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Ann Oncol. 2006 Aug;17(8):1239-48.

Alternative clinical end points in rectal cancer--are we getting closer?

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Centre for Cancer Treatment, Mount Vernon Hospital, Northwood, Middlesex, UK.



In rectal cancer a high risk of local recurrence has been reported for patients treated by surgery alone. It is also recognised that 20%-40% of rectal cancer patients continue to develop distant metastases and die, even when a very low risk of local recurrence has been achieved with the use of preoperative radiotherapy and total mesorectal excision (TME). Hence, the current design of randomised trials in rectal cancer continues to use the standard end points of local control and survival. This strategy is time-consuming. The recently published EORTC 22921 trial, which compared radiotherapy with chemoradiotherapy and tested the role of postoperative adjuvant chemotherapy, has taken 14 years from planning to results. The aim of this review was to use the evidence from both phase II and phase III trials to provide a comprehensive survey of alternative clinical trial end points in rectal cancer, where preoperative chemoradiation has now become the standard treatment. We describe their strengths and weaknesses. Some are clearly defined, easy to assess and can be obtained early, because surgical resection usually takes place within 6-8 weeks of the completion of treatment. Some pathological response end points reflect biological activity, although their effect on survival has yet to be validated in randomised controlled trials. We will propose measurement and analytical techniques for minimising bias and intra- and inter-observer variability of the non-validated end points in the hope of basing these judgements on as firm a ground as possible.


A literature search identified both randomised and non-randomised trials of preoperative radiation therapy (RT) and chemoradiation therapy (CRT) in rectal cancer from 1993 to 2005. The aim was to find those studies that documented potential alternative end points.


Pathological parameters have been used as early end points to compare studies of preoperative radiotherapy or chemoradiation. In the light of the German CAO/ARO/AIO-94 study, which demonstrated an improved therapeutic ratio for preoperative treatment, enthusiasm for preoperative chemoradiation in the management of rectal cancer is increasing. Current evidence cannot indicate whether the degree of response to chemoradiation (e.g. complete pathological response; downsizing the primary tumour; sterilizing the regional nodes; tumour regression grades or residual cell density) or the achievement of a curative resection (CRM/R0 resection) is the best early clinical end point. Problems with these end points include lack of structured measurement and analysis techniques to control for intra- and inter-observer variation and lack of validation as surrogates for long-term clinical end points such as local control and survival. However, retrospective studies in rectal cancer have confirmed a strong association between the presence of microscopic tumour cells within 1 mm of the CRM and increased risks of both local recurrence and distant metastases. Further end points of current clinical relevance for which adequate methodologies for assessment are lacking include sphincter sparing end points, and assessment of long-term toxicities, ano-rectal function and their specific impact on quality of life. Recommendations are made as to the most appropriate information, which should be documented in future trials.


Pathological complete response following preoperative chemoradiation does not reliably predict late outcome. There are other events not mediated through this end point and there are also unintended effects (often an excess of non-cancer related deaths). Disease-free survival currently remains the best (because it is relatively quick) primary end point in designing randomised phase III studies of preoperative chemoradiation in rectal cancer, although it is necessary to control for postoperative adjuvant chemotherapy. However, the CRM status can substantially account for effects on disease-free and overall survival after chemoradiation, radiation or surgery alone. Hopefully, randomised controlled trials, which utilise these alternative clinical end points, will in future determine the precise percentages of the effect of different chemoradiation schedules on disease-free and overall survival.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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