Late erythropoiesis-stimulating agents to prevent red blood cell transfusion in preterm or low birth weight infants

Review question

We reviewed the evidence about the effectiveness and safety of late initiation of erythropoiesis-stimulating agents treatment between eight and 28 days after birth, for reducing the use of red blood cell (RBC) transfusions in preterm or low birth weight infants.

Background

The percentage of circulating red blood cells (haematocrit) falls after birth in all infants. This is particularly true in preterm infants due to their poor response to anaemia and to the amount of blood that is drawn for necessary testing. Low plasma levels of erythropoietin (EPO), a substance in the blood that stimulates red blood cell production in preterm infants, provide a rationale for the use of erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (EPO and darbepoetin) to prevent or treat anaemia.

Search date

The evidence is current to 5 June 2018.

Study characteristics

To date, 1651 infants (between eight and 28 days of age) born preterm have been enrolled in 31 studies of late administration of EPO to reduce the use of red blood cell transfusions and to prevent donor exposure.

There were no studies that used darbepoetin.

Study funding sources

We have not received any funding for this review and we have no conflicts of interest to declare.

Key results

The risk of receiving red blood transfusion is reduced following initiation of EPO treatment. However, the overall benefit of EPO is reduced as many of these infants had been exposed to donor blood prior to entry into the trials. Treatment with late EPO did not have any important effects on death or common complications of preterm birth, except for trends towards an increased risk for retinopathy of prematurity. Retinopathy of prematurity is a disease of the eye affecting infants born preterm. It is thought to be caused by disorganised growth of retinal blood vessels, which may result in scarring and retinal detachment. Retinopathy of prematurity can be mild and may resolve spontaneously, but it may lead to blindness in serious cases.

Quality of the evidence

The study quality varied and important information regarding the random sequence generation and whether the allocation was concealed or not was often missing. Sample sizes were small and long-term outcomes (18 to 24 months of corrected age) were not reported. The quality of the evidence was very low for the outcomes of "use of one or more red blood cell transfusions," "retinopathy of prematurity (all stages or stage not reported)" and for "retinopathy of prematurity (stage ≥ 3)". For the outcomes of "necrotising enterocolitis" and "mortality", the quality of the evidence was moderate.

Authors' conclusions: 

Late administration of EPO reduces the use of one or more RBC transfusions, the number of RBC transfusions per infant (< 1 transfusion per infant) but not the total volume (mL/kg) of RBCs transfused per infant. Any donor exposure is likely not avoided as most studies included infants who had received RBC transfusions prior to trial entry. Late EPO does not significantly reduce or increase any clinically important adverse outcomes except for a trend in increased risk for ROP. Further research of the use of late EPO treatment, to prevent donor exposure, is not indicated. Research efforts should focus on limiting donor exposure during the first few days of life in sick neonates, when RBC requirements are most likely to be required and cannot be prevented by late EPO treatment. The use of satellite packs (dividing one unit of donor blood into many smaller aliquots) may reduce donor exposure.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Preterm infants have low plasma levels of erythropoietin (EPO), providing a rationale for the use of erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs) to prevent or treat anaemia. Darbepoetin (Darbe) and EPO are currently available ESAs.

Objectives: 

To assess the effectiveness and safety of late initiation of ESAs, between eight and 28 days after birth, in reducing the use of red blood cell (RBC) transfusions in preterm or low birth weight infants.

Search strategy: 

We used the standard search strategy of Cochrane Neonatal to search the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL 2018, Issue 5), MEDLINE via PubMed (1966 to 5 June 2018), Embase (1980 to 5 June 2018), and CINAHL (1982 to 5 June 2018). We searched clinical trials databases, conference proceedings, and the reference lists of retrieved articles for randomised controlled trials and quasi-randomised trials.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised or quasi-randomised controlled trials of late initiation of EPO treatment (started at ≥ eight days of age) versus placebo or no intervention in preterm (< 37 weeks) or low birth weight (< 2500 grams) neonates.

Data collection and analysis: 

We performed data collection and analyses in accordance with the methods of the Cochrane Neonatal Review Group. We used the GRADE approach to assess the quality of the evidence.

Main results: 

We include 31 studies (32 comparisons) randomising 1651 preterm infants. Literature searches in 2018 identified one new study for inclusion. No new on-going trials were identified and no studies used darbepoetin.

Most included trials were of small sample size. The meta-analysis showed a significant effect on the use of one or more RBC transfusions (21 studies (n = 1202); typical risk ratio (RR) 0.72, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.65 to 0.79; typical risk difference (RD) -0.17, 95% CI -0.22 to -0.12; typical number needed to treat for an additional beneficial outcome (NNTB) 6, 95% CI 5 to 8). There was moderate heterogeneity for this outcome (RR I² = 66%; RD I² = 58%). The quality of the evidence was very low. We obtained similar results in secondary analyses based on different combinations of high/low doses of EPO and iron supplementation. There was no significant reduction in the total volume (mL/kg) of blood transfused per infant (typical mean difference (MD) -1.6 mL/kg, 95% CI -5.8 to 2.6); 5 studies, 197 infants). There was high heterogeneity for this outcome (I² = 92%). There was a significant reduction in the number of transfusions per infant (11 studies enrolling 817 infants; typical MD -0.22, 95% CI -0.38 to -0.06). There was high heterogeneity for this outcome (I² = 94%).

Three studies including 404 infants reported on retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) (all stages or stage not reported), with a typical RR 1.27 (95% CI 0.99 to 1.64) and a typical RD of 0.09 (95% CI -0.00 to 0.18). There was high heterogeneity for this outcome for both RR (I² = 83%) and RD (I² = 82%). The quality of the evidence was very low.Three trials enrolling 442 infants reported on ROP (stage ≥ 3). The typical RR was 1.73 (95% CI 0.92 to 3.24) and the typical RD was 0.05 (95% CI -0.01 to 0.10). There was no heterogeneity for this outcome for RR (I² = 18%) but high heterogeneity for RD (I² = 79%). The quality of the evidence was very low.There were no significant differences in other clinical outcomes including mortality and necrotising enterocolitis. For the outcomes of mortality and necrotising enterocolitis, the quality of the evidence was moderate. Long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes were not reported.

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