Post-study therapy as a source of confounding in survival analysis of first-line studies in patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer

Vera D Zietemann, Tibor Schuster, Thomas HG Duell


Clinical trials exploring the long-term effects of first-line therapy in patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer generally disregard subsequent treatment although most patients receive second and third-line therapies. The choice of further therapy depends on critical intermediate events such as disease progression and it is usually left at the physician’s discretion. Time-dependent confounding may then arise with standard survival analyses producing biased effect estimates, even in randomized trials. Herein we describe the concept of time-dependent confounding in detail and discuss whether the response to first-line treatment may be a potential time-dependent confounding factor for survival in the context of subsequent therapy. A prospective observational study of 406 patients with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer served as an example base. There is evidence that time-dependent confounding may occur in multivariate survival analysis after first-line therapy when disregarding subsequent treatment. In the light of this important but underestimated aspect some of the large and meaningful recent clinical first-line lung cancer studies are discussed, focussing on subsequent treatment and its potential impact on the survival of the study patients. No recently performed lung cancer trial applied adequate statistical analyses despite the frequent use of subsequent therapies. In conclusion, effect estimates from standard survival analysis may be biased even in randomized controlled trials because of time-dependent confounding. To adequately assess treatment effects on long-term outcomes appropriate statistical analyses need to take subsequent treatment into account.