To assess the effectiveness and safety of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) apheresis performed with the heparin-induced extracorporeal LDL precipitation (HELP) system for the treatment of patients with refractory homozygous (HMZ) and heterozygous (HTZ) familial hypercholesterolemia (FH).
Background on Familial Hypercholesterolemia
Familial hypercholesterolemia is a genetic autosomal dominant disorder that is caused by several mutations in the LDL-receptor gene. The reduced number or absence of functional LDL receptors results in impaired hepatic clearance of circulating low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) particles, which results in extremely high levels of LDL-C in the bloodstream. Familial hypercholesterolemia is characterized by excess LDL-C deposits in tendons and arterial walls, early onset of atherosclerotic disease, and premature cardiac death.
Familial hypercholesterolemia occurs in both HTZ and HMZ forms.
Heterozygous FH is one of the most common monogenic metabolic disorders in the general population, occurring in approximately 1 in 500 individuals1. Nevertheless, HTZ FH is largely undiagnosed and an accurate diagnosis occurs in only about 15% of affected patients in Canada. Thus, it is estimated that there are approximately 3,800 diagnosed and 21,680 undiagnosed cases of HTZ FH in Ontario.
In HTZ FH patients, half of the LDL receptors do not work properly or are absent, resulting in plasma LDL-C levels 2- to 3-fold higher than normal (range 7-15mmol/L or 300-500mg/dL). Most HTZ FH patients are not diagnosed until middle age when either they or one of their siblings present with symptomatic coronary artery disease (CAD). Without lipid-lowering treatment, 50% of males die before the age of 50 and 25% of females die before the age of 60, from myocardial infarction or sudden death.
In contrast to the HTZ form, HMZ FH is rare (occurring in 1 case per million persons) and more severe, with a 6- to 8-fold elevation in plasma LDL-C levels (range 15-25mmol/L or 500-1000mg/dL). Homozygous FH patients are typically diagnosed in infancy, usually due to the presence of cholesterol deposits in the skin and tendons. The main complication of HMZ FH is supravalvular aortic stenosis, which is caused by cholesterol deposits on the aortic valve and in the ascending aorta. The average life expectancy of affected individuals is 23 to 25 years. In Ontario, it is estimated that there are 13 to 15 cases of HMZ FH. An Ontario clinical expert confirmed that 9 HMZ FH patients have been identified to date.
There are 2 accepted clinical diagnostic criterion for the diagnosis of FH: the Simon Broome FH Register criteria from the United Kingdom and the Dutch Lipid Network criteria from the Netherlands. The criterion supplement cholesterol levels with clinical history, physical signs and family history. DNA-based-mutation-screening methods permit a definitive diagnosis of HTZ FH to be made. However, given that there are over 1000 identified mutations in the LDL receptor gene and that the detection rates of current techniques are low, genetic testing becomes problematic in countries with high genetic heterogeneity, such as Canada.
The primary aim of treatment in both HTZ and HMZ FH is to reduce plasma LDL-C levels in order to reduce the risk of developing atherosclerosis and CAD.
The first line of treatment is dietary intervention, however it alone is rarely sufficient for the treatment of FH patients. Patients are frequently treated with lipid-lowering drugs such as resins, fibrates, niacin, statins and cholesterol absorption-inhibiting drugs (ezetimibe). Most HTZ FH patients require a combination of drugs to achieve or approach target cholesterol levels.
A small number of HTZ FH patients are refractory to treatment or intolerant to lipid-lowering medication. According to clinical experts, the prevalence of refractory HTZ FH in Ontario is between 1 to 5%. Using the mean of 3%, it is estimated that there are approximately 765 refractory HTZ FH patients in Ontario, of which 115 are diagnosed and 650 are undiagnosed.
Drug therapy is less effective in HMZ FH patients since the effects of the majority of cholesterol-lowering drugs are mediated by the upregulation of LDL receptors, which are often absent or function poorly in HMZ FH patients. Some HMZ FH patients may still benefit from drug therapy, however this rarely reduces LDL-C levels to targeted levels.
Existing Technology: Plasma Exchange
An option currently available in Ontario for FH patients who do not respond to standard diet and drug therapy is plasma exchange (PE). Patients are treated with this lifelong therapy on a weekly or biweekly basis with concomitant drug therapy.
Plasma exchange is nonspecific and eliminates virtually all plasma proteins such as albumin, immunoglobulins, coagulation factors, fibrinolytic factors and HDL-C, in addition to acutely lowering LDL-C by about 50%. Blood is removed from the patient, plasma is isolated, discarded and replaced with a substitution fluid. The substitution fluid and the remaining cellular components of the blood are then returned to the patient.
The major limitation of PE is its nonspecificity. The removal of HDL-C prevents successful vascular remodeling of the areas stenosed by atherosclerosis. In addition, there is an increased susceptibility to infections, and costs are incurred by the need for replacement fluid. Adverse events can be expected to occur in 12% of procedures.
Surgical alternatives for FH patients include portocaval shunt, ileal bypass and liver transplantation. However, these are risky procedures and are associated with a high morbidity rate. Results with gene therapy are not convincing to date.
The Technology Being Reviewed: LDL Apheresis
An alternative to PE is LDL apheresis. Unlike PE, LDL apheresis is a selective treatment that removes LDL-C and other atherogenic lipoproteins from the blood while minimally impacting other plasma components such as HDL-C, total serum protein, albumin and immunoglobulins. As with PE, FH patients require lifelong therapy with LDL apheresis on a weekly/biweekly basis with concomitant drug therapy.
Heparin-Induced Extracorporeal LDL Precipitation
Heparin-induced extracorporeal LDL precipitation (HELP) is one of the most widely used methods of LDL apheresis. It is a continuous closed-loop system that processes blood extracorporeally. It operates on the principle that at a low pH, LDL and lipoprotein (a) [Lp(a)] bind to heparin and fibrinogen to form a precipitate which is then removed by filtration. In general, the total duration of treatment is approximately 2 to 3 hours.
Results from early trials indicate that LDL-C concentration is reduced by 65% to 70% immediately following treatment in both HMZ and HTZ FH and then rapidly begins to rise. Typically patients with HTZ FH are treated every 2 weeks while patients with HMZ FH require weekly therapy. Heparin-induced extracorporeal LDL precipitation also produces small transient decreases in HDL-C, however levels generally return to baseline within 2 days. After several months of therapy, long-term reductions in LDL-C and increases in HDL-C have been reported.
In addition to having an impact on plasma cholesterol concentrations, HELP lowers plasma fibrinogen, a risk factor for atherosclerosis, and reduces concentrations of cellular adhesion molecules, which play a role in early atherogenesis.
In comparison with PE, HELP LDL apheresis does not have major effects on essential plasma proteins and does not require replacement fluid, thus decreasing susceptibility to infections. One study noted that adverse events were documented in 2.9% of LDL apheresis treatments using the HELP system compared with 12% using PE. As per the manufacturer, patients must weigh at least 30kgs to be eligible for treatment with HELP.
The H.E.L.P.® System (B.Braun Medizintechnologie GmbH, Germany) has been licensed by Health Canada since December 2000 as a Class 3 medical device (Licence # 26023) for performing LDL apheresis to acutely remove LDL from the plasma of 3 high-risk patient populations for whom diet has been ineffective and maximum drug therapy has either been ineffective or not tolerated. The 3 patient groups are as follows:
Functional hypercholesterolemic homozygotes with LDL-C >500 mg/dL (>13mmol/L);
Functional hypercholesterolemic heterozygotes with LDL-C >300 mg/dL (>7.8mmol/L);
Functional hypercholesterolemic heterozygotes with LDL-C >200 mg/dL (>5.2mmol/L) and documented CAD
No other LDL apheresis system is currently licensed in Canada.
The Medical Advisory Secretariat systematically reviewed the literature to assess the effectiveness and safety of LDL apheresis performed with the HELP system for the treatment of patients with refractory HMZ and HTZ FH. A standard search methodology was used to retrieve international health technology assessments and English-language journal articles from selected databases.
The GRADE approach was used to systematically and explicitly make judgments about the quality of evidence and strength of recommendations.
Summary of Findings
The search identified 398 articles published from January 1, 1998 to May 30, 2007. Eight studies met the inclusion criteria. Five case series, 2 case series nested within comparative studies, and one retrospective review, were included in the analysis. A health technology assessment conducted by the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, and a review by the United States Food and Drug Administration were also included.
Large heterogeneity among the studies was observed. Studies varied in inclusion criteria, baseline patient characteristics and methodology.
Overall, the mean acute1 relative decrease in LDL-C with HELP LDL apheresis ranged from 53 to 77%. The mean acute relative reductions ranged as follows: total cholesterol (TC) 47 to 64%, HDL-C +0.4 to -29%, triglycerides (TG) 33 to 62%, Lp(a) 55 to 68% and fibrinogen 56 to 65%.
The mean chronic2 relative decreases in LDL-C and TC with HELP LDL apheresis ranged from 9 to 46% and 5 to 34%, respectively. Familial hypercholesterolemia patients treated with HELP did not achieve the target LDL-C value set by international guidelines (LDL-C < 2.5mmol/L, 100mg/dL). The chronic mean relative increase in HDL-C ranged from 12 to 27%. The ratio of LDL:HDL and the ratio of TC:HDL are 2 measures that have been shown to be important risk factors for cardiac events. In high-risk patients, the recommended target LDL:HDL ratio is less than or equal to 2, and the target TC:HDL ratio is less than 4. In the studies that reported chronic lipid changes, the LDL:HDL and TC:HDL ratios exceeded targeted values.
Three studies investigated the effects of HELP on coronary outcomes and atherosclerotic changes. One noted that twice as many lesions displayed regression in comparison to those displaying progression. The second study found that there was a decrease in Agatston scores3 and in the volume of coronary calcium. The last study noted that 2 of 5 patients showed regression of coronary atherosclerosis, and 3 of the 5 patients showed no change as assessed by a global change score.
Adverse effects were typically mild and transient, and the majority of events were related to problems with vascular access. Of the 3 studies that provided quantitative information, the proportion of adverse events ranged from 2.9 to 5.1%.
GRADE Quality of Evidence
In general, studies were of low quality, i.e., case series studies (Tables 1-3). No controlled studies were identified and no studies directly compared the effectiveness of the HELP system with PE or with diet and drug therapy. Conducting trials with a sufficiently large control group would not have been feasible or acceptable given that HELP represents a last alternative in these patients who are resistant to conventional therapeutic strategies.
A major limitation is that there is limited evidence on the effectiveness and safety of HELP apheresis in HMZ FH patients. However, it is unlikely that better-quality evidence will become available, given that HMZ FH is rare and LDL apheresis is a last therapeutic option for these patients.
Lastly, there is limited data on the long-term effects of LDL apheresis in FH patients. No studies with HELP were identified that examined long-term outcomes such as survival and cardiovascular events. The absence of this data may be attributed to the rarity of the condition, and the large number of subjects and long duration of follow-up that would be needed to conduct such trials.
Homozygous Familial Hypercholesterolemia - Lipid Outcomes
Heterozygous Familial Hypercholesterolemia - Lipid Outcomes
Heterozygous Familial Hypercholesterolemia - Coronary Artery Disease Outcomes
A budget-impact analysis was conducted to forecast future costs for PE and HELP apheresis in FH patients. All costs are reported in Canadian dollars. Based on epidemiological data of 13 HMZ, 115 diagnosed HTZ and 765 cases of all HTZ patients (diagnosed + undiagnosed), the annual cost of weekly treatment was estimated to be $488,025, $4,332,227 and $24,758,556 respectively for PE. For HELP apheresis, the annual cost of weekly treatment was estimated to be $1,025,338, $9,156,209 and $60,982,579 respectively. Costs for PE and HELP apheresis were halved with a biweekly treatment schedule.
The cost per coronary artery disease death avoided over a 10-year period in HTZ FH-diagnosed patients was also calculated and estimated to be $37.5 million and $18.7 million for weekly and biweekly treatment respectively, when comparing HELP apheresis with PE and with no intervention. Although HELP apheresis costs twice as much as PE, it helped to avoid 12 deaths compared with PE and 22 deaths compared with no intervention, over a period of 10 years.
Ontario Health System Impact Analysis
Low-density lipoprotein apheresis using the HELP system is currently being funded by the provinces of Quebec and Alberta. The program in Quebec has been in operation since 2001 and is limited to the treatment of HMZ FH patients. The Alberta program is relatively new and is currently treating HMZ FH patients, but it is expanding to include refractory HTZ FH patients.
Low-density lipoprotein apheresis is a lifelong treatment and requires considerable commitment on the part of the patient, and the patient’s family and physician. In addition, the management of FH continues to evolve. With the advent of new more powerful cholesterol-lowering drugs, some HTZ patients may be able to sufficiently control their hypercholesterolemia. Nevertheless, according to clinical experts, HMZ patients will likely always require LDL apheresis.
Given the substantial costs associated with LDL apheresis, treatment has been limited to HMZ FH patients. However, LDL apheresis could be applied to a much larger population, which would include HTZ FH patients who are refractory to diet and drug therapy. HTZ FH patients are generally recruited in a more advanced state, demonstrate a longer natural survival than HMZ FH patients and are older.
For HMZ FH patients, the benefits of LDL apheresis clearly outweigh the risks and burdens. According to GRADE, the recommendation would be graded as strong, with low- to very low-quality evidence (Table 4).
In both HMZ and HTZ FH patients, there is evidence of overall clinical benefit of LDL apheresis from case series studies. Low-density lipoprotein apheresis has several advantages over the current treatment of PE, including decreased exposure to blood products, decreased risk of adverse events, conservation of nonatherogenic and athero-protective components, such as HDL-C and lowering of other atherogenic components, such as fibrinogen.
In contrast to HMZ FH patients, there remains a lot of uncertainty in the social/ethical acceptance of this technology for the treatment of refractory HTZ FH patients. In addition to the substantial costs, it is unknown whether the current health care system could cope with the additional demand. There is uncertainty in the estimates of benefits, risks and burdens. According to GRADE, the recommendation would be graded as weak with low- to very-low-quality evidence (Table 5).
GRADE Recommendation - Homozygous Patients
GRADE of recommendation: Strong recommendation, low-quality or very-low-quality evidence
Benefits clearly outweigh risk and burdens
Case series study designs
Strong, but may change when higher-quality evidence becomes available
GRADE Recommendation - Heterozygous Patients
GRADE of recommendation: Weak recommendation, low-quality or very-low-quality evidence
Uncertainty in the estimates of benefits, risks and burden, which these may be closely balanced
Case series study designs
Very weak; other alternatives may be equally reasonable