Background: Interferon-alpha therapy, which is used to treat metastatic malignant melanoma, can cause patients to develop two distinct neurobehavioral symptom complexes: a mood syndrome and a neurovegetative syndrome. Interferon-alpha effects on serotonin metabolism appear to contribute to the mood and anxiety syndrome, while the neurovegetative syndrome appears to be related to interferon-alpha effects on dopamine. Purpose: Our goal is to propose a design for utilizing a sequential, multiple assignment, randomized trial design for patients with malignant melanoma to test the relative efficacy of drugs that target serotonin versus dopamine metabolism during 4 weeks of intravenous, then 8 weeks of subcutaneous, interferon-alpha therapy. Methods: Patients will be offered participation in a double-blinded, randomized, controlled, 14-week trial involving two treatment phases. During the first month of intravenous interferon-alpha therapy, we will test the hypotheses that escitalopram will be more effective in reducing depressed mood, anxiety, and irritability, whereas methylphenidate will be more effective in diminishing interferon-alpha-induced neurovegetative symptoms, such as fatigue and psychomotor slowing. During the next 8 weeks of subcutaneous interferon therapy, participants whose symptoms do not improve significantly will be randomized to the alternate agent alone versus escitalopram and methylphenidate together. Results: We present a prototype for a single-center, sequential, multiple assignment, randomized trial, which seeks to determine the efficacy of sequenced and targeted treatment for the two distinct symptom complexes suffered by patients treated with interferon-alpha. Limitations: Because we cannot completely control for external factors, a relevant question is whether or not 'short-term' neuropsychiatric interventions can increase the number of interferon-alpha doses tolerated and improve long-term survival. Conclusions: This sequential, multiple assignment, randomized trial proposes a framework for developing optimal treatment strategies; however, additional studies are needed to determine the best strategy for treating or preventing neurobehavioral symptoms induced by the immunotherapy interferon-alpha.
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