Despite guidelines establishing the need to perform comprehensive paediatric drug development programs, pivotal trials in children with epilepsy have been completed mostly in Phase IV as a postapproval replication of adult data. However, it has been shown that the treatment response in children can differ from that in adults. It has not been investigated whether differences in drug effect between adults and children might occur in the treatment of drug-resistant partial epilepsy, although such differences may have a substantial impact on the design and results of paediatric randomised controlled trials (RCTs).
Methods and Findings
Three electronic databases were searched for RCTs investigating any antiepileptic drug (AED) in the add-on treatment of drug-resistant partial epilepsy in both children and adults. The treatment effect was compared between the two age groups using the ratio of the relative risk (RR) of the 50% responder rate between active AEDs treatment and placebo groups, as well as meta-regression. Differences in the response to placebo and to active treatment were searched using logistic regression. A comparable approach was used for analysing secondary endpoints, including seizure-free rate, total and adverse events-related withdrawal rates, and withdrawal rate for seizure aggravation. Five AEDs were evaluated in both adults and children with drug-resistant partial epilepsy in 32 RCTs. The treatment effect was significantly lower in children than in adults (RR ratio: 0.67 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.51–0.89]; p = 0.02 by meta-regression). This difference was related to an age-dependent variation in the response to placebo, with a higher rate in children than in adults (19% versus 9.9%, p < 0.001), whereas no significant difference was observed in the response to active treatment (37.2% versus 30.4%, p = 0.364). The relative risk of the total withdrawal rate was also significantly lower in children than in adults (RR ratio: 0.65 [95% CI 0.43–0.98], p = 0.004 by metaregression), due to higher withdrawal rate for seizure aggravation in children (5.6%) than in adults (0.7%) receiving placebo (p < 0.001). Finally, there was no significant difference in the seizure-free rate between adult and paediatric studies.
Children with drug-resistant partial epilepsy receiving placebo in double-blind RCTs demonstrated significantly greater 50% responder rate than adults, probably reflecting increased placebo and regression to the mean effects. Paediatric clinical trial designs should account for these age-dependent variations of the response to placebo to reduce the risk of an underestimated sample size that could result in falsely negative trials.
In a systematic review of antiepileptic drugs, Philippe Ryvlin and colleagues find that children with drug-resistant partial epilepsy enrolled in trials seem to have a greater response to placebo than adults enrolled in such trials.
Whenever an adult is given a drug to treat a specific condition, that drug will have been tested in “randomized controlled trials” (RCTs). In RCTs, a drug's effects are compared to those of another drug for the same condition (or to a placebo, dummy drug) by giving groups of adult patients the different treatments and measuring how well each drug deals with the condition and whether it has any other effects on the patients' health. However, many drugs given to children have only been tested in adults, the assumption being that children can safely take the same drugs as adults provided the dose is scaled down. This approach to treatment is generally taken in epilepsy, a common brain disorder in children in which disruptions in the electrical activity of part (partial epilepsy) or all (generalized epilepsy) of the brain cause seizures. The symptoms of epilepsy depend on which part of the brain is disrupted and can include abnormal sensations, loss of consciousness, or convulsions. Most but not all patients can be successfully treated with antiepileptic drugs, which reduce or stop the occurrence of seizures.
Why Was This Study Done?
It is increasingly clear that children and adults respond differently to many drugs, including antiepileptic drugs. For example, children often break down drugs differently from adults, so a safe dose for an adult may be fatal to a child even after scaling down for body size, or it may be ineffective because of quicker clearance from the child's body. Consequently, regulatory bodies around the world now require comprehensive drug development programs in children as well as in adults. However, for pediatric trials to yield useful results, the general differences in the treatment response between children and adults must first be determined and then allowed for in the design of pediatric RCTs. In this study, the researchers investigate whether there is any evidence in published RCTs for age-dependent differences in the response to antiepileptic drugs in drug-resistant partial epilepsy.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers searched the literature for reports of RCTs on the effects of antiepileptic drugs in the add-on treatment of drug-resistant partial epilepsy in children and in adults—that is, trials that compared the effects of giving an additional antiepileptic drug with those of giving a placebo by asking what fraction of patients given each treatment had a 50% reduction in seizure frequency during the treatment period compared to a baseline period (the “50% responder rate”). This “systematic review” yielded 32 RCTs, including five pediatric RCTs. The researchers then compared the treatment effect (the ratio of the 50% responder rate in the treatment arm to the placebo arm) in the two age groups using a statistical approach called “meta-analysis” to pool the results of these studies. The treatment effect, they report, was significantly lower in children than in adults. Further analysis indicated that this difference was because more children than adults responded to the placebo. Nearly 1 in 5 children had a 50% reduction in seizure rate when given a placebo compared to only 1 in 10 adults. About a third of both children and adults had a 50% reduction in seizure rate when given antiepileptic drugs.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings, although limited by the small number of pediatric trials done so far, suggest that children with drug-resistant partial epilepsy respond more strongly in RCTs to placebo than adults. Although additional studies need to be done to find an explanation for this observation and to discover whether anything similar occurs in other conditions, this difference between children and adults should be taken into account in the design of future pediatric trials on the effects of antiepileptic drugs, and possibly drugs for other conditions. Specifically, to reduce the risk of false-negative results, this finding suggests that it might be necessary to increase the size of future pediatric trials to ensure that the trials have enough power to discover effects of the drugs tested, if they exist.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050166.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Terry Klassen and colleagues
The European Medicines Agency provides information about the regulation of medicines for children in Europe
The US Food and Drug Administration Office of Pediatric Therapeutics provides similar information for the US
The UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency also provides information on why medicines need to be tested in children
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia has a page on epilepsy (in English and Spanish)
The US National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the UK National Health Service Direct health encyclopedia both provide information on epilepsy for patients (in several languages)
Neuroscience for Kids is an educational Web site prepared by Eric Chudler (University of Washington, Seattle, US) that includes information on epilepsy and a list of links to epilepsy organizations (mainly in English but some sections in other languages as well)