Not Responding to the Standard Cancer Treatment? Maybe You’re an Outlier
December 6, 2010 Leave a comment
In a recent reply to a blog comment, I mentioned the term “outlier” to describe a woman with breast cancer who had an excellent response to bevacizumab-based therapy. This was part of a discussion about the drug and its role in cancer treatment. The term outlier was utilized to describe this woman’s excellent response to a drug combination that has not achieved statistically significant survival advantage in the general population of breast cancer patients.
While outliers may connote strangeness or removal from the norm, in contemporary cancer therapies being removed from the norm can be a very, very good thing. After all, a minority of cancer patients benefit durably from chemotherapy. Those patients fortunate enough to have long-term responses are the happy outliers who populate the scientific community’s grab bag of anecdotes.
However, to the individual patient, a good response is much more than an anecdote, it is a life saving experience, an experience that every cancer patient richly deserves. While clinical trials are designed to identify average improvements for average patients, virtually every trial conducted has patients who live much longer than average. They constitute the tail on the survival curve and almost every trial has several.
Our job should be to identify those true responders and treat them appropriately rather than denying them active treatments based on the failure of the average patient paradigm. In statistics, the term applied for these failures are “beta errors,” meaning that the investigators missed the benefit of a given treatment. By identifying active treatments in small subsets of patients, functional analytic tools (like the Rational Therapeutics EVA-PCD platform) enable us to select those small subsets for treatment regardless of average expectations.