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PLoS Biol. 2017 Feb 3;15(2):e2000487. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2000487. eCollection 2017 Feb.

Inefficiencies and Patient Burdens in the Development of the Targeted Cancer Drug Sorafenib: A Systematic Review.

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Studies of Translation, Ethics and Medicine (STREAM), Biomedical Ethics Unit, McGill University, Montréal, Quebec, Canada.
Department of Clinical Epidemiology, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.


Failure in cancer drug development exacts heavy burdens on patients and research systems. To investigate inefficiencies and burdens in targeted drug development in cancer, we conducted a systematic review of all prelicensure trials for the anticancer drug, sorafenib (Bayer/Onyx Pharmaceuticals). We searched Embase and MEDLINE databases on October 14, 2014, for prelicensure clinical trials testing sorafenib against cancers. We measured risk by serious adverse event rates, benefit by objective response rates and survival, and trial success by prespecified primary endpoint attainment with acceptable toxicity. The first two clinically useful applications of sorafenib were discovered in the first 2 efficacy trials, after five drug-related deaths (4.6% of 108 total) and 93 total patient-years of involvement (2.4% of 3,928 total). Thereafter, sorafenib was tested in 26 indications and 67 drug combinations, leading to one additional licensure. Drug developers tested 5 indications in over 5 trials each, comprising 56 drug-related deaths (51.8% of 108 total) and 1,155 patient-years (29.4% of 3,928 total) of burden in unsuccessful attempts to discover utility against these malignancies. Overall, 32 Phase II trials (26% of Phase II activity) were duplicative, lacked appropriate follow-up, or were uninformative because of accrual failure, constituting 1,773 patients (15.6% of 11,355 total) participating in prelicensure sorafenib trials. The clinical utility of sorafenib was established early in development, with low burden on patients and resources. However, these early successes were followed by rapid and exhaustive testing against various malignancies and combination regimens, leading to excess patient burden. Our evaluation of sorafenib development suggests many opportunities for reducing costs and unnecessary patient burden in cancer drug development.

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