The main objectives for this evidence-based analysis were to determine the safety and effectiveness of photochemical corneal collagen cross-linking with riboflavin (vitamin B2) and ultraviolet-A radiation, referred to as CXL, for the management of corneal thinning disease conditions. The comparative safety and effectiveness of corneal cross-linking with other minimally invasive treatments such as intrastromal corneal rings was also reviewed. The Medical Advisory Secretariat (MAS) evidence-based analysis was performed to support public financing decisions.
Subject of the Evidence-Based Analysis
The primary treatment objective for corneal cross-linking is to increase the strength of the corneal stroma, thereby stabilizing the underlying disease process. At the present time, it is the only procedure that treats the underlying disease condition. The proposed advantages for corneal cross-linking are that the procedure is minimally invasive, safe and effective, and it can potentially delay or defer the need for a corneal transplant. In addition, corneal cross-linking does not adversely affect subsequent surgical approaches, if they are necessary, or interfere with corneal transplants. The evidence for these claims for corneal cross-linking in the management of corneal thinning disorders such as keratoconus will be the focus of this review.
The specific research questions for the evidence review were as follows:
Technical: How technically demanding is corneal cross-linking and what are the operative risks?
Safety: What is known about the broader safety profile of corneal cross-linking?
Effectiveness - Corneal Surface Topographic Affects:
What are the corneal surface remodeling effects of corneal cross-linking?
Do these changes interfere with subsequent interventions, particularly corneal transplant known as penetrating keratoplasty (PKP)?
Effectiveness -Visual Acuity:
What impacts does the remodeling have on visual acuity?
Are these impacts predictable, stable, adjustable and durable?
Effectiveness - Refractive Outcomes: What impact does remodeling have on refractive outcomes?
Effectiveness - Visual Quality (Symptoms): What impact does corneal cross-linking have on vision quality such as contrast vision, and decreased visual symptoms (halos, fluctuating vision)?
Effectiveness - Contact lens tolerance: To what extent does contact lens intolerance improve after corneal cross-linking?
Vision-Related QOL: What is the impact of corneal cross-linking on functional visual rehabilitation and quality of life?
Patient satisfaction: Are patients satisfied with their vision following the procedure?
What impact does corneal cross-linking have on the underling corneal thinning disease process?
Does corneal cross-linking delay or defer the need for a corneal transplant?
What is the comparative safety and effectiveness of corneal cross-linking compared with other minimally invasive treatments for corneal ectasia such as intrastromal corneal rings?
Clinical Need: Target Population and Condition
Corneal ectasia (thinning) disorders represent a range of disorders involving either primary disease conditions, such as keratoconus (KC) and pellucid marginal corneal degeneration, or secondary iatrogenic conditions, such as corneal thinning occurring after laser in situ keratomileusis (LASIK) refractive surgery.
Corneal thinning is a disease that occurs when the normally round dome-shaped cornea progressively thins causing a cone-like bulge or forward protrusion in response to the normal pressure of the eye. The thinning occurs primarily in the stroma layers and is believed to be a breakdown in the collagen process. This bulging can lead to irregular astigmatism or shape of the cornea. Because the anterior part of the cornea is responsible for most of the focusing of the light on the retina, this can then result in loss of visual acuity. The reduced visual acuity can make even simple daily tasks, such as driving, watching television or reading, difficult to perform.
Keratoconus is the most common form of corneal thinning disorder and involves a noninflammatory chronic disease process of progressive corneal thinning. Although the specific cause for the biomechanical alterations in the corneal stroma is unknown, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that genetic factors may play an important role. Keratoconus is a rare disease (< 0.05% of the population) and is unique among chronic eye diseases because it has an early onset, with a median age of 25 years. Disease management for this condition follows a step-wise approach depending on disease severity. Contact lenses are the primary treatment of choice when there is irregular astigmatism associated with the disease. Patients are referred for corneal transplants as a last option when they can no longer tolerate contact lenses or when lenses no longer provide adequate vision.
Keratoconus is one of the leading indications for corneal transplants and has been so for the last 3 decades. Despite the high success rate of corneal transplants (up to 20 years) there are reasons to defer it as long as possible. Patients with keratoconus are generally young and a longer-term graft survival of at least 30 or 40 years may be necessary. The surgery itself involves lengthy time off work and postsurgery, while potential complications include long-term steroid use, secondary cataracts, and glaucoma. After a corneal transplant, keratoconus may recur resulting in a need for subsequent interventions. Residual refractive errors and astigmatism can remain challenges after transplantation, and high refractive surgery and regraft rates in KC patients have been reported. Visual rehabilitation or recovery of visual acuity after transplant may be slow and/or unsatisfactory to patients.
Description of Technology/Therapy
Corneal cross-linking involves the use of riboflavin (vitamin B2) and ultraviolet-A (UVA) radiation. A UVA irradiation device known as the CXL® device (license number 77989) by ACCUTECH Medical Technologies Inc. has been licensed by Health Canada as a Class II device since September 19, 2008. An illumination device that emits homogeneous UVA, in combination with any generic form of riboflavin, is licensed by Health Canada for the indication to slow or stop the progression of corneal thinning caused by progressive keratectasia, iatrogenic keratectasia after laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK) and pellucid marginal degeneration. The same device is named the UV-X® device by IROCMedical, with approvals in Argentina, the European Union and Australia.
UVA devices all use light emitting diodes to generate UVA at a wavelength of 360-380 microns but vary in the number of diodes (5 to 25), focusing systems, working distance, beam diameter, beam uniformity and extent to which the operator can vary the parameters. In Ontario, CXL is currently offered at over 15 private eye clinics by refractive surgeons and ophthalmologists.
The treatment is an outpatient procedure generally performed with topical anesthesia. The treatment consists of several well defined procedures. The epithelial cell layer is first removed, often using a blunt spatula in a 9.0 mm diameter under sterile conditions. This step is followed by the application of topical 0.1% riboflavin (vitamin B2) solution every 3 to 5 minutes for 25 minutes to ensure that the corneal stroma is fully penetrated. A solid-state UVA light source with a wavelength of 370 nm (maximum absorption of riboflavin) and an irradiance of 3 mW/cm2 is used to irradiate the central cornea. Following treatment, a soft bandage lens is applied and prescriptions are given for oral pain medications, preservative-free tears, anti-inflammatory drops (preferably not nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs) and antibiotic eye drops. Patients are recalled 1 week following the procedure to evaluate re-epithelialization and they are followed-up subsequently.
Evidence-Based Analysis Methods
A literature search was conducted on photochemical corneal collagen cross-linking with riboflavin (vitamin B2) and ultraviolet-A for the management of corneal thinning disorders using a search strategy with appropriate keywords and subject headings for CXL for literature published up until April 17, 2011. The literature search for this Health Technology Assessment (HTA) review was performed using the Cochrane Library, the Emergency Care Research Institute (ECRI) and the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination. The websites of several other health technology agencies were also reviewed, including the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health (CADTH) and the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE). The databases searched included OVID MEDLINE, MEDLINE IN-Process and other Non-Indexed Citations such as EMBASE.
As the evidence review included an intervention for a rare condition, case series and case reports, particularly for complications and adverse events, were reviewed. A total of 316 citations were identified and all abstracts were reviewed by a single reviewer for eligibility. For those studies meeting the eligibility criteria, full-text articles were obtained. Reference lists were also examined for any additional relevant studies not identified through the search.
English-language reports and human studies
patients with any corneal thinning disorder
reports with CXL procedures used alone or in conjunction with other interventions
original reports with defined study methodology
reports including standardized measurements on outcome events such as technical success, safety effectiveness, durability, vision quality of life or patient satisfaction
systematic reviews, meta-analyses, randomized controlled trials, observational studies, retrospective analyses, case series, or case reports for complications and adverse events
nonsystematic reviews, letters, comments and editorials
reports not involving outcome events such as safety, effectiveness, durability, vision quality or patient satisfaction following an intervention with corneal implants
reports not involving corneal thinning disorders and an intervention involving CXL
Summary of Evidence Findings
In the Medical Advisory Secretariat evidence review on corneal cross-linking, 65 reports (16 case reports) involving 1403 patients were identified on the use of CXL for managing corneal thinning disorders. The reports were summarized according to their primary clinical indication, whether or not secondary interventions were used in conjunction with CXL (referred to as CXL-Plus) and whether or not it was a safety-related report.
The safety review was based on information from the cohort studies evaluating effectiveness, clinical studies evaluating safety, treatment response or recovery, and published case reports of complications. Complications, such as infection and noninfectious keratitis (inflammatory response), reported in case reports, generally occurred in the first week and were successfully treated with topical antibiotics and steroids. Other complications, such as the cytotoxic effects on the targeted corneal stroma, occurred as side effects of the photo-oxidative process generated by riboflavin and ultraviolet-A and were usually reversible.
The reports on treatment effectiveness involved 15 pre-post longitudinal cohort follow-up studies ranging from follow-up of patients’ treated eye only, follow-up in both the treated and untreated fellow-eye; and follow-up in the treated eye only and a control group not receiving treatment. One study was a 3-arm randomized control study (RCT) involving 2 comparators: one comparator was a sham treatment in which one eye was treated with riboflavin only; and the other comparator was the untreated fellow-eye. The outcomes reported across the studies involved statistically significant and clinically relevant improvements in corneal topography and refraction after CXL. In addition, improvements in treated eyes were accompanied by worsening outcomes in the untreated fellow-eyes. Improvements in corneal topography reported at 6 months were maintained at 1- and 2-year follow-up. Visual acuity, although not always improved, was infrequently reported as vision loss. Additional procedures such as the use of intrastromal corneal ring segments, intraocular lenses and refractive surgical practices were reported to result in additional improvements in topography and visual acuity after CXL.
Considerations for Ontario Health System
The total costs of providing CXL therapy to keratoconus patients in Ontario was calculated based on estimated physician, clinic, and medication costs. The total cost per patient was approximately $1,036 for the treatment of one eye, and $1,751 for the treatment of both eyes. The prevalence of keratoconus was estimated at 4,047 patients in FY2011, with an anticipated annual incidence (new cases) of about 148 cases. After distributing the costs of CXL therapy for the FY2011 prevalent keratoconus population over the next 3 years, the estimated average annual cost was approximately $2.1 million, of which about $1.3 million would be physician costs specifically.
Corneal cross-linking effectively stabilizes the underlying disease, and in some cases reverses disease progression as measured by key corneal topographic measures. The affects of CXL on visual acuity are less predictable and the use of adjunct interventions with CXL, such as intrastromal corneal ring segments, refractive surgery, and intraocular lens implants are increasingly employed to both stabilize disease and restore visual acuity. Although the use of adjunct interventions have been shown to result in additional clinical benefit, the order, timing, and risks of performing adjunctive interventions have not been well established.
Although there is potential for serious adverse events with corneal UVA irradiation and photochemical reactions, there have been few reported complications. Those that have occurred tended to be related to side effects of the induced photochemical reactions and were generally reversible. However, to ensure that there are minimal complications with the use of CXL and irradiation, strict adherence to defined CXL procedural protocols is essential.
Keratoconus, corneal cross-linking, corneal topography, corneal transplant, visual acuity, refractive error.