Stroke in atrial fibrillation: update on pathophysiology, new antithrombotic therapies, and evolution of procedures and devices

Irina Savelieva, Abhay Bajpai, A John Camm
Annals of Medicine 2007, 39 (5): 371-91
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is said to be an epidemic, affecting 1%-1.5% of the population in the developed world. The clinical significance of AF lies predominantly in a 5-fold increased risk of stroke. Strokes associated with AF are usually more severe and confer increased risk of morbidity, mortality, and poor functional outcome. Despite the advent of promising experimental therapies for selected patients with acute stroke, pharmacological primary prevention remains the best approach to reducing the burden of stroke. New antithrombotic drugs include both parenteral agents (e.g. a long-acting factor Xa inhibitor idraparinux) and oral anticoagulants, such as oral factor Xa inhibitors and direct oral thrombin inhibitors (ximelagatran, dabigatran). Ximelagatran had shown significant potential as a possible replacement to warfarin therapy, but has been withdrawn because of potential liver toxicity. Its congener dabigatran appears to have a better safety profile and has recently entered a phase III randomized clinical trial in AF. Oral factor Xa inhibitors (rivaroxaban, apixaban, YM150) inhibit factor Xa directly, without antithrombin III mediation, and may prove to be more potent and safe. Selective inhibitors of specific coagulation factors involved in the initiation and propagation of the coagulation cascade (factor IXa, factor VIIa, circulating tissue factor) are at an early stage of development. Additional new agents with hypothetical, although not yet proven, anticoagulation benefits include nematode anticoagulant peptide (NAPc2), protein C derivatives, and soluble thrombomodulin. A battery of novel mechanical approaches for the prevention of cardioembolic stroke has recently been evaluated, including various models of percutaneous left atrial appendage occluders which block the connection between the left atrium and the left atrial appendage, minimally invasive surgical isolation of the left atrial appendage, and implantation of the carotid filtering devices which divert large emboli from the internal to the external carotid artery, preventing the embolic material from reaching intracranial circulation. Despite recent advances and promising new approaches, prevention of recurrent AF may be one of the best protections against AF-related stroke and may reduce the prevalence of stroke by almost 25%. Improved pharmacological and nonpharmacological rhythm control strategies for AF as well as primary prevention of AF with 'upstream' therapy and risk factor modification are likely to produce a larger effect on the reduction of stroke rates in the general population than will specific interventions.


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