n e w e ng l a n d j o u r na l


m e dic i n e

edi t or i a l s

Treatment of Anemia in Chronic Kidney Disease — Strategies Based on Evidence
Philip A. Marsden, M.D. Anemia associated with chronic kidney disease and end-stage renal disease is due, in large part, to reduced production of renal erythropoietin and abnormalities in extracellular-fluid volume homeostasis.1 Moreover, anemia and disordered salt and water handling, which usually manifest as hypertension, predict cardiovascular and renal outcomes in patients with chronic kidney disease.2 The combination of early recognition and treatment to reduce increased blood pressure is known to improve outcomes. Thus, it is surprising, since highly effective therapies for anemia have been available for more than 20 years,3 that so little is known about whether the treatment of anemia has similar salutary effects. In this issue of the Journal, Pfeffer et al.4 report on a study that begins to address this knowledge gap. Several recombinant versions of human erythropoietin, also known as erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs), are now in clinical use. The use of these ESAs is highly prevalent in patients with end-stage renal disease, and hemoglobin levels and doses of ESAs both have increased over time.5 It was previously inferred that ESAs conferred a survival benefit among patients with chronic kidney disease who are not undergoing dialysis; this led to randomized, controlled trials lacking a placebo group.6,7 Paradoxically, and although ESAs are widely used, such trials raised concerns about the use of ESAs to normalize hemoglobin levels in patients with kidney disease and anemia. Pfeffer et al. describe the primary prespecified end-point results of the Trial to Reduce Cardiovascular Events with Aranesp Therapy (TREAT) ( number, NCT00093015). This large, randomized, international, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial was designed to determine whether the treatment of anemia with
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an ESA — namely, darbepoetin alfa — would reduce the risk of death, major cardiovascular events, and renal events among patients with chronic kidney disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and anemia.4 The trial randomly assigned 4038 patients with moderate iron-replete anemia who were from 623 sites in 24 countries. The median achieved hemoglobin concentrations were 12.5 g per deciliter (interquartile range, 12.0 to 12.8) in the patients who received darbepoetin alfa and 10.6 g per deciliter (interquartile range, 9.9 to 11.3) in the patients who received placebo. Events were documented in 9941 patient-years of follow-up, representing a median of 29.1 months per patient. Pfeffer et al. report no differences between the two groups in the overall rates of the primary end points (of death or a cardiovascular event or of death or end-stage renal disease). Of the patients assigned to darbepoetin alfa, 101 patients had a stroke, as compared with 53 patients assigned to placebo (hazard ratio, 1.92). The TREAT will be a key study in the treatment of patients with chronic kidney disease.4 Despite a reduction in red-cell transfusions and modest improvement in patient-reported fatigue, the current study does not confirm the findings of the earlier Correction of Hemoglobin and Outcomes in Renal Insufficiency (CHOIR) trial (NCT00211120), which studied the use of epoetin alfa treatment to achieve two different target hemoglobin levels.7 Therefore, in retrospect, it is ironic that others had argued that because of its placebo group, the TREAT should be discontinued.8 The neutral effect on either primary composite outcome, together with the observed increased rates of stroke, were not predicted. Although patients with a cardiovascular event in the 3 months before randomization were excludnovember 19, 2009


The New England Journal of Medicine Downloaded from on November 18, 2010. For personal use only. No other uses without permission. Copyright © 2009 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved.

reinforces the idea that secondary outcomes and subgroup analyses are best viewed as hypothesis generating. et al. absolute levels of hemoglobin. Clin J Am Soc Nephrol 2009. No other uses without permission. this is a humble improvement at best. 2010. Copyright © 2009 Massachusetts Medical Society. and the University of Toronto — both in Toronto.4:726-33. . The clinical epidemiology of cardiovascular disease in chronic kidney disease. Alternative dosing strategies. n engl j med 361. 5. Moreover.38:415-25. “The supreme irony of life is that hardly anyone gets out of it alive. Michael’s Hospital.6. From the Keenan Research Centre of the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute. and quality of life in healthy hemodialysis patients: a randomized trial.316:73-8. 2009 The New England Journal of Medicine Downloaded from www. patients in the groups with high hemoglobin levels received more iron supplementation than did those in the groups with low hemoglobin levels. However. 4. and possibly deaths from cancer versus the perception of improved quality of life.9 Like many treating physicians. A small but statistically significant increase in the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy–Fatigue score (and hence clinical improvement) was reported in the darbepoetin alfa group. 8. and policymakers. Chen C-Y. Foley RN. Correction of anemia with epoetin alfa in chronic kidney disease. The study by Pfeffer et patients. The results of the TREAT will influence practice guidelines and inform physicians. the risk of stroke will outweigh the potential benefits of darbepoetin alfa. Medicare and erythropoietin. Navaneethan SD. especially patients who are undergoing dialysis. Burdmann EA. especially quality-of-life studies. For personal use only. N Engl J Med 2009. 6. Clyne N. Steinbrook R. A substantial proportion of candidates for kidney transplantation continue to require periodic blood transfusions that carry a risk of allosensitization. Copyright © 2009 Massachusetts Medical Society. Donnelly S. since more patients assigned to placebo received intravenous iron than did patients assigned to darbepoetin alfa. Browne JK. approximately 10% of randomly assigned patients had received an ESA 12 weeks or more before randomization. venous thromboembolic events. 2009. The TREAT data may not be applicable to other populations. I am sensitive to the quality of life versus the quantity of life. Curr Opin Nephrol Hypertens 2005.355:2085-98. Shik J. such as those to achieve unique rates of change. Normalization of hemoglobin level in patients with chronic kidney disease and anemia. as compared with the placebo group. Erythropoietin therapy.1056/NEJMe0909664) was published on October 30.nejm. Parfrey PS. Locatelli F. Singh AK.4 Nephrology needs more studies such as the TREAT to test these hypotheses. Szczech L. they may have a point.21 nejm. Patients who received placebo had previously received ESA treatment. The randomization procedure created a nominally significant imbalance in the baseline cardiovascular history. naysayers will not agree. The TREAT does not provide support for this concern. All rights reserved. Strippoli GF. A trial of darbepoetin alfa in type 2 diabetes and chronic kidney on November 18. Egrie JC. 7. may alleviate the risk of stroke yet conserve the modest benefits observed in quality of life. Adamson JW. N Engl J Med 2006. et al. No potential conflict of interest relevant to this article was reported.356:4-6.14:550-7. 9. Some people may argue that the investigators have discounted the differences between the two groups in the number of red-cell transfusions received. et al.4:CD003967. In many of these stakeholders.7 This difference raised concern that iron therapy might have confounded the study outcomes. N Engl J Med 1987. Pfeffer MA. the risk of death or a major cardiovascular event was 31% in the entire cohort over the course of the trial — a reminder of the incredible burden of cardiovascular disease in patients with chronic kidney disease. Curtis BM. 3. as will the lower number of cardiovascular revascularizations in the darbepoetin alfa group than in the placebo group.” 2090 One can anticipate substantive interest in subsequent thoughtful analyses of secondary outcomes. hemoglobin targets. 1. Downing MR. the increased risk of stroke. especially heart failure. In both of the earlier Cardiovascular Risk Reduction by Early Anemia Treatment with Epoetin Beta (CREATE) (NCT00321919) and CHOIR studies. Haemoglobin and haematocrit targets for the anaemia of chronic kidney disease. 2. Am J Kidney Dis 2001. Whether there were differences between the study groups in the rates of change in the estimated glomerular filtration rate will be of interest. N Engl J Med 2007. at NEJM. N Engl J Med 2006.361:2019-32. 46% of patients assigned to placebo received at least one dose of darbepoetin alfa. or both. Cochrane Database Syst Rev november 19. This article (10. Craig JC.The n e w e ng l a n d j o u r na l of m e dic i n e ed and the effect of darbepoetin alfa was independent of blood pressure. Eschbach JW. Parfrey PS. St. To quote the writer Robert Heinlein. Treating physicians and patients may interpret the TREAT as indicating a need to balance tradeoffs — namely. Naysayers will point to differences in baseline characteristics of the patients as confounders in this study. in fact. Correction of the anemia of end-stage renal disease with recombinant human erythropoietin: results of a combined phase I and II clinical trial.355:2071-84. Why is erythropoietin made in the kidney? The kidney functions as a critmeter. Tang KL. during the study. Drüeke TB.

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