There is no universally accepted instrument to use as a validated surrogate endpoint for overall survival in phase 2 and phase 3 multimodal rectal cancer trials using chemoradiotherapy. Efforts are hampered by the inaccuracy of clinical TNM staging, the variability of indications for neoadjuvant treatment, and diverse definitions of tumour regression grade. Pathological complete response is commonly used, but fails to capture information from the majority of patients. The neoadjuvant rectal score categorises response and downstaging from the entire trial population to identify whether or not a novel treatment group in a chemoradiation trial is superior by predicting overall survival outcomes. Additionally, the neoadjuvant rectal score assesses the difference between initial clinical and pathological T stage and the presence or absence of nodal involvement after treatment. The neoadjuvant rectal score has been conceptually, but incompletely, statistically validated by two independent trial datasets. However, a fundamental weakness of the score is that no preoperative phase 3 trials in locally advanced rectal cancer in the past 20 years have provided a significant benefit in overall survival to statistically validate the neoadjuvant rectal score as a surrogate endpoint for overall survival. We review the robustness, practical value, applicability, generalisability, advantages, and disadvantages of the neoadjuvant rectal score as a surrogate endpoint for overall survival and recommend how this score could be improved and be acceptable as a standard endpoint in studies investigating neoadjuvant chemotherapy and chemoradiation in patients with rectal cancer.
Robert Glynne-Jones, Stuart Glynne-Jones