To determine the efficacy of adding abacavir (Ziagen, ABC) to optimal stable background antiretroviral therapy (SBG) to AIDS dementia complex (ADC) patients and address trial design.
Phase III randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial.
Tertiary outpatient clinics.
ADC patients on SBG for ≥8 wk.
Participants were randomized to ABC or matched placebo for 12 wk.
The primary outcome measure was the change in the summary neuropsychological Z score (NPZ). Secondary measures were HIV RNA and the immune activation markers β-2 microglobulin, soluble tumor necrosis factor (TNF) receptor 2, and quinolinic acid.
105 participants were enrolled. The median change in NPZ at week 12 was +0.76 for the ABC + SBG and +0.63 for the SBG groups (p = 0.735). The lack of efficacy was unlikely related to possible limited antiviral efficacy of ABC: at week 12 more ABC than placebo participants had plasma HIV RNA ≤400 copies/mL (p = 0.002). There were, however, other factors. Two thirds of patients were subsequently found to have had baseline resistance to ABC. Second, there was an unanticipated beneficial effect of SBG that extended beyond 8 wk to 5 mo, thereby rendering some of the patients at baseline unstable. Third, there was an unexpectedly large variability in neuropsychological performance that underpowered the study. Fourth, there was a relative lack of activity of ADC: 56% of all patients had baseline cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) HIV-1 RNA <100 copies/mL and 83% had CSF β-2 microglobulin <3 nmol/L at baseline.
The addition of ABC to SBG for ADC patients was not efficacious, possibly because of the inefficacy of ABC per se, baseline drug resistance, prolonged benefit from existing therapy, difficulties with sample size calculations, and lack of disease activity. Assessment of these trial design factors is critical in the design of future ADC trials.
Background: AIDS dementia complex (ADC) was first identified early in the HIV epidemic and at that time affected a substantial proportion of patients with AIDS. Patients with ADC experience dementia as well as disordered behavior and problems with movement and balance. ADC is now much less common in locations where patients have access to HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy), consisting of combinations of several drugs that attack the virus at different stages of its life cycle. At present, however, there are no generally accepted guidelines for the best treatment of people with ADC. It has been thought for some time that the best treatment regimens for people with ADC would include drugs that cross the barrier between blood and brain well. Shortly following the introduction of HAART, a trial was carried out to find out whether adding one particular drug, abacavir, to existing combinations of drugs would be beneficial in people with ADC. This drug is known to cross the barrier between the blood and brain. The trial enrolled HIV-positive individuals with mild to moderate ADC and who were already receiving antiretroviral drug treatment. 105 participants were assigned at random to receive either high-dose abacavir or a placebo, in addition to their existing therapy. The primary outcome of the trial was a summary of performance on a set of different tests, designed to evaluate cognitive, behavior, and movement skills, at 12 weeks. Other outcomes included levels of HIV RNA (viral load) in fluid around the brain, as well as other neurological evaluations, and the level of HIV RNA and CD4+ T cells (the cells infected by HIV) in blood.
What this trial shows: When comparing the change in performance scores for individuals randomized to either abacavir or placebo, the results showed an improvement in scores for both groups, but no significant difference in improvement between the two groups. Similarly, the levels of HIV RNA in the cerebrospinal fluid did not differ between the two groups being compared, and other neurological tests did not show any differences between the two groups. However, at 12 weeks, patients receiving abacavir were more likely to have low levels of HIV RNA in their blood, suggesting that abacavir was active against the virus, but this did not translate into an additional improvement of these patients' dementia. The overall rates of adverse events were roughly comparable between the two groups in the trial, although participants receiving abacavir were more likely to experience certain types of events, such as nausea.
Strengths and limitations: The trial was appropriately randomized and controlled, using central telephone procedures for randomizing participants and subsequent blinding of patients and trial investigators. These procedures help minimize the chance of bias in assigning participants to the different arms as well as in the subsequent performance of individuals within the trial and the assessment of their outcomes. Limitations in the study design have been identified. One limitation is that individuals enrolled into the trial may not in fact have been receiving their existing HAART regimen for long enough to experience its optimal effect, and therefore the improvement seen in both groups could have resulted from an ongoing response to their existing regimen. It is also possible that patients improved in their test scores over the course of the trial simply because they became more familiar with the tests and not because their condition improved. This is a problem in all such trials that try to improve mental function. Finally, a limitation may have been the inclusion of patients who did not have active disease leading to worsening dementia.
Contribution to the evidence: The findings from this trial suggest that adding high-dose abacavir to existing HAART is not beneficial for patients with ADC. However, the trial provides several insights into the way that future studies of this type can be done, and which typically pose a number of challenging design problems. In particular, sensitive markers are needed that will allow researchers to monitor progression of ADC and patients' response to therapy.