Virtual Trials: Causally-validated treatment effects efficiently learned from an observational cancer registry

Artif Intell Med. 2023 Jan;135:102450. doi: 10.1016/j.artmed.2022.102450. Epub 2022 Nov 22.


Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) offer a clear causal interpretation of treatment effects, but are inefficient in terms of information gain per patient. Moreover, because they are intended to test cohort-level effects, RCTs rarely provide information to support precision medicine, which strives to choose the best treatment for an individual patient. If causal information could be efficiently extracted from widely available real-world data, the rapidity of treatment validation could be increased, and its costs reduced. Moreover, inferences could be made across larger, more diverse patient populations. We created a "virtual trial" by fitting a multilevel Bayesian survival model to treatment and outcome records self-reported by 451 brain cancer patients. The model recovers group-level treatment effects comparable to RCTs representing over 3200 patients. The model additionally discovers the feature-treatment interactions needed to make individual-level predictions for precision medicine. By learning from heterogeneous real-world data, virtual trials can generate more causal estimates with fewer patients than RCTs, and they can do so without artificially limiting the patient population. This demonstrates the value of virtual trials as a complement to large randomized controlled trials, especially in highly heterogeneous or rare diseases.

Keywords: Bayesian Trials; Brain Cancer; Causal Analysis; Clinical Trials; Information Gain; Machine Learning; Oncology; Precision Medicine; Survival Modeling; Virtual Trials.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Neoplasms* / drug therapy