There has been concern about a high rate of placebo response and a substantial failure rate in recent clinical trials in major depressive disorder (MDD). This report explores differences in efficacy data from placebo-controlled MDD trials submitted in support of new drug applications (NDAs) over a 25-year period.
We compiled efficacy data from 81 randomized, double-blind clinical trials, with 21,611 evaluable patients, that were submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration as part of NDAs for an antidepressant claim between 1983 and 2008. Trial data were limited to completed, randomized, multicenter, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials in adult patients diagnosed with MDD according to DSM-III or DSM-IV criteria. The database was further limited to patients who were involved in clinical trials for drugs widely viewed as effective antidepressants and for doses of these drugs also viewed as effective doses. Trials were rated as successful if they showed statistical superiority vs placebo for the investigational drug on change in Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) score (last-observation-carried-forward data). (Trials with multiple investigational drug groups were successful if there was superiority in at least 1 drug group after adjustment for multiplicity.) In particular, we explored differences in effect size and success rate of these trials, based on when the studies were conducted, geographic location of the study sites (US vs non-US), trial duration, dosing regimen, study size, and baseline disease characteristics.
Eighty-one percent of MDD patients were enrolled in US sites. Although the observed placebo and drug responses at non-US sites tended to be larger than at US sites, the treatment effect (drug-placebo difference) was similar (mean change from baseline of about -2.5 units in HDRS total score) in US and non-US trials. In both US and non-US trials, the placebo response showed a modest increase over the observation period (1983-2008). Treatment effect clearly diminished over this same period, at a similar rate for both US and non-US trials despite a marked increase in the sample size of the trials. Our analysis showed that 53% of all MDD trials in the last 25 years were successful. US trials had a higher success rate than non-US trials (58% vs 33%). Before 1995, the overall success rate was 55%, compared to 50% for trials in 1995 or later, and, in general, 6-week trials had a higher success rate than 8-week trials (55% vs 42%). It should be noted that the earlier trials were mostly 6 weeks, and the 6-week trials had higher mean baseline HDRS scores than the 8-week trials. Study size did not seem to influence trial success rates. Mean baseline HDRS total scores declined over the 25-year observation period for patients in both US and non-US trials, as did treatment effect in these trials, again, regardless of region. Fixed-dose trials had a numerically slightly greater success rate than flexible-dose trials (57% vs 51%), although on average treatment effect was numerically larger in the flexible-dose trials than in fixed-dose trials (mean of -2.9 vs -2.0 on HDRS units).
Treatment effect has declined over time in MDD trials, and there has been a high failure rate for these trials during the entire period, but the reasons for these findings remain elusive. Baseline disease severity seems to be a more important factor in study outcome than study duration, dosing regimen, sample size, time when studies were conducted, and regions where data were generated. Close attention is needed to a variety of factors in the design and conduct of these studies, including patient population, diagnostic considerations, patient assessment, and clinical practice differences. These considerations become increasingly important as globalization of clinical trials continues to increase.