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Conflicts of interest in HIV medicine: The 2012 revised DHHS HIV treatment guidelines and what’s wrong with expert opinion

April 12, 2012 Leave a comment

The most recent revision of the DHHS guidelines on the use of antiretrovirals in HIV infected adults and adolescents now recommends starting therapy at a CD4 lymphocyte count greater than 500/ mm3.,

For those with greater than 500 CD4 lymphocytes the recommendation is only supported by expert opinion – the opinions of the experts on the DHHS panel.  Almost all of the non-governmental researchers on the panel have financial arrangements with entities that stand to gain from the decisions they make.  There are plenty of other experts who are not members of the DHHS panel who are not so certain that starting treatment above 500 CD4 lymphocytes will confer a net benefit to the patient..

This particular recommendation is unlike those made for individuals with lower CD4 numbers where more reliable evidence from clinical trials clearly demonstrates a benefit to the patient

Evidence based medicine has brought us a long way from the days when clinical decisions were based on authority and tradition (“expert opinion”); it attempts to use the best available evidence on which to base clinical recommendations.  The term “best available evidence “means that not all types of evidence are of equal quality.  There are several systems that grade the relative strengths of evidence derived from different sources.    All agree that evidence provided by randomized controlled clinical trials is of the highest quality and therefore the most reliable.  Applied to HIV medicine, a strong recommendation that antiviral treatment be initiated at 350 or fewer CD4s can be confidently made because the evidence of substantial benefit is derived from a randomized controlled clinical trial.

At the other end of the scale rating the quality of evidence, is evidence based on “expert opinion”.   This may not even be a marginal improvement on the bad old days when the doctor knew best; when there was no need to justify a recommendation other than by the authority of the doctor or by tradition.

The rating of the recommendation that people with more than 500 CD4 lymphocytes start treatment, according to the system used by DHHS is B III.   It’s a moderate recommendation supported only by the opinion of experts.

But when expert opinion is the basis for a recommendation, this does not even mean that the opinion represents a consensus of all experts.   It only represents the opinion of those experts chosen by the organization making the recommendation.

Making a recommendation based solely on expert opinion is particularly troublesome when the means exist to obtain evidence of the highest quality.  The START trial that directly addresses the question of when it’s best to begin antiviral treatment is enrolling, and one must wonder why the panel did not defer making a recommendation concerning individuals with greater than 500 CD4 lymphocytes until the trial results become available.  This is even more puzzling as individuals who have waited to start at CD4 numbers between 350 to 500 have in general done very well, so waiting to make a recommendation for some years until the START trial results are available seems to be a much more reasonable and prudent option than jumping the gun and making a recommendation based on  evidence of the weakest quality.

Bur when we come to look at the associations of the experts on the DHHS panel, a recommendation based on expert opinion is even more problematic.  We note that almost all of the non-governmental researchers have financial arrangements with entities that can benefit from the decisions they make. Some of these arrangements are quite extensive.

Take a look at them.

A conflict of interest becomes particularly troublesome when it’s only the opinion of the expert that supports a recommendation. Since people with greater than 500 CD4 lymphocytes represent a huge proportion of the HIV infected population, treating them will have an impact on expanding the market for antiviral drugs.  With greater efforts to encourage testing, greater numbers of individuals with higher CD4 numbers will be identified, and now recommended to receive lifelong treatment with expensive and potentially toxic drugs whose benefit has not yet been proven to outweigh their harms.

The conflicts of interest of panel members are duly noted in the DHHS financial disclosures.

Early AIDS activists performed a great service for all individuals who must deal with illness, in asserting their right to make informed decisions concerning their care, and that the decisions are made free from coercion.   Withholding information and supplying misinformation are forms of coercion.

Although the guidelines ask physicians to inform patients with high CD4 numbers that evidence for benefit is  not conclusive    I   think it’s safe to conclude that individuals with greater than 500 CD4s will not always, and may only rarely informed   be informed  of this important caveat. As to informing patients of the conflicts of interest noted above, this isn’t even a consideration.   They are also unlikely to be told that the recommendation that they start treatment is based on the opinion of certain experts only, and that there are other experts with a different opinion.  In fact, the DHHS guidelines   may be the only ones in the world to make this recommendation.

Undoubtedly the DHHS panel members believe that people with higher CD4 numbers will receive a net benefit from treatment.    But the recommendations would have greater authority if the non-governmental researchers on the panel were better balanced with respect to members who had no financial arrangements with entities that stand to benefit from their decisions;  in fact many would agree that such conflicts of interest should be a disqualification for panel membership.

The recommendations also refer to the prevention benefit of treatment.  The greatest prevention benefit will result from the treatment of individuals with lower CD4 numbers who will have the highest viral loads.   These individuals need treatment. On this point there is no doubt or debate. For those with higher CD 4 numbers, not known at this time to benefit from treatment, the prevention benefit is likely to be much lower as their viral loads will also, on average be much lower than those with more advanced HIV disease.

Providing treatment to everybody who needs it to stay alive should surely be our first priority.   It is here that treatment will also have its greatest prevention benefit.

Conflicts of interest are of course common among those making treatment recommendations.  However HIV medicine seems to be unique in that these conflicts of interest, which may be among the most egregious, seem to go almost completely unnoticed.  In every other field of clinical medicine they occasion extensive discussion.    The apparent indifference to conflict of interest issues and the  influence drug marketing practices   in HIV medicine is unfortunate, as precedents in that field may go unnoticed but will have implications for other fields  of clinical medicine.   The rapid approval of zidovudine by the FDA in 1987 may be such an example.

Two years ago in a tribute to Michael Callen  I responded to similar recommendations to treat all HIV infected individuals irrespective of CD4 numbers.

I cannot express my reservations more clearly than with the words I used then:

I miss Michael Callen. He was my patient when AIDS began, but soon became my collaborator and friend.

For a time, Michael and Richard Berkowitz, another patient collaborator, were able to work out of an office adjoining my practice on W 12th street in New York City. It was in this setting that Michael and Richard learned about the medical aspects of this new disease and participated in the creation of some of the earliest organized community responses to the epidemic.

Michael and Richard helped in the formation of the AIDS Medical Foundation; they wrote the very first publication to recommend condom use by gay men. Michael played a role in the first attempt to protect the confidentiality of people with AIDS, and he helped to create both the Community Research Initiative and the PWA Health group.

A thread running through all of these endeavours is the notion of self empowerment. This extends beyond the belief that individuals who are fighting a disease should actively participate with their doctors in making decisions about the care they receive. Empowerment also means the inclusion of affected individuals at all levels of the response to the disease, from research to the provision of services.

The Community Research Initiative was sponsored by the PWA Coalition of which Michael was President. This is the very embodiment of self empowerment. It is people with a disease sponsoring research into that disease themselves and not waiting for some benevolent institution to come to the rescue.

Michael understood that his interests and priorities as a person living with AIDS might sometimes be at odds with those of some scientists conducting research into this new disease. He knew very well that he was living in a world that was still capable of cruel and discriminatory behavior towards him. Who better to protect the interests of those who had the most to lose than people living with AIDS themselves?

Self empowerment found expression in the Denver Principles. Michael and Richard were both signatories to this historic document. Michael played a major role in crafting the words of the Denver Principles.

Almost thirty years later these Principles remain as important as when they were first articulated.

One of the Denver principles asserts the right to obtain full explanations of all medical procedures and risks.

I wish Michael Callen were here today to bring attention to the violation of this right.

This is happening with little protest in places like San Francisco where antiviral medications are now recommended for healthier HIV positive individuals for whom the benefits of treatment have not been shown to outweigh the risks.

As always, you can’t beat the truth, and the truth is that for people with more than 350 CD4 lymphocytes, the best time to start treatment is not known. This may seem surprising as potent antiretroviral drugs have been available for fifteen years.

We have not yet done the kind of study that would most reliably provide the information those HIV positive individuals with higher CD4 numbers and their doctors need to make the best decisions about when to start treatment.

With information provided by a properly designed and conducted prospective randomized trial, we could know with confidence when in the course of HIV infection the benefits of treatment absolutely outweigh the risks.

Some feel that a decision can be made with less reliable information. But surely all would agree that a decision to start treatment or to defer it must always be an informed one voluntarily made by the individual considering treatment.

It is here that the principle asserting the right to a full explanation of the risks of medical interventions is being violated.

The San Francisco Department of Public Health in advising all HIV infected individuals to receive treatment is in effect telling them that at all stages of HIV disease the benefits of treatment outweigh the risks. This may be so, but apart from those with 350 or fewer CD4 lymphocytes, we just do not have the most reliable evidence to support this contention.

People with higher CD4 numbers have the right to know not only what evidence there is that immediate treatment will have a net benefit compared to deferring it, but also the quality of that evidence. They surely should also be made aware that experts hold differing opinions on whether treatment should begin immediately or be deferred.

A physician in San Francisco who recommended that all HIV infected individuals should start treatment immediately was reported to have said:

“If I’m wrong, we’ll start people [on treatment] a couple years earlier than we otherwise would. But if I’m right and we don’t start early, there’s no going back,”

Others who are concerned about drug side effects might feel that more may be at stake for HIV positive individuals with higher CD4 numbers. This also includes the possibility that fewer options may be available when treatment is definitely known to be needed.

This doctor is also reported to have said:

“The old paradigm was that drugs are toxic so we should wait as long as possible. The new paradigm is that while today’s drugs are not totally benign, they are less toxic than the virus.”

“The” paradigm? Is it not misleading to give an impression that his views on drug toxicities represent a consensus?

How on earth can the longer term toxicities of the newer drugs be known?

Just a few days ago it was reported that AZT and 3TC based therapies produced a metabolic abnormality called hyperhomocysteinemia. This is a condition associated with vascular abnormalities including a greatly higher risk of heart attacks. We have been prescribing AZT and 3TC for about twenty years, so what information does the San Francisco doctor have that gives him such confidence that the drugs in use for only a few years are less toxic?

Empowerment means that HIV positive individuals make their own decisions to start or to defer treatment. They have the right to clear and honest information to enable them to make this decision. Those with higher CD4 counts have the right to know that there still is uncertainty about when it is best to start treatment.

The views of the San Francisco Department of Public health and those who share them are just opinions; healthier HIV positive individuals should also know that these opinions are not held by all experts. Respect for the autonomy of healthier HIV positive individuals requires that opposing views on when it’s best to start treatment be presented together with the evidence supporting these views, so those who have most at stake can decide for themselves.

There will continue to be opposing views on when it’s best to start antiviral therapy as long as the question has not been put to the test.

The best way to resolve uncertainty in clinical medicine is by conducting prospective randomized trials. A properly designed and conducted trial could reliably and safely answer the question of whether, on average, immediate or deferred treatment is better or worse or makes no difference.

HIV positive individuals deserve the most reliable information to inform them in making treatment decisions. The START trial is a randomized prospective study that directly asks the question about the best time to start antiviral medications. We could really finally know what’s best, and no longer rely on opinions based on data of inferior quality.

Is an immediate or deferred initiation of treatment better or worse, or does it make no difference? If knowledge is power a demand to complete the START trial is the embodiment of the self empowerment of HIV positive individuals. The very antithesis of self empowerment is to allow researchers to persuade us with evidence of inferior quality, such as their personal opinions, presented as if there were a consensus, or with the results of embarrassingly uninterpretable studies such as NA-ACCORD so often used to justify earlier starts to treatment. NA-ACCORD was not a prospective randomized trial. It was a review of a large number of medical records. Such retrospective observational studies are beset with interpretative difficulties because subjects are not randomly assigned to receive one or another kind of intervention, in this case, to start treatment early or to defer it. We don’t know why a particular course of action was chosen. The reasons why decisions were made to start treatment early or to defer it may have determined the outcome rather than the time treatment was started.

In situations where prospective randomized trials cannot be conducted for whatever reasons, then we have to do the best with data of inferior quality. But fortunately this is not the case with HIV infection.

I miss Michael Callen. He would have reminded us that HIV positive individuals must demand that the best evidence be obtained to inform their treatment choices.

.

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Treatment as Prevention: Protecting Individual Autonomy

Treatment as Prevention

Protecting  patient autonomy

Patient autonomy is just a particular instance of individual autonomy, a term that may sound pretty dry and academic but if we used the term individual freedom we would essentially be talking about the same thing.

Respect for the autonomy of the individual may be the most important of the principles that form the foundation of medical ethics. (1)

One attribute of personal autonomy is: “the capacity to be one’s own person, to live one’s life according to reasons and motives that are taken as one’s own and not the product of manipulative or distorting external forces.” (2)

There is no disagreement about the importance of respect for individual autonomy but as I’ll explain, it seems that its pre-eminence is being questioned in some proposals to use antiretroviral treatment to prevent transmission of HIV.

The recent demonstration that antiretroviral treatment can prevent transmission of HIV among serodiscordant heterosexual couples is great news.  However, when the person offered treatment has not yet been shown to personally benefit from it, an ethical issue needs to be addressed.   It has not yet been reliably demonstrated that for people with greater than 350 CD4 lymphocytes, starting treatment immediately rather than deferring it confers a net benefit; indeed, it may even prove to be harmful.   A randomized controlled trial now enrolling will provide needed information, but we will have to wait several years for its results.

The issue isn’t whether or not people with greater than 350 CD4 lymphocytes should receive treatment.  A respect for their autonomy requires that the decision whether or not to do so is made by them and is made free from coercion.

A recent issue of the Journal, Public Health Ethics (3) is devoted to ethical issues associated with the proposal that a program of universal testing and treatment of infected individuals could bring an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  Such a proposal would involve the treatment of healthier HIV infected individuals not at this time known to personally benefit from antiviral medications which could even harm them.

In an article in the journal referred to above,  public health ethics  is said to require an approach where respect for individual autonomy is not paramount;  a commitment to the supremacy of individual autonomy could have no place where the “primacy of collective wellbeing is the starting point”.

In that case I wonder just how desirable a collective wellbeing would be where individual rights were subservient to whatever was defined as the collective good.

I can only hope that this goes nowhere, as abandoning the pre-eminence of respect for individual autonomy opens the door to tyranny, paternalistic or otherwise.  Individual freedoms have been hard won, and we should always be aware of harms that have been perpetrated in the name of the public good, even leaving alone the problem of who defines what constitutes the public good.

In public health, medical research and medical practice, concern for individual autonomy remains paramount.   The only commonly agreed acceptable exemption is the restriction of personal freedoms to prevent harm to others such as limiting the movement of individuals with highly communicable diseases where the harm that may be done to others is considerable.  That is, outside the criminal justice system, among individuals who are free.

People have the right to make decisions about their treatment, their participation in a research study, or in a public health intervention, free from coercion.   

Providing misleading information is a form of coercion; withholding information may also be coercive.

Providers of health care have an obligation to provide patients with honest information to inform their decisions.  This must include information about what is known about the risks and benefits of treatment, as well as what remains conjectural.

Information and the strength of the evidence upon which it rests:

 

It’s not enough to simply provide individuals with information concerning the benefits and risks of a particular treatment.  In order for the information to be useful we must also indicate the strength of the evidence on which the information rests. (4)

The most reliable evidence regarding the effects of a particular treatment is provided by results of randomized controlled clinical trials.  This is because the treatment in question has been put to the test in a protocol that minimizes bias; we can therefore have a greater degree of confidence that effects observed are in fact caused by the treatment.

Unfortunately information derived from randomized controlled trials is often unavailable.  The clinical trial may not yet have been completed, or for whatever reasons the trial cannot be undertaken.

When this is the case we have to consider evidence of inferior quality, for example, evidence derived from reviews of patient records or observational studies, and the opinion of experts.

Observational studies are beset with interpretative difficulties because subjects are not randomly assigned to receive one or another kind of intervention.  The particular reasons why participants were selected for study may influence the outcome rather than the effects of the intervention.

Expert opinion:

In all the systems I have seen that grade the quality of different kinds of evidence, expert opinion is at the bottom of the list.    But expert opinion can be valuable to an individual in coming to a treatment decision when evidence of the highest quality is not available.

Respect for patient autonomy means that patients make their own decisions free from coercion.  As noted, supplying misleading information is a form of coercion.   To state that something is known to be the case, when it is only an opinion is misleading.

HPTN 052

HPTN 052 is the study which demonstrated the efficacy of antiretroviral treatment in preventing transmission of HIV among serodiscordant heterosexual couples.  Although the result was not unexpected it is nonetheless significant because it was obtained from a randomized controlled clinical trial.

We now know that the uninfected partners of individuals with greater than 350 CD4 lymphocytes will benefit from treatment of the HIV positive partner.  At this time we can only have an opinion about whether starting treatment immediately or deferring it will benefit or harm the infected partner with greater than 350 CD4s or be without effect – apart from cost.

Most of the jubilant reports of the results of HPTN 052 do not mention the problem facing the healthier HIV positive partner in coming to a decision.  Do the commentators just assume that it’s been established that all infected individuals receive a net benefit from treatment irrespective of CD4 numbers?  Or do they not believe it to be important that patients make their own decisions regarding their treatment?

I wish I could say I was startled to read in one newsletter that “For treatment as prevention to work….. people need to be convinced that early treatment is in their interest.”

Convincing people to take a possibly perilous course of action based merely on opinion and evidence of inferior quality is a step on a road that ends with enforcement.

A respect for individual autonomy means that we respect the right of individuals to make decisions on their own behalf, free from even subtle coercion.  Our obligation as providers of health care information is to not only provide information, but also an indication of the quality of the evidence supporting it.

At this time we do not know that individuals with greater than 350 CD4 lymphocytes receive a net benefit from antiviral treatment.  There is evidence that they may, but until this is put to the test in a randomized controlled trial such as START, we must not mislead them by trying to convince them that “early treatment is in their interest”.

Given adequate information, a person with greater than 500 CD4 lymphocytes may reasonably decide to take antiretroviral drugs to lessen the risk of infecting a partner even knowing that there may be no personal benefit or that there is a possibility of harm.

Whenever treatment is offered for any reason other than for a person’s benefit, and where it has not yet been reliably demonstrated that there will be a net benefit, a consent process should be required.  I doubt though that this will happen.

At the end of the day what’s of central importance is that we respect our patient’s right to make choices about his or her treatment, and provide honest information to inform that choice, recognizing the difference between expert opinion and established fact.

(1)    Ever since Beauchamp and Childress published the first edition of their classic text, Principles of Biomedical Ethics, in 1979 it’s been commonly accepted that beneficence, nonmaleficence, justice and respect for autonomy, are four principles that should guide medical ethics.

The Four Principles are general guides:

Respect for autonomy: respecting the decision-making capacities of autonomous persons; enabling individuals to make reasoned informed choices.

Beneficence: this considers the balancing of benefits of treatment against the risks and costs; the healthcare professional should act in a way that benefits the patient

Non maleficence: avoiding the causation of harm; the healthcare professional should not harm the patient. All treatment involves some harm, even if minimal, but the harm should not be disproportionate to the benefits of treatment.

Justice: distributing benefits, risks and costs fairly; the notion that patients in similar positions should be treated in a similar manner.

Beauchamp and Childress; Principles Biomedical Ethics, OUP, 5th edition

(2)   Christman, J, 2001″Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2007 Edition) , Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2007/entries/autonomy-moral/&gt;.

(3)    http://phe.oxfordjournals.org/content/3/3.toc

(4)   Several systems have been devised to grade the quality of evidence.For example:  http://www.cebm.net/index.aspx?o=1025 The GRADE working group has been working on assessing the quality of evidence since 2000. http://www.gradeworkinggroup.org/index.htm

USPHS guidelines:We need reliable evidence to justify an earlier start of anti-retroviral therapy.


The most recent revision of the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) guidelines for the treatment of HIV/AIDS recommended initiation of anti-retroviral treatment at a CD4 count of 500.

This recommendation was made in the absence of evidence from a prospective randomized clinical trial.   Instead, evidence of inferior quality was relied on.

Much is at stake for HIV infected individuals.  The point in the course of HIV infection when treatment is initiated can affect the duration and quality of life.

Rather than issuing interim guidelines pending the completion of a prospective randomized trial the guidelines committee has jumped the gun, relying on evidence of inferior quality.

In the following article, John Falkenberg reminds us of the harm that has resulted from basing recommendations on observational cohort studies.

—————————————————————————————

John Falkenberg  New York, NY

Doctors and patients always have the right to choose treatment that is not based on data generated from well-designed clinical trials.  However, I worry when treatment guidelines are based on cohort studies or anecdote, and it’s alarming when the city of San Francisco and Project Inform endorse that practice.

No study is cited more often than NA-ACCORD, an observational cohort study, to support early antiretroviral therapy.  Besides the many historical examples of harm caused by treatment guidelines based on observational studies (see the Nurses’ Health Study, below), NA-ACCORD suffers from more than the self selection bias of observational studies:  a large percentage of the deferred treatment group, approximately 45%, did not initiate therapy and/or did not have a decline in CD4 counts.  How can those findings be extrapolated to clinical practice?  In addition, the early treatment group may have had incomparable medical care.  For example, were lipids more carefully monitored in that group resulting in more aggressive use of statins, a class of drug with pleiotropic effects that include improving endothelial function, enhancing the stability of atherosclerotic plaques, decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation, and inhibiting the thrombogenic response.  These drugs have demonstrated morbidity and mortality benefits in clinical settings where lipid levels are normal.

The history of HIV treatment guidelines is an excellent reminder of the risk of formulating guidelines based on observational studies and anecdotal evidence.  However, HIV is not the best example.  There are clinical settings where “more compelling” cohort data using medications considered relatively safe served as the basis for treatment guidelines that ultimately were proven wrong at a significant cost.

I think the best example pertains to the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in postmenopausal women.  There were many anecdotal, observational and retrospective reports of the many benefits of HRT, but the Nurses’ Health Study was the flagship.  The Nurses Heath Study was a case control, observational study of over 120,000 nurses, including over 20,000 who were post menopausal.  As the follow up continued for years, an increasing number of women reached menopause, and various health variables were monitored and reported.  The most striking “conclusion” of this study was that the relative risk of death was 0.63 in HRT users vs. non users.  The risk of major coronary artery disease among HRT users was 0.60 when compared to those who never used HRT.  Both of these findings were statistically significant.  These data were broadly reported in medical journals, and professional meetings.  The data were added to the HRT prescribing information and aggressively promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, particularly the manufacturer of Premarin (American Home Products, renamed Wyeth, recently acquired by Pfizer), the most widely prescribed HRT.

There was huge resistance to conducting a prospective randomized controlled trial in this population.  “It denies the placebo-controlled group the protective heart benefits of HRT.”  “It is unethical to randomize people who would clearly benefit from HRT to placebo.”  “No one would enroll in this trial considering what we already know about the benefits of HRT in this population.”  Despite the criticism, the Women’s Health Initiative, a prospective randomized controlled study of HRT in postmenopausal women was conducted.  In July 2002 the study was halted early due to a statistically significant excess risk of heart attack, stroke and breast cancer in those receiving HRT versus those on placebo; a finding that literally rocked the world of HRT.

More recently, long-term treatment recommendations in diabetes were debunked by results from the first well designed, randomized controlled study (coincidently named ACCORD), with cardiovascular clinical endpoints.  Using multiple medications for intensive glucose lowering and intensive blood pressure reduction did not reduce cardiovascular events but only increased adverse events.  Once again, guidelines formulated without data derived from controlled clinical trials did more harm than good.

There is a lot at stake here and I fear that this is déjà vu all over again.  The NA-ACCORD results are compelling and generate a hypothesis that needs to be tested, but the clinical trial has yet to be performed and the evidence is absent.  I find it difficult to understand why those of us who have lived during decades of this epidemic, who have seen those living with HIV experience a wide range in the rate of disease progression, and who have seen the rise and fall of early antiretroviral therapy, do not demand more.  I’m shocked by both the city of San Francisco and Project Inform.

I cannot claim to know the motivation behind the current push for early treatment without evidence.  However, I do know the pressure felt by the pharmaceutical industry as they approach a patent cliff with little in the advanced research pipeline and significant overcapacity.  It is not coincidental that lobbying efforts have been stepped up in an economic climate where value driven medicine is a new priority.  That lobbying includes an aggressive push to eliminate informed consent for HIV testing and a push for early treatment.  And, here we are with major public health agencies and CBO’s jumping on the bandwagon without the evidence

We need reliable evidence to justify an earlier start of anti-retroviral therapy. May, 2009


The most recent revision of the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) guidelines for the treatment of HIV/AIDS recommended initiation of anti-retroviral treatment at a CD4 count of 500.

This recommendation was made in the absence of evidence from a prospective randomized clinical trial.   Instead, evidence of inferior quality was relied on.

Much is at stake for HIV infected individuals.  The point in the course of HIV infection when treatment is initiated can affect the duration and quality of life.

Rather than issuing interim guidelines pending the completion of a prospective randomized trial the guidelines committee has jumped the gun, relying on evidence of inferior quality.

In the following article, John Falkenberg reminds us of the harm that has resulted from basing recommendations on observational cohort studies.

—————————————————————————————

John Falkenberg  New York, NY

Doctors and patients always have the right to choose treatment that is not based on data generated from well-designed clinical trials.  However, I worry when treatment guidelines are based on cohort studies or anecdote, and it’s alarming when the city of San Francisco and Project Inform endorse that practice.

No study is cited more often than NA-ACCORD, an observational cohort study, to support early antiretroviral therapy.  Besides the many historical examples of harm caused by treatment guidelines based on observational studies (see the Nurses’ Health Study, below), NA-ACCORD suffers from more than the self selection bias of observational studies:  a large percentage of the deferred treatment group, approximately 45%, did not initiate therapy and/or did not have a decline in CD4 counts.  How can those findings be extrapolated to clinical practice?  In addition, the early treatment group may have had incomparable medical care.  For example, were lipids more carefully monitored in that group resulting in more aggressive use of statins, a class of drug with pleiotropic effects that include improving endothelial function, enhancing the stability of atherosclerotic plaques, decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation, and inhibiting the thrombogenic response.  These drugs have demonstrated morbidity and mortality benefits in clinical settings where lipid levels are normal.

The history of HIV treatment guidelines is an excellent reminder of the risk of formulating guidelines based on observational studies and anecdotal evidence.  However, HIV is not the best example.  There are clinical settings where “more compelling” cohort data using medications considered relatively safe served as the basis for treatment guidelines that ultimately were proven wrong at a significant cost.

I think the best example pertains to the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in postmenopausal women.  There were many anecdotal, observational and retrospective reports of the many benefits of HRT, but the Nurses’ Health Study was the flagship.  The Nurses Heath Study was a case control, observational study of over 120,000 nurses, including over 20,000 who were post menopausal.  As the follow up continued for years, an increasing number of women reached menopause, and various health variables were monitored and reported.  The most striking “conclusion” of this study was that the relative risk of death was 0.63 in HRT users vs. non users.  The risk of major coronary artery disease among HRT users was 0.60 when compared to those who never used HRT.  Both of these findings were statistically significant.  These data were broadly reported in medical journals, and professional meetings.  The data were added to the HRT prescribing information and aggressively promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, particularly the manufacturer of Premarin (American Home Products, renamed Wyeth, recently acquired by Pfizer), the most widely prescribed HRT.

There was huge resistance to conducting a prospective randomized controlled trial in this population.  “It denies the placebo-controlled group the protective heart benefits of HRT.”  “It is unethical to randomize people who would clearly benefit from HRT to placebo.”  “No one would enroll in this trial considering what we already know about the benefits of HRT in this population.”  Despite the criticism, the Women’s Health Initiative, a prospective randomized controlled study of HRT in postmenopausal women was conducted.  In July 2002 the study was halted early due to a statistically significant excess risk of heart attack, stroke and breast cancer in those receiving HRT versus those on placebo; a finding that literally rocked the world of HRT.

More recently, long-term treatment recommendations in diabetes were debunked by results from the first well designed, randomized controlled study (coincidently named ACCORD), with cardiovascular clinical endpoints.  Using multiple medications for intensive glucose lowering and intensive blood pressure reduction did not reduce cardiovascular events but only increased adverse events.  Once again, guidelines formulated without data derived from controlled clinical trials did more harm than good.

There is a lot at stake here and I fear that this is déjà vu all over again.  The NA-ACCORD results are compelling and generate a hypothesis that needs to be tested, but the clinical trial has yet to be performed and the evidence is absent.  I find it difficult to understand why those of us who have lived during decades of this epidemic, who have seen those living with HIV experience a wide range in the rate of disease progression, and who have seen the rise and fall of early antiretroviral therapy, do not demand more.  I’m shocked by both the city of San Francisco and Project Inform.

I cannot claim to know the motivation behind the current push for early treatment without evidence.  However, I do know the pressure felt by the pharmaceutical industry as they approach a patent cliff with little in the advanced research pipeline and significant overcapacity.  It is not coincidental that lobbying efforts have been stepped up in an economic climate where value driven medicine is a new priority.  That lobbying includes an aggressive push to eliminate informed consent for HIV testing and a push for early treatment.  And, here we are with major public health agencies and CBO’s jumping on the bandwagon without the evidence

HIV Treatment as Prevention. March 2010

March 4, 2010 Leave a comment

“Treatment as prevention” is in the news again as part of the media coverage of two conferences in California this month where claims were again made that treatment of virtually all HIV infected individuals could bring an end to the AIDS epidemic.

“Research shows that treatment could end the epidemic in thirty years” is typical of the headlines that enthusiastically announced this proposal to test and treat everybody found to be infected. Sadly, most of the reports I saw failed to comment on the huge practical difficulties that will need to be overcome to make such a project feasible. All ignored a probably insuperable ethical obstacle that will have to be confronted, which may well make the project completely unworkable. Added to these difficulties is the lack of agreement on the soundness of the mathematical model on which the proposal is based.

This initiative is also described as “treatment as prevention” although I also saw the term “seek, test and treat” used.

The prevention in “treatment as prevention” results from the reduced ability to transmit HIV that results from treatment with antiviral drugs.

It’s important to note that “treatment as prevention” can refer to two very different situations where infectivity is reduced by treatment. It describes the mathematical model, noted above that was published about a year ago in the Lancet, an influential weekly medical journal, which claims that the AIDS epidemic could be eliminated with regular tests for HIV and the immediate commencement of antiviral treatment of all who are infected. This is the title of the article: “Universal voluntary HIV testing with immediate antiretroviral therapy as a strategy for elimination of HIV transmission: a mathematical model “ (Reuben Granich and colleagues. Lancet 2009 373: 7).

Antiviral therapy according to this model would be given to all infected individuals whether or not the individual needs treatment. It would include lifelong treatment of healthier HIV infected people who have not been shown to benefit from it, such as those with more intact immune systems as well as those fortunate individuals whose disease does not progress. This is the root of the ethical problem; people who themselves are not known to benefit from treatment will be asked to receive it for a societal benefit. The benefits of treatment to such individuals are conjectural but as the drugs are not free from adverse effects, the risks are real. Unlike individuals with more advanced disease where the benefits of treatment vastly outweigh the risks, this cannot be known in the case of healthier HIV infected individuals.

This is very different to the analysis of the reduction in transmission of HIV that results from treating only those HIV infected individuals known to benefit from antiviral drugs. This is also referred to as “treatment as prevention” but unfortunately in none of the reports I saw was the distinction made between treatment only of those who benefit from it and treatment of all infected individuals. These two very different meanings of “treatment as prevention” were almost always conflated by commentators which could quite easily convey a mistaken impression that all HIV infected individuals are known to benefit from treatment.

Treatment must always be voluntary. But a voluntary decision to receive treatment does not mean a great deal if it is uninformed. The decision can most certainly seen to be coerced if misinformation is supplied. HIV infected individuals must be clearly informed about the risks and benefits of the intervention. As already noted, for individuals with more advanced disease, treatment without question provides a net benefit, but this is not known to be the case for HIV infected individuals with more intact immune systems.   There are suggestions that HIV infection may be associated with morbidity resulting from inflammatory reactions.   It is far from firmly established  if this is indeed the case and if it is, whether  it is an inevitable or even common  consequence of HIV infection, or if it can be prevented or treated with antiviral drugs.   It may also prove to be true that, as claimed by some investigators,  the newer antiviral drugs are less toxic than the older ones.  But the full range of their effects, particularly their longer term effects cannot be yet known. HIV disease can manifest in so many different ways that sorting out what is a drug effect from what is an effect of the infection itself may take a long time.

For healthier HIV infected individuals, the benefits of treatment remain conjectural as long as clinical trials have not been completed that are designed to provide a reliable answer to the question of when in the course of HIV disease it is best to start treatment. Quite remarkably, about fifteen years after potent antiviral drugs became available no such trial has been completed.

If a decision about whether or not to receive treatment is fully informed, healthier HIV infected individuals faced with an intervention that is accompanied with very real risks but only conjectural benefits may well choose to remain untreated, at least at that particular time in the course of their disease. The purpose of treatment is to reduce infectivity to others, but many might feel that this can be achieved with greater safety, and even possibly with greater reliability, by the use of condoms.  It should be said though that those researchers who point out the prevention benefits of treatment do not suggest that treatment is an alternative to condoms. On the contrary they recommend that treated individuals continue to use condoms.

Since the objective of treating all infected people is to end the epidemic, this can only be achieved if a large percentage of infected people receive treatment. But faced with a consent form clearly stating what is known about risks and benefits, it is most unlikely that enough healthier HIV infected people will agree to receive treatment. This is but one reason that if a decision to start treatment is properly informed the project is unlikely to enrol enough individuals to achieve its objective. A danger is that treatment of healthier HIV infected people may be claimed to have a net benefit with greater confidence than is warranted with information we presently have.   To succeed, the project also requires a lifetime of adherence to the treatment regimen.  When drugs are taken without confidence that they are of personal benefit, we cannot know how adherence to the regimen will play out.   Failures in this respect will not only diminish the chances that the project will succeed,  they can also result in the emergence of drug resistant strains of HIV which then could limit treatment options when treatment is needed.

There evidently is a belief that all HIV infected individuals, no matter the stage of disease will benefit from treatment. But this remains just that, a belief, as long as there is no firm evidence to support it. The evidence there is that healthier HIV infected individuals would receive a net benefit from treatment is of inferior quality, and therefore remains insecure. It comes from some retrospective observational studies. In such studies medical records are analyzed to compare outcomes in individuals who started treatment earlier with those who started later. Such studies however are beset with interpretative difficulties. Because individuals were not randomly assigned to start treatment early or later, a particular outcome, say improved survival of those starting treatment early, may result from whatever the reasons were that treatment was started at a particular time.

The great benefit of randomly assigning individuals to receive one treatment or another when two are compared is the elimination of interpretative  problems that arise when one or the other course of action is chosen.

The problem of such confounding factors was also discussed in a previous post: http://aidsperspective.net/blog/?p=75

The retrospective analysis most frequently cited in support of an earlier start to antiviral therapy, the NA-ACCORD study is also discussed in that post.

HIV infected individuals and those who advise them surely deserve more reliable evidence to support a decision whether to start or defer treatment than that provided by retrospective observational studies or worse, by mere belief.

Prospective randomized trials remain the best way to achieve this. They minimize bias, and thus misinterpretation, and remain the most reliable way to resolve uncertainty. There is no getting over this. Such trials may be expensive, and last a long time, but in the end, probably more time and money is lost by repeating inconclusive and conflicting retrospective studies. Surely we need to know, and not guess when it is best to start treatment.

START is a large clinical trial designed to provide an answer to the question of whether it is best to start treatment early or to defer it.     Another casualty of the pursuit of treatment as prevention that aims to treat all infected individuals is enrolment in START which may become more difficult. Those promoting treatment of all infected individuals as prevention must evidently feel that they already know the answer to be that an early start is best. How can this belief be reconciled with a respect for evidence based medicine that many of same experts claim to have?

We should rather concentrate our efforts on providing treatment to all HIV positive individuals who are at a stage in their disease where treatment is of unquestionable benefit. The fact that treatment reduces their infectivity to others is an added powerful argument to encourage widespread testing. An additional benefit is that people who know their HIV status are more likely to take steps to prevent infection of others.

The proposal to treat every infected person as a prevention strategy can be criticized on many levels. I have focussed here on the difficulty that arises from including the treatment of individuals not known to benefit from it. This can usefully be linked to support for and encouragement of enrolment in START.

The lack of concern for the ethical problem that arises from treating people not known to benefit from it is puzzling. A headline on the front page of the UK Independent newspaper reporting on the proposal to treat all infected people states: “AIDS: is the end in sight?”  The report quotes the opinion of one scientist that “the problem is that we are using the drugs to save lives, but we are not using them to stop transmission”   This statement  is quite remarkable.   The real problem arises when we administer drugs that can have adverse effects to people for any reason other than for their benefit.   We can only ask individuals to agree to take risks for a societal benefit if we have good reasons to believe that the endeavour has a good chance of success – in this case the grandiose one of ending the epidemic.  For reasons outlined above we cannot provide any confidence that this will be so.  At any rate many may feel that their societal concerns can be more safely met by using condoms, a proven way to reduce transmission of HIV.

I also wrote about this issue for the magazine POZ about a month ago. It can be seen by following this link. http://blogs.poz.com/joseph /archives/2010/02/treatment_of_hiv_dis.html

I also commented on this issue about a year ago. http://aidsperspective.net/blog/?p=152 This post repeats several points that were made then.

HIV Treatment: There is a role for intermittent therapy. July, 2009

From where we are at the moment in our understanding of HIV disease, we have to accept that lifelong treatment will be required for most infected individuals..

The drugs are not free from undesirable effects, they are costly and for many, quality of life is impaired to a greater or lesser extent by taking medications, even a single pill, day after day.

For these reasons it is important to study ways to safely minimize exposure to these necessary drugs.

We have potent tools to fight HIV disease but we still do not know how best to use them to achieve the most favourable antiviral effect, while minimizing toxicity and undesirable effects.

One approach to these objectives – at the moment, perhaps the only viable approach is the study of intermittent therapy as a means to safely reduce exposure to drugs.   This approach will almost definitely not be possible for all HIV infected people needing treatment.  But it may well be possible for most. The cost savings with intermittent therapy could also be substantial.

This important undertaking was dealt a completely unwarranted setback with the publication of the results of the SMART study, in the New England Journal of Medicine in 20061.  SMART is by far the largest study comparing continuous with intermittent therapy.  In this study more people died in the intermittent treatment arm, not only from AIDS associated events but all cause mortality was increased, including more deaths from cardiovascular disease and from some cancers not previously associated with AIDS.

The negative effect of SMART on the study of intermittent treatment continues.   In addition, because of the association of an increased number of deaths with intermittent treatment from cardiovascular disease and other conditions not related to HIV disease, the SMART study results have been interpreted by some to indicate that HIV disease includes a much wider spectrum of clinical manifestations than previously thought.  The most favoured explanation for how HIV infection causes heart disease and some other conditions is that they are a consequence of inflammation induced by infection with this virus.

For a number of reasons, the conclusion that, as a generalization, intermittent therapy is associated with a worse outcome compared to continuous therapy is completely without justification.  The original SMART study report omitted information that brings this conclusion into question; this has been alluded to in a previous post.

SMART studied just one particular strategy of CD4 guided intermittent therapy, in a population where  multiple non HIV related diseases were overrepresented in US sites, where almost all deaths occurred (79 out of a total of 85 deaths). These conditions included hepatitis B and C,  hypertension, and a previous  history of heart disease   Even setting aside interpretative difficulties concerning this particular study, one can say no more than that the particular strategy of treatment interruption used in SMART, in the population studied, indicated a worse outcome in those randomized to receive intermittent therapy.   That’s all.  The generalizations made about the danger of intermittent treatment were completely unjustified, although enthusiastically endorsed by many community commentators, and repeatedly stressed in educational  literature addressed to physicians.

Inappropriate generalizations of course apply to other studies of treatment interruptions, which used different criteria for interrupting therapy. All the other studies were smaller than SMART and had different follow up times.  But in all of them the excess mortality observed in SMART was not seen, although in some, morbidity, particularly bacterial infections, was more frequent with intermittent treatment.

Some examples are the Trivacan study2 which was conducted in a different population using different interruption criteria. There was an excess of bacterial infections in those receiving intermittent therapy but not the excess of deaths noted in SMART.  The Staccato study3,  using a different interruption strategy also did not show the excess mortality seen in SMART in the treatment interruption group.

The LOTTI study4 concluded that the continuous and intermittent therapy groups could be considered equivalent.  Actually, in complete contradistinction to the SMART results, in this study, cardiovascular disease was actually worse in the continuous therapy group (controls) compared to those receiving intermittent therapy (STI group).  Although pneumonia was more frequent in the STI group.    Here is a sentence from the author’s abstract.

A higher proportion of patients in the STI arm were diagnosed with pneumonia (P 0.037), whereas clinical events influencing the cardiovascular risk of patients were significantly (P<0.0001) more frequent among controls”.

The finding regarding cardiovascular disease is particularly relevant.

Much has been made of the increases in cardiovascular disease seen in the intermittent treatment group in the SMART study.  It is now considered by some that HIV infection per se constitutes a risk for heart disease and this, as noted, is attributed to HIV induced inflammation.   There are even studies now that look at arterial wall thickening as a measure of atherosclerosis and find this to be increased in untreated HIV infected people.  So this needs to be studied.  But in terms of cardiovascular clinical events, LOTTI tells us these are more frequent in people receiving continuous therapy compared to those receiving intermittent treatment.

Despite evidence to the contrary some “experts” still tell physicians to avoid treatment interruptions in order to protect patient’s cardiovascular health!!

There are even sponsored courses for physicians for whom CME credit can be earned where instruction is provided to not interrupt treatment precisely because this will increase the risk of heart disease, as well as other problems.

I was shown an invitation to physicians to a free course offered by a distinguished academic institution.   Among the descriptions of what those attending the course will learn to do is the following:

“Describe, discuss and apply the data from the SMART study on CHD  (coronary heart disease)  risk associated with ARV treatment interruption and be able to integrate these data into ARV treatment plans and algorithms for HIV-positive patients”

What is one to make of this in the light of the LOTTI observations?

This absurdity can only be possible because there is a selective reporting of information to HIV infected people, their advocates and to physicians who are not able to look at all the literature.   As a consequence almost none of the web sites devoted to conveying information to patients and their advocates have even mentioned the LOTTI study.

As far as cardiovascular disease is concerned those of us who took care of HIV infected patients in the 1980s before effective treatments were available will have observed that people with AIDS characteristically had huge elevations in their serum triglycerides.  They also characteristically had low levels of HDL cholesterol (and of total cholesterol).  I helped a resident in a hospital where I once worked to prepare a report on HDL levels in HIV infected patients before HAART was available.  We used my patient records from the 1980s and were able to clearly show that as the disease progressed over time, HDL levels decreased.    There was, not surprisingly,  a correlation between falling HDL levels and falling CD4 counts – data which I never published, but probably can still find.

So, there may indeed be something in the connection between untreated HIV disease and heart disease.  In the early days possibly our patients did not survive long enough to manifest any clinical manifestation of heart disease.   Increased triglycerides are an independent risk factor for coronary heart disease.  There even was a possible mechanism for this that was known in those days that could account for this.

Untreated individuals with more advanced disease have high serum levels of alpha interferon (also increased levels of gamma interferon) and TNF alpha, and both of these cytokines can inhibit an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase that then results in the lipid changes noted.  Such changes have been seen in people with hepatitis C treated with recombinant interferon.

So, why is the failure of just one form of intermittent therapy used to categorically condemn the practice in principle?   There are numerous different ways in which intermittent therapy can be structured.

The discouragement of the study of intermittent therapy is even more peculiar in view of the different outcomes of other, albeit,  studies smaller  than SMART

Perhaps a clue is to be found in a sentence in the LOTTI study report.

Here it is:

“The mean daily therapeutic cost was 20.29 euros  for controls and dropped to 9.07 euros  in the STI arm (P<0.0001)”.

This more or less translates into a 50% reduction in drug sales to people receiving intermittent treatment according to the LOTTI protocol.

Taking other studies of intermittent therapy into account, and considering some problems associated with SMART, I believe that one can say with a resounding affirmative that, in principle , intermittent therapy can be safe. Not for all, and maybe not for all of the time, but probably for many HIV infected individuals with over 350 CD4 lymphocytes who need treatment (who such individuals may be is also a controversial issue particularly regarding individuals with over 350 CD4 lymphocytes),   some form of intermittent therapy will probably be demonstrated to be safe.  For individuals with at least 700 CD4 lymphocytes, this is already the case.

Many of my patients wanted to take “treatment holidays” as they were once called; some from time to time, and others on some regular basis.  I have always believed that we need to find ways where we can safely minimize drug exposure so I was supportive of their wishes, as long as some conditions were met and we had the means to monitor viral load and CD4 counts.   This desire for treatment interruptions  was obviously  true not only among my patients but it seemed quite common in New York City to hear of individuals who were receiving some form of intermittent treatment, and this must also be the case elsewhere.

Of course for individuals with CD4 counts below 200, this was not a good idea.   Whatever we did, we knew that we needed to keep the CD4 count above this level. So, for patients with higher CD4 counts a variety of strategies were used.

There will be many anecdotes accumulated over the years of such experiences of intermittent treatment.   I need to stress that these are just anecdotes and most definitely not formal studies.  As such they can only lead to hypotheses on which studies can be based.

It would be foolhardy for HIV infected individuals to interrupt treatment without the advice and close supervision of an experienced physician. I have seen too many individuals who have come to harm by stopping their medications completely on their own, without supervision and not even informing their physicians that treatment was stopped.  This at least indicates that there is such a thing as “pill fatigue”, something we cannot ignore.

Of my patients who interrupted treatment none have come to harm.  There was no established protocol to guide us and strategies used took patient preference into account.    An effective antiviral combination, one that has produced sustained suppression, at least as indicated by an undetectable viral load should work again if stopped and re started later. There may be some theoretical difficulty in abruptly stopping antivirals that are slowly eliminated without additional temporary cover.   As a result, in certain patients some form of episodic treatment was used, that is periods on treatment alternating with periods off treatment.  This approach is now generally considered to be unsafe and CD4 guided strategies are studied.   But numerous anecdotes as well as earlier studies of episodic treatment indicate that this approach can be viable in some situations, and I believe should be further studied.

In an editorial in the journal reporting the LOTTI study Bernard Herschel and Timothy Flanagan state.

“Many of our patients with high CD4 cell counts want to

stop treatment. The LOTTI study does not justify a

recommendation in that regard, but it does give clinicians

useful information that it is probably safe to stop

treatment within the limits of CD4 cell counts of

LOTTI. Continued vigilance is needed so that excellent

adherence is maintained when patients are on HAART

to prevent the emergence of resistance.

The LOTTI study adds important information to the

continued question of whether there is a role for

interrupted therapy. Further study is justified, particularly

with newer combination therapies, which may well

have less toxicity and therefore shift the balance towards

continuous treatment. Clinicians will welcome the

information from LOTTI because it can allay some of

the concerns regarding the safety of treatment interruptions

at high CD4 cell counts”.

In the LOTTI trial, treatment was restarted when the CD4 count dropped  to 350 and stopped at a CD4 count of  700.  So within these limits we have some reassurance of safety.

So, further study is absolutely warranted.

In the LOTTI study, participants had to have a CD4 count of 700.

What about individuals who have had  undetectable viral loads for six months (as in LOTTI) but whose CD4 count has remained stable at 500, or 450 or some number lower than 700?    Studies with different CD4 criteria should continue and not be deterred by the SMART results.

I have written about the need to work on ways to individualize therapy to take individual rates of disease progression as well as other individual characteristics into consideration.   That is to get away from the prevailing  one size fits all approach to therapy,  mainly using a snapshot of just one or two parameters,  the CD4 count and viral load to guide one, without considering the rate of change in  CD4 numbers.

In the same way, studies to individualize intermittent treatment interupptions in those for whom it is possible should be considered.   As noted, if an antiviral regimen is effective in fully suppressing replication – at least to the extent indicated by an undetectable viral load, there is absolutely no reason why it should not be effective again if stopped. There may be some consideration needed regarding how to stop with some drugs that are eliminated very slowly.   (Of course an individual may be super infected with a drug resistant variant).

It is likely that some form of episodic treatment may be effective in selected individuals.   That is, periods on treatment alternating with periods off treatment.   Because of its flexibility it is probably best suited to individualization.

As mentioned, this approach has been thought to be more dangerous than a CD4 guided strategy.  But this approach appeared to be effective in earlier studies but they have not had long periods of follow up5.   But other similar studies have shown a high rate of viral rebound6.

However, the fact that there has been a successful study and the many anecdotes of successful episodic types of intermittent therapy provide encouragement that it is worthwhile to continue to study such an approach.

It certainly is possible to study the characteristics of those individuals in whom such an approach has proven to be successful.

I conclude with a few more comments on the SMART study with a possible explanation for the huge discrepancy in the number of deaths in US sites, 79, compared to only 6 in non US sites.   At least there is a very clear reason why the results observed in this study should not be generalized to all HIV infected individuals.

The study was conducted in US sites on what appear to have been a group of individuals in whom disorders unrelated to HIV were overrepresented.  As mentioned earlier, these disorders include diabetes, hepatitis B and C, high blood pressure and a history of heart disease.

Look at this table, which has been copied from a report on a SMART follow on study of inflammation in trial participants7.

This table shows characteristics of individuals who died compared to those who did not.

Kuller 2

The 85 people who died are represented in the third column, and their characteristics have been compared to those of two individuals who did not die (controls).

It can be seen that of the people who died, compared to those who did not, 11.8%  vs  4.7% had a history of heart disease (p=0.04);  45.9% vs 24.1%  were co infected with Hepatitis B or C  (p = 0.0008); 57.6% vs 31.8% were current smokers (p = 0.0001); 25.9% vs 14.7% were diabetic (p = 0.03); 38.8% vs 25.3% were taking medications for high blood pressure (p = 0.02).

Thus the people who died in the SMART study tended to be sick with non HIV related conditions.  64% of them were in the treatment interruption group so this tells us that individuals who already have more traditional risk factors may increase their risk of death by interrupting treatment according to the schedule defined in SMART.

But there is another remarkable figure in this table.  92.9 % of those who died were participants in US sites!  I have already written about this – that of the 85 deaths in SMART, 79 occurred in US sites with 55% of participants, and only 6 people died in sites outside the US where 45% of individuals were enrolled.

Despite what some experts incessantly tell us, SMART cannot justifiably be used to conclude that intermittent treatment is dangerous, in principle,  for all HIV infected individuals, particularly with additional information that for some reason, has only been made available less than a year ago.

The original report of the SMART study in the New England Journal of medicine in 2006 reported the baseline characteristics of participants.  All of these baseline characteristics, including co morbidities and traditional risk factors for heart disease such as hypertension and smoking were about the same in both treatment groups – that is, in those receiving continuous therapy and those on the treatment interruption arm.   However the distribution of these characteristics in those who died was not reported in this publication.  We had to wait until October 2008 to learn that those who died already had more multiple health problems unrelated to HIV infection.

I missed seeing this 2008 publication.  It seems that most who saw it had little to say.  But the strange distribution of deaths was brought to attention again with comments in the Lancet Infectious Disease in April of this year8.   I did not miss it this time, and have already written about it.

Because of the deleterious and unwarranted influence of SMART in discouraging the study of intermittent therapy, I thought it was absolutely important to make this information as widely known as possible.   Without further explanation, these results indicating the greater extent of co morbidities and traditional risk factors among those who died bring the often repeated conclusion  that the SMART study indicates that treatment interruptions are unsafe for all,  into question.

To my great surprise, despite my best efforts to disseminate this information on the strange distribution of deaths during the study, there was almost no expression of interest from the many individuals I communicated with.

This lack of interest is really puzzling.

Despite what might be considered to be an inappropriate generalization of the results, particularly regarding the relationship of HIV infection to deaths from causes unrelated to HIV infection the SMART study was a massive undertaking and its completion should be seen as a triumph.

Organizing such a huge endeavour that was dispersed so widely is a tremendous achievement.  There are sub studies and follow on studies that continue and will advance our understanding of HIV disease.

We know with some security from SMART that HIV infected individuals with Hepatitis B and C,   hypertension, and a past history of heart disease and some other associated health problems would increase their risk of death by interrupting treatment for HIV according to the strategy used in SMART.

For otherwise healthy HIV infected individuals it is likely that for some, unfortunately not for all,   a form of treatment interruption will be demonstrated to be safe.  This can already be said for those meeting the conditions of the participants in the LOTTI trial.

The original report of the SMART study was published in the New England Journal of medicine in 2006.

http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/355/22/2283

———————————————————————————————————————–

Refs

1:    New England Journal of medicine    2006  355:2283-2296

2:    Trivacan(ANRS 1269)    Lancet  2006  367:1981-1989

3:    Staccato                           Lancet 2006   368: 459-465

4:    LOTTI                                AIDS     2009   23:799-807

5:     Proceedings National Academy of Sciences   2001   98: 15161-6

6:      AIDS  2003    17:2257-2258

7:      Kuller et al.   PLoS  Oct. 2008   5(10): e203

8:      The Lancet Infectious Diseases  2009 Vol 9 Issue 5 268-9

Despite the SMART study there is a role for intermittent therapy. July, 2009

From where we are at the moment in our understanding of HIV disease, we have to accept that lifelong treatment will be required for most infected individuals..

The drugs are not free from undesirable effects, they are costly and for many, quality of life is impaired to a greater or lesser extent by taking medications, even a single pill, day after day.

For these reasons it is important to study ways to safely minimize exposure to these necessary drugs.

We have potent tools to fight HIV disease but we still do not know how best to use them to achieve the most favourable antiviral effect, while minimizing toxicity and undesirable effects.

One approach to these objectives – at the moment, perhaps the only viable approach is the study of intermittent therapy as a means to safely reduce exposure to drugs.   This approach will almost definitely not be possible for all HIV infected people needing treatment.  But it may well be possible for most. The cost savings with intermittent therapy could also be substantial.

This important undertaking was dealt a completely unwarranted setback with the publication of the results of the SMART study, in the New England Journal of Medicine in 20061.  SMART is by far the largest study comparing continuous with intermittent therapy.  In this study more people died in the intermittent treatment arm, not only from AIDS associated events but all cause mortality was increased, including more deaths from cardiovascular disease and from some cancers not previously associated with AIDS.

The negative effect of SMART on the study of intermittent treatment continues.   In addition, because of the association of an increased number of deaths with intermittent treatment from cardiovascular disease and other conditions not related to HIV disease, the SMART study results have been interpreted by some to indicate that HIV disease includes a much wider spectrum of clinical manifestations than previously thought.  The most favoured, and almost certainly correct explanation for how HIV infection causes heart disease and some other conditions is that they are a consequence of inflammation induced by infection with this virus.

For a number of reasons, the conclusion that, as a generalization, intermittent therapy is associated with a worse outcome compared to continuous therapy is completely without justification.  The original SMART study report omitted information that brings this conclusion into question; this has been alluded to in a previous post.    Almost all the deaths in the study occurred at US sites, where in contrast to non-US sites multiple co-morbidities were over represented.  As seen in the table below these co morbidities included, among other conditions,  hepatitis B and C, a history of heart disease and  diabetes.  There were even significantly more smokers among those enrolled at US sites.  How can one extrapolate interpretations of observations made in such  individuals  to HIV infected  populations free from these co-morbidities?

SMART studied just one particular strategy of CD4 guided intermittent therapy, in a population where  multiple non HIV related diseases were overrepresented in US sites, where almost all deaths occurred (79 out of a total of 85 deaths). These conditions included hepatitis B and C,  hypertension, and a previous  history of heart disease   Even setting aside interpretative difficulties concerning this particular study, one can say no more than that the particular strategy of treatment interruption used in SMART, in the population studied, indicated a worse outcome in those randomized to receive intermittent therapy.   That’s all.  The generalizations made about the danger of intermittent treatment were completely unjustified, although enthusiastically endorsed by many community commentators, and repeatedly stressed in educational  literature addressed to physicians.

Inappropriate generalizations of course apply to other studies of treatment interruptions, which used different criteria for interrupting therapy. All the other studies were smaller than SMART and had different follow up times.  But in all of them the excess mortality observed in SMART was not seen, although in some, morbidity, particularly bacterial infections, was more frequent with intermittent treatment.

Some examples are the Trivacan study2 which was conducted in a different population using different interruption criteria. There was an excess of bacterial infections in those receiving intermittent therapy but not the excess of deaths noted in SMART.  The Staccato study3,  using a different interruption strategy also did not show the excess mortality seen in SMART in the treatment interruption group.

The LOTTI study4 concluded that the continuous and intermittent therapy groups could be considered equivalent.  Actually, in complete contradistinction to the SMART results, in this study, cardiovascular disease was actually worse in the continuous therapy group (controls) compared to those receiving intermittent therapy (STI group).  Although pneumonia was more frequent in the STI group.    Here is a sentence from the author’s abstract.

A higher proportion of patients in the STI arm were diagnosed with pneumonia (P 0.037), whereas clinical events influencing the cardiovascular risk of patients were significantly (P<0.0001) more frequent among controls”.

The finding regarding cardiovascular disease is particularly relevant.

Much has been made of the increases in cardiovascular disease seen in the intermittent treatment group in the SMART study.  It is now considered by some that HIV infection per se constitutes a risk for heart disease and this, as noted, is attributed to HIV induced inflammation.   There are even studies now that look at arterial wall thickening as a measure of atherosclerosis and find this to be increased in untreated HIV infected people.  So this needs to be studied.  But in terms of cardiovascular clinical events, LOTTI tells us these are more frequent in people receiving continuous therapy compared to those receiving intermittent treatment.

Despite evidence to the contrary some “experts” still tell physicians to avoid treatment interruptions in order to protect patient’s cardiovascular health!!

There are even sponsored courses for physicians for whom CME credit can be earned where instruction is provided to not interrupt treatment precisely because this will increase the risk of heart disease, as well as other problems.

I was shown an invitation to physicians to a free course offered by a distinguished academic institution.   Among the descriptions of what those attending the course will learn to do is the following:

“Describe, discuss and apply the data from the SMART study on CHD  (coronary heart disease)  risk associated with ARV treatment interruption and be able to integrate these data into ARV treatment plans and algorithms for HIV-positive patients”

What is one to make of this in the light of the LOTTI observations?

This absurdity can only be possible because there is a selective reporting of information to HIV infected people, their advocates and to physicians who are not able to look at all the literature.   As a consequence almost none of the web sites devoted to conveying information to patients and their advocates have even mentioned the LOTTI study.

As far as cardiovascular disease is concerned those of us who took care of HIV infected patients in the 1980s before effective treatments were available will have observed that people with AIDS characteristically had huge elevations in their serum triglycerides.  They also characteristically had low levels of HDL cholesterol (and of total cholesterol).  I helped a resident in a hospital where I once worked to prepare a report on HDL levels in HIV infected patients before HAART was available.  We used my patient records from the 1980s and were able to clearly show that as the disease progressed over time, HDL levels decreased.    There was, not surprisingly,  a correlation between falling HDL levels and falling CD4 counts – data which I never published, but probably can still find.

So, there may indeed be something in the connection between untreated HIV disease and heart disease.  In the early days possibly our patients did not survive long enough to manifest any clinical manifestation of heart disease.   Increased triglycerides are an independent risk factor for coronary heart disease.  There even was a possible mechanism for this that was known in those days that could account for this.

Untreated individuals with more advanced disease have high serum levels of alpha interferon (also increased levels of gamma interferon) and TNF alpha, and both of these cytokines can inhibit an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase that then results in the lipid changes noted.  Such changes have been seen in people with hepatitis C treated with recombinant interferon.

So, why is the failure of just one form of intermittent therapy used to categorically condemn the practice in principle?   There are numerous different ways in which intermittent therapy can be structured.

The discouragement of the study of intermittent therapy is even more peculiar in view of the different outcomes of other, albeit,  studies smaller  than SMART

Perhaps a clue is to be found in a sentence in the LOTTI study report.

Here it is:

“The mean daily therapeutic cost was 20.29 euros  for controls and dropped to 9.07 euros  in the STI arm (P<0.0001)”.

This more or less translates into a 50% reduction in drug sales to people receiving intermittent treatment according to the LOTTI protocol.

Taking other studies of intermittent therapy into account, and considering some problems associated with SMART, I believe that one can say with a resounding affirmative that, in principle , intermittent therapy can be safe. Not for all, and maybe not for all of the time, but probably for many HIV infected individuals with over 350 CD4 lymphocytes who need treatment (who such individuals may be is also a controversial issue particularly regarding individuals with over 350 CD4 lymphocytes),   some form of intermittent therapy will probably be demonstrated to be safe.  For individuals with at least 700 CD4 lymphocytes, this is already the case.

Many of my patients wanted to take “treatment holidays” as they were once called; some from time to time, and others on some regular basis.  I have always believed that we need to find ways where we can safely minimize drug exposure so I was supportive of their wishes, as long as some conditions were met and we had the means to monitor viral load and CD4 counts.   This desire for treatment interruptions  was obviously  true not only among my patients but it seemed quite common in New York City to hear of individuals who were receiving some form of intermittent treatment, and this must also be the case elsewhere.

Of course for individuals with CD4 counts below 200, this was not a good idea.   Whatever we did, we knew that we needed to keep the CD4 count above this level. So, for patients with higher CD4 counts a variety of strategies were used.

There will be many anecdotes accumulated over the years of such experiences of intermittent treatment.   I need to stress that these are just anecdotes and most definitely not formal studies.  As such they can only lead to hypotheses on which studies can be based.

It would be foolhardy for HIV infected individuals to interrupt treatment without the advice and close supervision of an experienced physician. I have seen too many individuals who have come to harm by stopping their medications completely on their own, without supervision and not even informing their physicians that treatment was stopped.  This at least indicates that there is such a thing as “pill fatigue”, something we cannot ignore.

Of my patients who interrupted treatment none have come to harm.  There was no established protocol to guide us and strategies used took patient preference into account.    An effective antiviral combination, one that has produced sustained suppression, at least as indicated by an undetectable viral load should work again if stopped and re started later. There may be some theoretical difficulty in abruptly stopping antivirals that are slowly eliminated without additional temporary cover.   As a result, in certain patients some form of episodic treatment was used, that is periods on treatment alternating with periods off treatment.  This approach is now generally considered to be unsafe and CD4 guided strategies are studied.   But numerous anecdotes as well as earlier studies of episodic treatment indicate that this approach can be viable in some situations, and I believe should be further studied.

In an editorial in the journal reporting the LOTTI study Bernard Herschel and Timothy Flanagan state.

“Many of our patients with high CD4 cell counts want to

stop treatment. The LOTTI study does not justify a

recommendation in that regard, but it does give clinicians

useful information that it is probably safe to stop

treatment within the limits of CD4 cell counts of

LOTTI. Continued vigilance is needed so that excellent

adherence is maintained when patients are on HAART

to prevent the emergence of resistance.

The LOTTI study adds important information to the

continued question of whether there is a role for

interrupted therapy. Further study is justified, particularly

with newer combination therapies, which may well

have less toxicity and therefore shift the balance towards

continuous treatment. Clinicians will welcome the

information from LOTTI because it can allay some of

the concerns regarding the safety of treatment interruptions

at high CD4 cell counts”.

In the LOTTI trial, treatment was restarted when the CD4 count dropped  to 350 and stopped at a CD4 count of  700.  So within these limits we have some reassurance of safety.

So, further study is absolutely warranted.

In the LOTTI study, participants had to have a CD4 count of 700.

What about individuals who have had  undetectable viral loads for six months (as in LOTTI) but whose CD4 count has remained stable at 500, or 450 or some number lower than 700?    Studies with different CD4 criteria should continue and not be deterred by the SMART results.

I have written about the need to work on ways to individualize therapy to take individual rates of disease progression as well as other individual characteristics into consideration.   That is to get away from the prevailing  one size fits all approach to therapy,  mainly using a snapshot of just one or two parameters,  the CD4 count and viral load to guide one, without considering the rate of change in  CD4 numbers.

In the same way, studies to individualize intermittent treatment interupptions in those for whom it is possible should be considered.   As noted, if an antiviral regimen is effective in fully suppressing replication – at least to the extent indicated by an undetectable viral load, there is absolutely no reason why it should not be effective again if stopped. There may be some consideration needed regarding how to stop with some drugs that are eliminated very slowly.   (Of course an individual may be super infected with a drug resistant variant).

It is likely that some form of episodic treatment may be effective in selected individuals.   That is, periods on treatment alternating with periods off treatment.   Because of its flexibility it is probably best suited to individualization.

As mentioned, this approach has been thought to be more dangerous than a CD4 guided strategy.  But this approach appeared to be effective in earlier studies but they have not had long periods of follow up5.   But other similar studies have shown a high rate of viral rebound6.

However, the fact that there has been a successful study and the many anecdotes of successful episodic types of intermittent therapy provide encouragement that it is worthwhile to continue to study such an approach.

It certainly is possible to study the characteristics of those individuals in whom such an approach has proven to be successful.

I conclude with a few more comments on the SMART study with a possible explanation for the huge discrepancy in the number of deaths in US sites, 79, compared to only 6 in non US sites.   At least there is a very clear reason why the results observed in this study should not be generalized to all HIV infected individuals.

The study was conducted in US sites on what appear to have been a group of individuals in whom disorders unrelated to HIV were overrepresented.  As mentioned earlier, these disorders include diabetes, hepatitis B and C, high blood pressure and a history of heart disease.

Look at this table, which has been copied from a report on a SMART follow on study of inflammation in trial participants7.

This table shows characteristics of individuals who died compared to those who did not.

Kuller 2

The 85 people who died are represented in the third column, and their characteristics have been compared to those of two individuals who did not die (controls).

It can be seen that of the people who died, compared to those who did not, 11.8%  vs  4.7% had a history of heart disease (p=0.04);  45.9% vs 24.1%  were co infected with Hepatitis B or C  (p = 0.0008); 57.6% vs 31.8% were current smokers (p = 0.0001); 25.9% vs 14.7% were diabetic (p = 0.03); 38.8% vs 25.3% were taking medications for high blood pressure (p = 0.02).

Thus the people who died in the SMART study tended to be sick with non HIV related conditions.  64% of them were in the treatment interruption group so this tells us that individuals who already have more traditional risk factors may increase their risk of death by interrupting treatment according to the schedule defined in SMART.

But there is another remarkable figure in this table.  92.9 % of those who died were participants in US sites!  I have already written about this – that of the 85 deaths in SMART, 79 occurred in US sites with 55% of participants, and only 6 people died in sites outside the US where 45% of individuals were enrolled.

Despite what some experts incessantly tell us, SMART cannot justifiably be used to conclude that intermittent treatment is dangerous, in principle,  for all HIV infected individuals, particularly with additional information that for some reason, has only been made available less than a year ago.

The original report of the SMART study in the New England Journal of medicine in 2006 reported the baseline characteristics of participants.  All of these baseline characteristics, including co morbidities and traditional risk factors for heart disease such as hypertension and smoking were about the same in both treatment groups – that is, in those receiving continuous therapy and those on the treatment interruption arm.   However the distribution of these characteristics in those who died was not reported in this publication.  We had to wait until October 2008 to learn that those who died already had more multiple health problems unrelated to HIV infection.

I missed seeing this 2008 publication.  It seems that most who saw it had little to say.  But the strange distribution of deaths was brought to attention again with comments in the Lancet Infectious Disease in April of this year8.   I did not miss it this time, and have already written about it.

Because of the deleterious and unwarranted influence of SMART in discouraging the study of intermittent therapy, I thought it was absolutely important to make this information as widely known as possible.   Without further explanation, these results indicating the greater extent of co morbidities and traditional risk factors among those who died bring the often repeated conclusion  that the SMART study indicates that treatment interruptions are unsafe for all,  into question.

To my great surprise, despite my best efforts to disseminate this information on the strange distribution of deaths during the study, there was almost no expression of interest from the many individuals I communicated with.

This lack of interest is really puzzling.

Despite what might be considered to be an inappropriate generalization of the results, particularly regarding the relationship of HIV infection to deaths from causes unrelated to HIV infection the SMART study was a massive undertaking and its completion should be seen as a triumph.

Organizing such a huge endeavour that was dispersed so widely is a tremendous achievement.  There are sub studies and follow on studies that continue and will advance our understanding of HIV disease.

We know with some security from SMART that HIV infected individuals with Hepatitis B and C,   hypertension, and a past history of heart disease and some other associated health problems would increase their risk of death by interrupting treatment for HIV according to the strategy used in SMART.

For otherwise healthy HIV infected individuals it is likely that for some, unfortunately not for all,   a form of treatment interruption will be demonstrated to be safe.  This can already be said for those meeting the conditions of the participants in the LOTTI trial.

The original report of the SMART study was published in the New England Journal of medicine in 2006.

http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/355/22/2283

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Refs

1:    New England Journal of medicine    2006  355:2283-2296

2:    Trivacan(ANRS 1269)    Lancet  2006  367:1981-1989

3:    Staccato                           Lancet 2006   368: 459-465

4:    LOTTI                                AIDS     2009   23:799-807

5:     Proceedings National Academy of Sciences   2001   98: 15161-6

6:      AIDS  2003    17:2257-2258

7:      Kuller et al.   PLoS  Oct. 2008   5(10): e203

8:      The Lancet Infectious Diseases  2009 Vol 9 Issue 5 268-9