A large study of US patients with HIV has concluded that
people taking abacavir had an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, but
also found a modestly increased risk of heart failure in people taking
The study, which analysed patient data from the Veterans
Administration Clinical Case Registry, was published this month in the journal AIDS.
The study found that the proportion of patients who experienced a heart attack while taking abacavir was approximately one in 16, compared to one in 30 among those taking tenofovir, a 50% higher risk. The risk did not seem to be greater in people with existing risk factors for heart disease.
There has been controversy for some years over the possible
role of abacavir in cardiovascular disease in people with HIV, since the D:A:D
cohort study found that recent abacavir treatment increased the risk of
heart attack by 90%.The effect appeared to be most pronounced in people who already had other risk factors for heart disease, or who had an existing heart condition.
While several other cohort studies have also found that people who took
abacavir as part of their antiretroviral regimen had a higher risk of heart
attack, other studies – including a meta-analysis
of clinical trials of the drug – found no increased risk of cardiovascular
events in people taking the drug.
Less attention has been paid to heart failure, a progressive
condition caused by weakening of the heart, attributable both to the same risk factors as heart attack and atherosclerosis, but also to the toxicity of HIV or drugs to the heart muscles.
The study published this month analyses cardiovascular
events in 10,931 largely male HIV-infected patients receiving care through Veterans Health
Administration hospitals in the United
States who started antiretroviral therapy
between 1997 and 2007, and who had viral load, CD4 count and kidney function
The kidney function data were important, authors noted,
because most previous studies have not controlled for an important potential
bias: patients with kidney disease may be steered away from tenofovir due to
its potential toxic effect to the kidney tubules, and placed instead on
abacavir-based treatment. However people with kidney disease are at higher risk
of cardiovascular disease, and this could lead to an apparent increase in the
risk of cardiovascular events that might not be caused by abacavir.
A previous analysis of the Veterans data, presented at the
International AIDS Society conference in 2009, found no elevated risk of heart
attack or stroke in patients taking abacavir, in patients treated between 1996
This analysis compared treatment outcomes in 3235 patients
treated with abacavir, 4314 treated with tenofovir and 9122 who received
regimens containing other antiretroviral drugs.
The average duration of exposure to abacavir was 1.6 years
and to tenofovir 1.3 years.
Conditions strongly implicated in the development of
cardiovascular disease were common in this cohort: around half smoked, around
40% had high blood pressure, 16-19% had diabetes and one-fifth already had a
diagnosis of cardiovascular disease at the time they started either abacavir or
Impaired kidney function was somewhat more common in the
abacavir-treated patients compared to tenofovir-treated patients (10% vs 6%).
During 60,588 person-years of follow-up there were 194 cases
of heart failure, while in 59,578 person-years of follow-up there were 501
atherosclerotic cardiovascular events.
Abacavir treatment was associated with a 50% increase in the
risk of a cardiovascular event when compared to tenofovir or other treatment
(13.4 events vs 9.4 events per 100 person years, p<0.01; hazard ratio 1.49
(95% confidence interval 1.09-2.05)), even after controlling for measures of
kidney function and changes in kidney function over time.
When different types of cardiovascular event were isolated,
abacavir treatment was significantly associated with stroke (2.05, 95% CI
1.00-4.19) but not with other cardiovascular events and duration of exposure or
less recent exposure to abacavir were not associated with an increased risk of
a cardiovascular event.
Tenofovir treatment was associated with an 82% increase in
the risk of heart failure in multivariate analysis (HR = 1.82, 95% CI 1.02 –
3.24, p=0.04) when compared to use of abacavir or other drugs, and the authors
report that this association appeared stronger in patients with poorer kidney
function (GFR <60 mL/min/1.732 (HR = 3.29, 95% CI 1.39 – 7.76).
Besides the known effect of tenofovir on kidney function,
which tends not to be profound in observational studies, the authors ask
whether another mechanism might be at work.
They note that tenofovir can cause damage to the lining of
the kidney tubules, and so may disrupt both vitamin D activation and correct
balance of calcium and phosphate. Renal mineral bone disease, characterised by
abnormal metabolism of vitamin D, calcium and phosphate, has been associated
with cardiovascular disease, and the authors say that there is an urgent need
to determine whether tenofovir treatment might lead to a higher rate of heart
failure through this pathway.
The authors caution that their results may not be
generalisable to women, who comprised less than 3% of the cohort receiving
abacavir or tenofovir.