The United States (US) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves new drugs based on sponsor-submitted clinical trials. The publication status of these trials in the medical literature and factors associated with publication have not been evaluated. We sought to determine the proportion of trials submitted to the FDA in support of newly approved drugs that are published in biomedical journals that a typical clinician, consumer, or policy maker living in the US would reasonably search.
Methods and Findings
We conducted a cohort study of trials supporting new drugs approved between 1998 and 2000, as described in FDA medical and statistical review documents and the FDA approved drug label. We determined publication status and time from approval to full publication in the medical literature at 2 and 5 y by searching PubMed and other databases through 01 August 2006. We then evaluated trial characteristics associated with publication. We identified 909 trials supporting 90 approved drugs in the FDA reviews, of which 43% (394/909) were published. Among the subset of trials described in the FDA-approved drug label and classified as “pivotal trials” for our analysis, 76% (257/340) were published. In multivariable logistic regression for all trials 5 y postapproval, likelihood of publication correlated with statistically significant results (odds ratio [OR] 3.03, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.78–5.17); larger sample sizes (OR 1.33 per 2-fold increase in sample size, 95% CI 1.17–1.52); and pivotal status (OR 5.31, 95% CI 3.30–8.55). In multivariable logistic regression for only the pivotal trials 5 y postapproval, likelihood of publication correlated with statistically significant results (OR 2.96, 95% CI 1.24–7.06) and larger sample sizes (OR 1.47 per 2-fold increase in sample size, 95% CI 1.15–1.88). Statistically significant results and larger sample sizes were also predictive of publication at 2 y postapproval and in multivariable Cox proportional models for all trials and the subset of pivotal trials.
Over half of all supporting trials for FDA-approved drugs remained unpublished ≥ 5 y after approval. Pivotal trials and trials with statistically significant results and larger sample sizes are more likely to be published. Selective reporting of trial results exists for commonly marketed drugs. Our data provide a baseline for evaluating publication bias as the new FDA Amendments Act comes into force mandating basic results reporting of clinical trials.
Ida Sim and colleagues investigate the publication status and publication bias of trials submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a wide variety of approved drugs.
Before a new drug becomes available for the treatment of a specific human disease, its benefits and harms are carefully studied, first in the laboratory and in animals, and then in several types of clinical trials. In the most important of these trials—so-called “pivotal” clinical trials—the efficacy and safety of the new drug and of a standard treatment are compared by giving groups of patients the different treatments and measuring several predefined “outcomes.” These outcomes indicate whether the new drug is more effective than the standard treatment and whether it has any other effects on the patients' health and daily life. All this information is then submitted by the sponsor of the new drug (usually a pharmaceutical company) to the government body responsible for drug approval—in the US, this is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Why Was This Study Done?
After a drug receives FDA approval, information about the clinical trials supporting the FDA's decision are included in the FDA “Summary Basis of Approval” and/or on the drug label. In addition, some clinical trials are described in medical journals. Ideally, all the clinical information that leads to a drug's approval should be publicly available to help clinicians make informed decisions about how to treat their patients. A full-length publication in a medical journal is the primary way that clinical trial results are communicated to the scientific community and the public. Unfortunately, drug sponsors sometimes publish the results only of trials where their drug performed well; as a consequence, trials where the drug did no better than the standard treatment or where it had unwanted side effects remain unpublished. Publication bias like this provides an inaccurate picture of a drug's efficacy and safety relative to other therapies and may lead to excessive prescribing of newer, more expensive (but not necessarily more effective) treatments. In this study, the researchers investigate whether selective trial reporting is common by evaluating the publication status of trials submitted to the FDA for a wide variety of approved drugs. They also ask which factors affect a trial's chances of publication.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 90 drugs approved by the FDA between 1998 and 2000 by searching the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research Web site. From the Summary Basis of Approval for each drug, they identified 909 clinical trials undertaken to support these approvals. They then searched the published medical literature up to mid-2006 to determine if and when the results of each trial were published. Although 76% of the pivotal trials had appeared in medical journals, usually within 3 years of FDA approval, only 43% of all of the submitted trials had been published. Among all the trials, those with statistically significant results were nearly twice as likely to have been published as those without statistically significant results, and pivotal trials were three times more likely to have been published as nonpivotal trials, 5 years postapproval. In addition, a larger sample size increased the likelihood of publication. Having statistically significant results and larger sample sizes also increased the likelihood of publication of the pivotal trials.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Although the search methods used in this study may have missed some publications, these findings suggest that more than half the clinical trials undertaken to support drug approval remain unpublished 5 years or more after FDA approval. They also reveal selective reporting of results. For example, they show that a pivotal trial in which the new drug does no better than an old drug is less likely to be published than one where the new drug is more effective, a publication bias that could establish an inappropriately favorable record for the new drug in the medical literature. Importantly, these findings provide a baseline for monitoring the effects of the FDA Amendments Act 2007, which was introduced to improve the accuracy and completeness of drug trial reporting. Under this Act, all trials supporting FDA-approved drugs must be registered when they start, and the summary results of all the outcomes declared at trial registration as well as specific details about the trial protocol must be publicly posted within a year of drug approval on the US National Institutes of Health clinical trials site.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050191.
PLoS Medicine recently published an editorial discussing the FDA Amendment Act and what it means for medical journals: The PLoS Medicine Editors (2008) Next Stop, Don't Block the Doors: Opening Up Access to Clinical Trials Results. PLoS Med 5(7): e160
The US Food and Drug Administration provides information about drug approval in the US for consumers and for health care professionals; detailed information about the process by which drugs are approved is on the Web site of the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (in English and Spanish)
ClinicalTrials.gov provides information about the US National Institutes of Health clinical trial registry, background information about clinical trials, and a fact sheet detailing the requirements of the FDA Amendments Act 2007 for trial registration
The World Health Organization's International Clinical Trials Registry Platform is working toward international norms and standards for reporting the findings of clinical trials