An analysis of protocols and publications suggested that most discontinuations of clinical trials were not based on preplanned interim analyses or stopping rules
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OBJECTIVES: To investigate the frequency of interim analyses, stopping rules, and data safety and monitoring boards (DSMBs) in protocols of randomized controlled trials (RCTs); to examine these features across different reasons for trial discontinuation; and to identify discrepancies in reporting between protocols and publications. STUDY DESIGN AND SETTING: We used data from a cohort of RCT protocols approved between 2000 and 2003 by six research ethics committees in Switzerland, Germany, and Canada. RESULTS: Of 894 RCT protocols, 289 prespecified interim analyses (32.3%), 153 stopping rules (17.1%), and 257 DSMBs (28.7%). Overall, 249 of 894 RCTs (27.9%) were prematurely discontinued; mostly due to reasons such as poor recruitment, administrative reasons, or unexpected harm. Forty-six of 249 RCTs (18.4%) were discontinued due to early benefit or futility; of those, 37 (80.4%) were stopped outside a formal interim analysis or stopping rule. Of 515 published RCTs, there were discrepancies between protocols and publications for interim analyses (21.1%), stopping rules (14.4%), and DSMBs (19.6%). CONCLUSION: Two-thirds of RCT protocols did not consider interim analyses, stopping rules, or DSMBs. Most RCTs discontinued for early benefit or futility were stopped without a prespecified mechanism. When assessing trial manuscripts, journals should require access to the protocol.