27 March, 2017:
I urge everyone carefully to read Robert Langer's article in the April issue of Climacteric . Members can download the paper from the IMS website. Langer was one of the chief investigators of the WHI project, both clinician and epidemiologist, who was able to bring not only his unbiased view on the clinical data, but also some important anecdotes related to behind-the-scene administrative issues. Below are the main points that I found most significant, as quoted from the article.
1. 'The WHI set out to test whether (contemporary in 1993) HRT prevents CHD, fractures, and bowel cancer, in women well beyond menopause who are at greater risk of those diseases than the younger women represented in the prior studies. Enrollment was restricted within age groups so that no more than 10% of women would be 50–54 years old, and no more than 20% would be between 55 and 59 years old. Fully 70% of WHI women were to be 60–79 years old.'
2. 'The initial results paper was written by a small group from the coordinating center and program office and submitted to the journal without informing or consulting the clinical site principal investigators. . . . On June 27th, the entire investigator group consisting of the principal investigators for the 40 clinical sites, the coordinating center team, and the NIH program staff gathered for the semi-annual meeting in Chicago. After minor preliminaries, the investigator group was stunned by the announcement that the Data Safety and Monitoring Committee (DSMB) had recommended stopping the CEE + MPA trial and that the Director had accepted their recommendation. Minutes later the group was shocked by the distribution of a typeset copy of the primary results paper soon to be published in JAMA. This was the first time that the vast majority of principal investigators had seen the paper. . . . Concerns were raised about the propriety of producing a paper on behalf of the entire study group in this manner. More importantly, concerns were raised about the tone, the analyses conducted and reported, and the interpretation of the results in the paper. After some discussion, it was agreed that the concerned investigators could quickly provide edits addressing the tone and interpretation. . . . Edits were produced in the brief time remaining before lunch and taken to JAMA. The courier returned shortly with the message that the journal issue had already been printed.'
3. 'The NIH press release announcing the stopping of the study began with the headline "NHLBI Stops Trial of Estrogen Plus Progestin Due to Increased Breast Cancer Risk, Lack of Overall Benefit". The draft press release was distributed to the investigator group after lunch on June 27th, following on the news that the journal was already printed and the paper could not be edited. There was heated discussion about the wording of the press release. But, in the end, the wording favored by the program office prevailed. That headline, pandering to women's greatest fear – the fear of breast cancer – ensured that word of the study would spread like wildfire. And it ensured that the conversation would be driven much more by emotion and politics than by science.'
4. 'Contrary to the usual procedure in clinical trials . . . , no covariate adjusted analyses were reported. . . . The only significant findings in the 'adjusted' results were for a reduction in total fracture and an increase in VTE. The nominal results were significant for benefits in colorectal cancer, hip fracture and total fracture, and significant for adverse outcomes in CHD, stroke and VTE. Even the nominal results were not statistically significant for breast cancer; although the hazard ratio (HR) was 1.26, the 95% confidence interval (CI) (1.0–1.59) included 1.0. The 'adjusted' 95% confidence interval for breast cancer was 0.83–1.92. Nonetheless, incredibly, the paper included the statistically unsupported statement 'The WHI is the first randomized controlled trial to confirm that combined estrogen plus progestin does increase the risk of incident breast cancer and to quantify the degree of risk'.'