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The Ghost Research Haunting Nordic Medical Trials

Campaigners for greater transparency in medical science have reiterated calls for more to be done to avoid “medical research waste” after an investigation found that results from more than a fifth of clinical trials across five Nordic countries have never been made public.

A study found that results from 475 clinical trials in Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden — involving almost 84,000 participants — were never made public in any form.

Nonpublication of clinical trial results wastes public money, harms patients, and undermines public health, the researchers said. 

There is already a well-defined ethical responsibility to publish trial results. Article 36 of the Declaration of Helsinki on Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects states that “researchers have a duty to make publicly available the results of their research on human subjects,” and World Health Organization best practice protocols call for results to be uploaded onto trial registries within 12 months of trial completion.

Research Waste Is a ‘Pervasive Problem’

So, how and why do so many trials end up gathering dust in a drawer? The latest study, published this month as a preprint, evaluated the reporting outcomes of 2113 clinical trials at medical universities and university hospitals in Nordic countries between 2016 and 2019. It found that across the five countries, 22% of all clinical trial results had not been shared. Furthermore, only 27% of all trial results were made public, either on registries or in journals, within 12 months. Even 2 years after trials ended, only around half of results (51.7%) had been put into the public domain.

The authors concluded that missing and delayed results from academically-led clinical trials was a “pervasive problem” in Nordic countries and that institutions, funding bodies, and policymakers needed to ensure that regulations around reporting results were adhered to so that important findings are not lost.

Study first author, Professor Gustav Nilsonne from the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, told Medscape Medical News: “Most people I talk to — most colleagues who are clinical scientists — tend to think that the main reason is that negative results are not as interesting to publish and therefore they get lower priority, and they get published later and sometimes not at all.”

Experts stressed that the problem is not confined to Nordic countries and that wasted medical research persists elsewhere in Europe and remains a global problem. For instance, a report published in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology found that 30% of German trials completed between 2014 and 2017 remained unpublished 5 years after completion.

The Case for Laws, Monitoring, and Fines

Till Bruckner from TranspariMED, which campaigns to end evidence distortion in medicine, told Medscape Medical News: “What is needed to comprehensively fix the problem is a national legal requirement to make all trial results public, coupled with effective monitoring, and followed by sanctions in the rare cases where institutions refuse to comply.” 

Nilsonne added: “We have argued that the sponsors need to take greater responsibility, but also that there needs to be somebody whose job it is to monitor clinical trials reporting. It shouldn’t have to be that we do this as researchers on a shoestring with no dedicated resources. It should be somebody’s job.”

Gustav Nilsonne

Most people I talk to…tend to think that the main reason is that negative results are not as interesting to publish…

Since January 31, 2023, all initial clinical trial applications in the European Union must be submitted through the EU Clinical Trials Information System. Bruckner said that “the picture is not yet clear” in Europe, as the first trial results under the system are not expected until later this year. Even then, enforcement lies with regulators in individual countries. And while Denmark has already indicated it will enforce the regulations, he warned that other countries “might turn a blind eye”.

Bruckner pointed out that existing laws don’t apply to all types of trials. “That means that for many trials, nobody is legally responsible for ensuring that results are made public, and no government agency has any oversight or mandate,” he said.

Outside the EU, the United Kingdom has helped lead the way through the NHS Health Research Authority (HRA), which registers trials run in the country. One year after a trial has been completed, the HRA checks to see if the results have been uploaded to the registry and issues reminders if they haven’t.

In an update of its work last month, the authority said that compliance had hovered at just below 90% between 2018 and 2021 but that it was working to increase this to 100% by working with stakeholders across the research sector.

Nilsonne considers the UK system of central registration and follow-up an attractive option. “I would love to see something along those lines in other countries too,” he said.

‘Rampant Noncompliance’ in the United States

In the US, a requirement to make trial results public is backed by law. Despite this, there’s evidence of “rampant noncompliance” and minimal government action, according to Megan Curtin from Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), which has been tracking the issue in the United States and working to push universities and others to make their findings available.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shares responsibility with the National Institutes of Health for enforcement of clinical trial results reporting, but the UAEM says nearly 4000 trials are currently out of compliance with reporting requirements. In January last year, the UAEM copublished a report with the National Center for Health Research and TranspariMED, which found that 3627 American children participated in clinical trials whose results remain unreported.

The FDA can levy a fine of up to $10,000 USD for a violation of the law, but UAEM said that, as of January 2023, the FDA had sent only 92 preliminary notices of noncompliance and four notices of noncompliance. “A clear difference between the EU field of clinical trial operation and US clinical trials is that there are clear laws for reporting within 12 months, which can be enforced, but they’re not being enforced by the FDA,” Curtin told Medscape Medical News.

The UAEM is pushing the FDA to issue a minimum of 250 preliminary notices of noncompliance each year to noncompliant trial sponsors.

Nilsonne said: “I do believe we have a great responsibility to the patients that do contribute. We need to make sure that the harms and risks that a clinical trial entails are really balanced by knowledge gain, and if the results are never reported, then we can’t have a knowledge gain.”

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