When designing a non-inferiority (NI) study one of the most important steps is to set the non-inferiority (NI) limit. The NI limit is an acceptable loss of efficacy for a new investigative treatment compared to an active control treatment – often standard care. The limit should be a value so small that the loss efficacy is clinically zero. An approach to the setting of a noninferiority limit such that an effect over placebo can be shown through an indirect comparison to placebo-controlled trials where the active control treatment was compared to placebo. In this context the setting of the NI limit depends on three assumptions: assay sensitivity, bias minimisation, and the constancy assumption. The last assumption of constancy assumes the effect of the active control over placebo is constant. This paper aims to assess the constancy assumption in placebo-controlled trials.
Methods: An overview of 236 Cochrane reviews of placebo-controlled trials published in 2015–2016 was conducted to assess the relation between the placebo, active treatment, and the standardised treatment different (SMD) with the time (year of publication).
Results: The analysis showed that both the size of the study and the treatment effect were associated with year of publication. The three main variables that affect the estimate of any future trial are the estimate from the meta-analysis of previous trials prior to the trial, the year difference in the meta-analysis, and the year of the trial conduction. The regression analysis showed that an increase of one unit in the point estimate of the historical meta-analysis would lead to an increase in the predicted estimate of future trial on the SMD scale by 0.88. This result suggests the final trial results are 12% smaller than that from the meta-analysis of trials until that point.
Conclusion: The result of this study indicates that assuming constancy of the treatment difference between the active control and placebo can be questioned. In the case of the NI the trial, this could lead to the conclusion of the non-inferiority of an inferior test treatment and false superiority for the same treatment over placebo. It is therefore important to consider the effect of time in estimating the treatment response if indirect comparisons are being used as the basis of a NI limit.