we never know the “truth”, and the uncertainty associated with any sample size estimation is simply an inherent and unavoidable part of the cumulative nature of science. Secondly, even in the situation where some future RCT does not make the meta-analysis conclusive according to the thresholds set by the monitoring boundaries, it will still provide valuable information to the existing body of evidence, and thus, allow for better informed policy making and planning of future research.

The role of meta-analysis in informing clinical and policy decision-making has received a tremendous amount of attention. Much less so, has been the adequate statistical interpretation of these analyses. Meta-analysis, particularly when including a small number of trials may overestimate the actual treatment effects of an intervention or yield false positive results.8,9 We have known for a considerable time that small trials may yield exaggerated treatment effects and spuriously small P-values compared to larger trials or multiple trials pooled in a meta-analysis. Given the status that meta-analysis may receive in decision-making, falsely large treatment effects and spuriously small P-values may inhibit subsequent trials on the specific questions. This viewpoint suggests skepticism in interpreting small meta-analyses. Examples of meta-analyses generating falsely conclusive findings that are then refuted by subsequent larger trials are common.4,8,9,24

This is now an important time to refine our tools for inferring the quality and necessary conduct of these analyses. Recent reporting guidelines for meta-analysis, such as the PRISMA guidelines, make no reference to the adequacy of power and precision; and organizations such as The Cochrane Collaboration have had no written guidance on this issue.57 Given the small number of included trials within many Cochrane reviews this represents an important rallying opportunity for the conduct of future RCTs. Given the past emphasis on sample size calculations of individual trials that many organizations place on investigators, the number of patients and events should be given much greater consideration in meta-analysis.



The authors report no conflicts of interest relevant to this research.


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