Despite an explosion of translational research to exploit biomarkers in diagnosis, prediction and prognosis, the impact of biomarkers on clinical practice has been limited. The elusiveness of clinical utility may partly originate when validation studies are planned, from a failure to articulate precisely how the biomarker, if successful, will improve clinical decision-making for patients. Clarifying what performance would suffice if the test is to improve medical care makes it possible to design meaningful validation studies. But methods for tackling this part of validation study design are undeveloped, because it demands uncomfortable judgments about the relative values of good and bad outcomes resulting from a medical decision.
An unconventional use of “number needed to treat” (NNT) can structure communication for the trial design team, to elicit purely value-based outcome tradeoffs, conveyed as the endpoints of an NNT “discomfort range”. The study biostatistician can convert the endpoints into desired predictive values, providing criteria for designing a prospective validation study. Next, a novel “contra-Bayes” theorem converts those predictive values into target sensitivity and specificity criteria, to guide design of a retrospective validation study. Several examples demonstrate the approach.
In practice, NNT-guided dialogues have contributed to validation study planning by tying it closely to specific patient-oriented translational goals. The ultimate payoff comes when the report of the completed study includes motivation in the form of a biomarker test framework directly reflecting the clinical decision challenge to be solved. Then readers will understand better what the biomarker test has to offer patients.