Background: Treatment of advanced colorectal cancer has progressed substantially. However, improvements in response rates have not always translated into significant survival benefits. Doubts have therefore been raised about the usefulness of tumour response as a clinical endpoint.
Methods: This meta-analysis was done on individual data from 3791 patients enrolled in 25 randomised trials of first-line treatment with standard bolus intravenous fluoropyrimidines versus experimental treatments (fluorouracil plus leucovorin, fluorouracil plus methotrexate, fluorouracil continuous infusion, or hepatic-arterial infusion of floxuridine). Analyses were by intention to treat.
Findings: Compared with bolus fluoropyrimidines, experimental fluoropyrimidines led to significantly higher tumour response rates (454 responses among 2031 patients vs 209 among 1760; odds ratio 0.48 [95% CI 0.40-0.57], p<0.0001) and better survival (1808 deaths among 2031 vs 1580 among 1760; hazard ratio 0.90 [0.84-0.97], p=0.003). The survival benefits could be explained by the higher tumour response rates. However, a treatment that lowered the odds of failure to respond by 50% would be expected to decrease the odds of death by only 6%. In addition, less than half of the variability of the survival benefits in the 25 trials could be explained by the variability of the response benefits in these trials.
Interpretation: These analyses confirm that an increase in tumour response rate translates into an increase in overall survival for patients with advanced colorectal cancer. However, in the context of individual trials, knowledge that a treatment has benefits on tumour response does not allow accurate prediction of the ultimate benefit on survival.