Comparison of two types of blood thinning drugs for preventing blood clots in people with atrial fibrillation

People with atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes the heart to beat irregularly, are at an increased risk of the formation of blood clots. Such clots can block blood vessels and cause severe organ damage (infarction), for example in the brain or lungs. Various guidelines recommend that patients with atrial fibrillation should be treated with blood thinning drugs that can prevent the formation of blood clots. Serious side effects of such treatment are bleedings (for example into the brain) that can cause serious disability or even death.

Until recently, the most often used blood thinning drug in people with atrial fibrillation has been warfarin, a vitamin K antagonist. Results from several studies of a new class of blood thinners, the factor Xa inhibitors, have now become available. In this review we have analysed data from 10 studies that included a total of 42,084 participants with atrial fibrillation that were either treated with warfarin or a factor Xa inhibitor. We found that the factor Xa inhibitors, when compared with warfarin, reduced the formation of blood clots in people with atrial fibrillation. Factor Xa inhibitors also appear to reduce the number of serious bleedings (including those into the brain) and number of people dying from any cause compared with warfarin.

Authors' conclusions: 

Factor Xa inhibitors significantly reduced the number of strokes and systemic embolic events compared with warfarin in patients with AF. Factor Xa inhibitors also seem to reduce the number of major bleedings and ICHs compared with warfarin, though the evidence for a reduction of major bleedings is somewhat less robust. There is currently no conclusive evidence to determine which factor Xa inhibitor is more effective and safer for long-term anticoagulant treatment of patients with AF as head-to-head studies of the different factor Xa inhibitors have not yet been performed.

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Background: 

Anticoagulant treatment with vitamin K antagonists (VKAs) is aimed at preventing thromboembolic complications and has been the therapy of choice for most people with non-valvular atrial fibrillation (AF) for many decades. A new class of anticoagulants, the factor Xa inhibitors, appear to have several pharmacological and practical advantages over VKAs.

Objectives: 

To assess the effectiveness and safety of treatment with factor Xa inhibitors versus VKAs for the prevention of cerebral or systemic embolic events in people with AF.

Search strategy: 

We searched the trials registers of the Cochrane Stroke Group and the Cochrane Heart Group (June 2012), the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library 2012, Issue 10), MEDLINE (1950 to April 2013) and EMBASE (1980 to April 2013). In an effort to identify further published, unpublished and ongoing trials we searched trials registers and Google Scholar (July 2012). We also screened reference lists and contacted pharmaceutical companies, authors and sponsors of relevant published trials.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials that directly compared the effects of long-term treatment (more than four weeks) with factor Xa inhibitors and VKAs for the prevention of cerebral and systemic embolism in patients with AF. We included patients with and without a previous stroke or TIA.

Data collection and analysis: 

The primary efficacy outcome was the composite endpoint of all strokes and other systemic embolic events. Two authors independently assessed trial quality and the risk of bias, and extracted data. We calculated a weighted estimate of the typical treatment effect across trials using the odds ratio (OR) with 95% confidence interval (CI) by means of a fixed-effect model. However, in the case of moderate or high heterogeneity of treatment effects, we used a random-effects model to compare the overall treatment effects and performed a pre-specified sensitivity analysis excluding any fully open-label studies.

Main results: 

We included data from 42,084 participants randomised into 10 trials. All participants had a confirmed diagnosis of AF (or atrial flutter) and were deemed by the randomising physician to be eligible for long-term anticoagulant treatment with a VKA (warfarin) with a target International Normalised Ratio (INR) of 2.0 to 3.0 in most patients. The included trials directly compared dose-adjusted warfarin with either apixaban, betrixaban, darexaban, edoxaban, idraparinux or rivaroxaban. Four trials were double-masked, five partially-masked (that is different doses of factor Xa inhibitor administered double-masked and warfarin administered open-label) and one was open-label. Median duration of follow-up ranged from 12 weeks to 1.9 years.

The composite primary efficacy endpoint of all strokes (both ischaemic and haemorrhagic) and non-central nervous systemic embolic events was reported in nine of the included studies (40,777 participants). Treatment with a factor Xa inhibitor significantly decreased the number of strokes and systemic embolic events compared with dose-adjusted warfarin (OR 0.81, 95% CI 0.72 to 0.91). We also analysed both components of this composite endpoint separately: treatment with a factor Xa inhibitor significantly decreased both the number of ischaemic and haemorrhagic strokes (OR 0.78, 95% CI 0.69 to 0.89) and the number of systemic embolic events (OR 0.53, 95% CI 0.32 to 0.87).

All of the included studies (42,078 participants) reported the number of major bleedings. Treatment with a factor Xa inhibitor significantly reduced the number of major bleedings compared with warfarin (OR 0.89, 95% CI 0.81 to 0.98). There was, however, statistically significant and high heterogeneity (I² = 81%) and an analysis using a random-effects model did not show a statistically significant decrease in the number of major bleedings (OR 0.92, 95% CI 0.63 to 1.34). The pre-specified sensitivity analysis excluding open-label studies showed that treatment with a factor Xa inhibitor significantly reduced the number of major bleedings compared with warfarin (OR 0.84, 95% CI 0.76 to 0.92) but moderate heterogeneity was still observed (I² = 65%). A similar sensitivity analysis using a random-effects model did not show a statistically significant decrease in the number of major bleedings in patients treated with factor Xa inhibitors (OR 0.78, 95% CI 0.57 to 1.05). Part of the observed heterogeneity can thus be explained by the increased risk of major bleedings in the factor Xa treatment arm in the single included open-label study, which studied idraparinux. Other heterogeneity might be explained by differences in baseline bleeding risks in the two largest trials of apixaban and rivaroxaban that we included in this review.

Data on intracranial haemorrhages (ICHs) were reported in eight studies (39,638 participants). Treatment with a factor Xa inhibitor significantly reduced the risk of ICH compared with warfarin (OR 0.56, 95% CI 0.45 to 0.70). Again, we observed statistically significant heterogeneity (I² = 60%). The pre-specified sensitivity analysis excluding the open-label study showed that treatment with a factor Xa inhibitor significantly reduced the number of ICHs compared with warfarin (OR 0.51, 95% CI 0.41 to 0.64), without any sign of statistical heterogeneity (I² = 0%).

The number of patients who died from any cause was reported in six studies (38,924 participants). Treatment with a factor Xa inhibitor significantly reduced the number of all-cause deaths compared with warfarin (OR 0.88, 95% 0.81 to 0.97).