A critical aspect of both evidence-based medicine (EBM) and science-based medicine (SBM) is the randomized clinical trial. Ideally, particularly for conditions with a large subjective component in symptomatology, the trial should be randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled. As Kimball Atwood pointed out just last week, in EBM, scientific prior probability tends to be discounted while in SBM it is not, particularly for therapies that are wildly improbable strictly on the basis of basic science, but for both the randomized clinical trial remains, in essence, where the “rubber hits the road,” so to speak. Indeed, when the prior probability of a therapy working based on preclinical basic science investigations appears high, EBM and SBM should be (and are, for the most part) more or less indistinguishable.
The ethics of clinical trials, however, demand a characteristic known as clinical equipoise. Stated briefly, for purposes of clinical trials, clinical equipoise demands that at the time a clinical trial is being carried out there be a state of genuine scientific uncertainty in the medical community over which of the drugs or treatments being tested is more efficacious and safer. One reason (among many) why the Gonzalez trial was completely unethical was a lack of clinical equipose. (Lack of adequate informed consent was another.) Lack of clinical equipoise is also the reason why a prospective randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial testing an unvaccinated group versus a vaccinated control group to determine whether vaccines cause autism would be completely unethical. Such a trial would egregiously violate the principle of clinical equipoise because the unvaccinated group would be left unprotected against potentially life-threatening vaccine-preventable diseases, and that is completely unacceptable from an ethical perspective. Consequently, we have had to rely on on the accumulation of data from less rigorous trial designs to demonstrate that there is no correlation between vaccines and autism. Even so, the accumulated weight of such evidence is enough, and for some questions that is the best we can do because scientific rigor sometimes conflicts with human subjects research ethics. This is an extreme example of lack of clinical equipoise, but it illustrates the point. If we know (or have good scientific reason to suspect) that one treatment is better than another, it is unethical to randomize patients to the arm that receives what is, based on what is known at the time of the trial, likely to be an inferior treatment.
Sometimes, however, the question of whether clinical equipoise exists in a clinical trial is not so obvious as it is for trials proposed by cranks. This situation sometimes crops up in clinical trials for cancer. I was reminded of this issue by a front page story in the New York Times yesterday, New Drugs Stir Debate on Basic Rules of Clinical Trials. In it, reporter Amy Harmon uses a classic human interest story to highlight the issue of clinical equipoise in a clinical trial for a new drug for melanoma that shows great promise. In brief, it is the story of two cousins, one of whom is receiving the new “wonder drug” (whether it is truly a wonder drug or not remains to be seen) in a clinical trial and one of whom is receiving the current standard of care for stage IV melanoma, which, to put it bluntly, sucks in that it has very little effect in prolonging life: