This meta-analysis summarized the results of studies comparing Peg-IFN α-2a with Peg-IFN α-2b administered weekly subcutaneously in combination with a daily dose of ribavirin for therapy-naïve anti-HIV-negative patients with genotype 1 chronic HCV. The data show that there is no difference between the two treatments in the achievement of RVR and SVR; the higher rates of EVR and ETR in the patients treated with Peg-IFN α-2a are clearly of lesser clinical impact. The datum on SVR may be considered the most important result from this meta-analysis. In fact, it is well known that SVR is the most reliable indicator of HCV eradication; a follow-up study on more than 1,300 patients with SVR achieved with Peg-IFN α, alone or in combination with ribavirin, found that the recurrence of HCV RNA was rarely recorded after a mean of 3.9
As already stated, some of the previously conducted studies showed no difference between the two treatments in the rate of SVR in therapy-naïve patients with HCV genotype 1 [16
]; in other studies, SVR was observed more frequently with Peg-IFN α-2a [20
]; finally, in one trial the patients treated with Peg-IFN α-2b achieved SVR more frequently, although this difference was not statistically significant [21
]. It is well known that a meta-analysis allows an unbiased pooling of available evidence regarding the efficacy of any given intervention, but two other meta-analyses [24
] included different numbers of studies, in one [24
] more than in ours, and patients with different clinical characteristics. In both meta-analyses, the researchers pooled the results from randomized trials on patients with different HCV genotypes, full papers and abstracts, thus reducing the quality and reliability of the results. The meta-analysis by Awad and colleagues’ included anti-HIV-positive patients, non-responders to previous treatment, and those treated with sub-optimal doses of Peg-IFN α-2b, and found that SVR was more frequently achieved in patients with genotype 1 or 4 treated with Peg-IFN α-2a plus ribavirin than in those receiving Peg-IFN α-2b plus ribavirin [24
]. Moreover, it should be pointed out that the studies considering subgroups of patients receiving a sub-optimal or insufficient dosage of one or both drugs were not included in our meta-analysis. Also excluded were the studies that included patients with HCV infection who were non-responders to previous antiviral treatment and those with HCV/HIV coinfection, who in previous investigations showed a much lower SVR rate than therapy-naïve and anti-HIV-negative patients [2
]. The meta-analysis by Zhao and colleagues pooled the results from trials on patients with genotype 1 and 4 and on those with genotype 2 and 3; they reported that SVR was more frequently associated to the use of Peg-IFN α-2a than Peg-IFN α-2b in patients with HCV genotype 2 or 3, whereas the overall effect in the subset of patients with genotype 1 or 4 was not significant [25
A low dose of ribavirin and/or its reduction during treatment were associated to a high rate of relapse after antiviral treatment and, thus, to a low rate of SVR [29
]. Among the trials enrolled in our meta-analysis McHutchison’s study reports the data on SVR according to the dosage and to the reduction of ribavirin during treatment, allowing a sub-analysis of the relative subgroups [19
]. Considering only the patients receiving an adequate daily dose of ribavirin (≥13
mg/kg/die) in McHutchison’s trial, no difference in the achievement of SVR was found between the Peg-IFN α-2a and Peg-IFN α-2b schedules. Considering only the patients with no reduction of ribavirin during treatment, Peg-IFN α-2a compared with Peg-IFN α-2b more frequently achieved SVR, but the data of this sub-analysis are strongly impaired by the lack of information on the ribavirin dose prescribed for this subset of patients.
The present meta-analysis also evaluated the rate of adverse events leading to the discontinuation of treatment or to a reduction of the Peg-IFN dose. However, since these data for patients with HCV genotype 1 were reported only in a few trials, the rate of adverse events in the meta-analysis includes all the studies considering patients with genotype 1 or non-1. The treatment schedules were frequently burdened by adverse events that had a substantial clinical impact, with approximately 10% of patients discontinuing the treatment schedules and 6-25% receiving a reduced Peg-IFN dose because of such events. It is important to underline that the data show that Peg-IFN α-2a and Peg-IFN α-2b had similar frequencies of adverse events leading to treatment discontinuation or drug dosage reduction, but it should be noted that the adverse effects of treatment were inconsistently reported in the papers included in the meta-analysis. Although this was not a specific objective, these aspects may introduce a bias and are likely to contribute to the underestimation of the true burden of effect. This meta-analysis shows that clearly defined, standardized clinical endpoints, particularly for the adverse events, would greatly enhance the interpretation of trial evidence.
The overall quality of each trial included in the meta-analysis was particularly disappointing. In none of the studies were the observers masked to treatment and to the results, and many studies did not describe the randomization procedures in detail. Although the poor quality of the studies can affect the results and may undermine confidence in the conclusions drawn, it should be pointed out that the magnitude and direction of the results did not change in the sensitivity analysis when trials with a low quality score were excluded. Similarly, the results did not change significantly when the data from the non-randomized trials were removed. Thus, the sensitivity analysis strengthens the validity of the overall conclusion that the efficacy of Peg-IFN α-2a was similar to that of Peg-IFN α-2b. The finding that the results of the sensitivity analysis did not modify those of the meta-analysis may at least be explained in part by the fact that the McHutchison trial [19
] accounted for more than two-thirds of all patients included.
The potential limitations of this meta-analysis are those of any meta-analytic venture and should be acknowledged. First, the possibility of a publication bias needs to be borne in mind, particularly in a meta-analysis based only on published studies, because “positive” studies are more likely to be submitted and published than “negative” studies, and so it is possible that other small “negative” studies have been conducted and their results never published. However, because this is a relatively new treatment, it is improbable that other “negative” studies exist. The literature search was conducted by searching multiple electronic databases, the reference lists of the retrieved manuscripts and reviews of experts in this field and was limited to articles published in the English language. We purposefully did not contact the authors of the articles included in this meta-analysis, because we wished to assess the evidence as it stands in the public domain. Finally, the need to combine results from randomized and non-randomized studies constitutes a potential limitation. However, the results of the sensitivity analysis did not show any difference in the efficacy of the treatment in relation to the type and quality between the randomized and non-randomized studies, and importantly, the absence of statistical heterogeneity or publication bias suggests that the results are robust. Despite its limitations, this meta-analysis provides the most comprehensive and updated summary of the epidemiological evidence to date on the efficacy of Peg-IFN α-2a compared to Peg-IFN α-2b, both in combination with ribavirin, in the treatment of patients with HCV genotype 1 chronic HCV.
In conclusion, this meta-analysis found a similar SVR rate between the standard schedule of Peg-IFN α-2a and Peg-IFN α-2b, both in combination with ribavirin, and therefore both treatments can be used indifferently for patients with genotype 1 chronic hepatitis C who are anti-HIV-negative and naïve to antiviral treatment.