Negative Cancer Drug Trial Results Can Still Have Positive Impact


Learning what doesn't work in the treatment of cancer still offers valuable insight.

Despite positive phase 3 cancer trials that are twice as likely to be cited in scientific journals, researchers have found that negative trials can have an equally positive impact on cancer research, according to a study published in published in JAMA Oncology.

“Negative trials aren't scientific failures,” said lead study author Joseph Unger, PhD. “We found that they have a positive, lasting impact on cancer research.”

The study was conducted by members of the federally funded international clinical trials network SWOG.

Researchers studied 94 randomized phase 3 cancer trials that involved 46,424 patients completed by SWOG from 1984 to 2014. Of the 94 studies, 26 had positive results.

The results of the study showed primary manuscripts that first announced positive trial results were published in journals with higher impact factors and were cited twice as often as the results from negative trials.

However, the amount of citations from primary and secondary manuscripts showed no differentiation between positive and negative trials.

“Negative trials matter because they tell us what doesn't work, which can be as important as what does,” said study author Dawn Hershman. “Negative trials are also critical for secondary research, which mines existing trial data to answer new questions in cancer care and prevention. Negative trials are used frequently in secondary research, and add great value to the scientific community.”

Since federally funded cancer trials account for a major investment of United States tax dollars, the researchers’ findings are important. In the 2013 fiscal year, the NCI spent $676.5 million for clinical trials alone.

Furthermore, there is an ongoing debate within the biomedical research community on publishing negative clinical trial results, as well as the need for more widespread and effective trial data that is both positive and negative.

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