Stage at which riluzole treatment prolongs survival in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: a retrospective analysis of data from a dose-ranging study

Ton Fang, Ahmad Al Khleifat, Jacques-Henri Meurgey, Ashley Jones, P Nigel Leigh, Gilbert Bensimon, Ammar Al-Chalabi

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Background Riluzole is the only drug to prolong survival for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and, at a dose of 100 mg, was associated with a 35% reduction in mortality in a clinical trial. A key question is whether the survival benefit occurs at an early stage of disease, late stage, or is spread throughout the course of the disease. To address this question, we used the King's clinical staging system to do a retrospective analysis of data from the original dose-ranging clinical trial of riluzole. 
Methods In the original dose-ranging trial, patients were enrolled between December, 1992, and November, 1993, in Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Canada, the USA, and the UK if they had probable or definite ALS as defined by the El Escorial criteria. The censor date for the riluzole survival data was set as the original study end date of Dec 31, 1994. For this analysis, King's clinical ALS stage was estimated from the electronic case record data of the modified Norris scale, UK Medical Research Council score for muscle strength, El Escorial category, vital capacity, and gastrostomy insertion data. The lowest allocated stage was 2 because the original trial only included patients with probable or definite ALS. We used a χ2 test to assess the independence of stage at trial enrolment and treatment group, Kaplan-Meier product limit distribution to test the transition from each stage to subsequent stages, and Cox regression to confirm an effect of treatment group on time in stage, controlling for covariates. We did sensitivity analyses by combining treatment groups, using alternative strategies to stage, stratifying by stage at trial enrolment, and using multistate outcome analysis of treatments (MOAT). 
Findings We analysed the case records of all 959 participants from the original dose-ranging trial, 237 assigned to 50 mg/day riluzole, 236 to 100 mg/day, 244 to 200 mg/day, and 242 to daily placebo. Clinical stage at enrolment did not significantly differ between treatment groups (p=0·22). Time in stage 4 was longer for patients receiving 100 mg/day riluzole than for those receiving placebo (hazard ratio [HR] 0·55, 95% CI 0·36–0·83; log-rank p=0·037). Combining treatment groups and stratifying by stage at enrolment showed a similar result (HR 0·638, 95% CI 0·464–0·878; p=0·006), as did analysis with MOAT where the mean number of days spent in stage 4 was numerically higher for patients given riluzole at higher doses compared with patients receiving placebo. Time from stages 2 or 3 to subsequent stages or death did not differ between riluzole treatment groups and placebo (p=0·83 for stage 2 and 0·88 for stage 3). 
Interpretation We showed that riluzole prolongs survival in the last clinical stage of ALS; this finding needs to be confirmed in a prospective study, and treatment effects at stage 1 still need to be analysed. The ALS stage at which benefit occurs is important for counselling of patients before starting treatment. Staging should be used in future ALS clinical trials to assess the stage at which survival benefit occurs, and a similar approach could be used for other neurodegenerative diseases. 
Funding NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre, The European Union Joint Programme on Neurodegeneration, and the King's Summer Undergraduate Studentship.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)416-422
Number of pages7
JournalLancet Neurology
Issue number5
Early online date7 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018


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