Non-Inferiority Randomized Trials, an Issue Between Science and Ethics: The Case of the SYNTAX Study
Scandinavian cardiovascular journal : SCJ 2010 Dec; 44(6): 321-4
Non-inferiority trials are questionable when death and serious complications are included among outcomes. The term itself "non-inferiority" is misleading, since such a study would not demonstrate that a new treatment is non-inferior to a control treatment, but simply that the inferiority would not reach a pre-specified level, deemed as acceptable by the designers of the trial. Group cross-over, assay-sensitivity and the need of a placebo arm are major issues for the reliability of non-inferiority trials. The SYNTAX trial for severe coronary artery disease was designed on a non-inferiority margin of 6.6%. In this paper we show that the SYNTAX designers were ready to accept up to 30% higher rate of death and major adverse events to claim the non-inferiority of percutaneous coronary intervention versus coronary artery bypass grafting. Eventually the SYNTAX study failed because percutaneous patients sustained an even higher rate of adverse events. We propose major caution in performing non-inferiority randomized trials.
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