Background: Riluzole 100 mg probably prolongs survival in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis by about two months and the safety of the drug is not a major concern. The evidence from randomized controlled trials indicates that patients taking riluzole probably survive longer than patients taking placebo. The beneficial effects are very modest and the drug is expensive. Adverse effects from riluzole are relatively minor and for the most part reversible after stopping the drug. Riluzole has been approved for treatment of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in many countries but not all. Questions persist about its clinical utility because of high cost, modest efficacy and concern over adverse effects.
Objectives: To examine the efficacy of riluzole in prolonging survival, and in delaying the use of surrogates (tracheostomy and mechanical ventilation) to sustain survival.
Search strategy: Search of the Cochrane Neuromuscular Disease Group Register for randomized trials and enquiry from authors of trials, Aventis (manufacturer of riluzole) and other experts in the field. The most recent search was November 2002.
Selection criteria: Randomized trials of adults with diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), treated with riluzole or placebo. Types of outcome measures: Primary: pooled hazard ratio of tracheostomy-free survival over all time points with riluzole 100 mg. Secondary: per cent mortality as a function of time with riluzole 100 mg and other doses of riluzole; neurologic function, quality of life, muscle strength and adverse events.
Data collection & analysis: We identified four eligible randomized trials. Each reviewer graded them for methodological quality. Data extraction was performed by a single reviewer and checked by two others. We obtained some missing data from investigators and regulatory agencies. We performed meta-analyses with Review Manager 4.1 software using a fixed effects model. A test of drug efficacy was based on the Parmar pooled hazard ratio.
Results: The three trials examining tracheostomy-free survival included a total of 876 riluzole treated patients and 406 placebo treated patients. The data for tracheostomy-free survival was not available from the fourth trial. The methodological quality was acceptable and the three trials were easily comparable, although one trial included older patients in more advanced stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Riluzole 100 mg per day provided a benefit for the homogeneous group of patients in the first two trials (p=0.039, hazard ratio 0.80, 95% confidence interval 0.64 to 0.99) and there was no evidence of heterogeneity (p=0.33). When the third trial (which included older and more seriously affected patients) is added, there is evidence of heterogeneity (p<0.0001) and the random effects model, which takes this into account results in the overall treatment effect estimate falling just short of significance (p=0.056, hazard ratio 0.84, 95% confidence interval 0.70 to 1.01). This represents a 9% gain in the probability of surviving one year (57% in the placebo and 66% in the riluzole group). In secondary analyses of survival at separate time points, there was a significant survival advantage with riluzole 100 mg at six, nine, 12 and 15 months, but not at three or 18 months. There was a small beneficial effect on both bulbar and limb function, but not on muscle strength. There were no data on quality of life, but patients treated with riluzole remained in a more moderately affected health state significantly longer than placebo-treated patients (weighted mean difference 35.5 days, 95% confidence interval 5.9 to 65.0). A threefold increase in serum alanine transferase was more frequent in riluzole treated patients than controls (weighted mean difference 2.69, 95% confidence interval 1.65 to 4.38).
Conclusions: Riluzole 100 mg daily is reasonably safe and probably prolongs survival by about two months in patients with ALS. More studies are needed, especially to clarify its effect in older patients (over 75 years), and those with more advanced disease.