Blood transfusion for preventing primary and secondary stroke in people with sickle cell disease

Winfred C Wang, Kerry Dwan
Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013 November 14, (11): CD003146

BACKGROUND: In sickle cell disease, a common inherited haemoglobin disorder, abnormal haemoglobin distorts red blood cells, causing anaemia, vaso-occlusion and dysfunction in most body organs. Without intervention, stroke affects around 10% of children with sickle cell anaemia (HbSS) and recurrence is likely. Chronic blood transfusion dilutes the sickled red blood cells, reducing the risk of vaso-occlusion and stroke. However, side effects can be severe.

OBJECTIVES: To assess risks and benefits of chronic blood transfusion regimens in people with sickle cell disease to prevent first stroke or recurrences.

SEARCH METHODS: We searched the Cochrane Cystic Fibrosis and Genetic Disorders Group Trials Register, comprising references identified from comprehensive electronic database searches and handsearches of relevant journals and conference proceedings.Date of the latest search of the Group's Haemoglobinopathies Trials Register: 28 January 2013.

SELECTION CRITERIA: Randomised and quasi-randomised controlled trials comparing blood transfusion as prophylaxis for stroke in people with sickle cell disease to alternative or no treatment.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Both authors independently assessed the risk of bias of the included trials and extracted data.

MAIN RESULTS: Searches identified three eligible randomised trials (n = 342). The first two trials addressed the use of chronic transfusion to prevent primary stroke; the third utilized the drug hydroxycarbamide (hydroxyurea) and phlebotomy to prevent both recurrent (secondary) stroke and iron overload in patients who had already experienced an initial stroke. In the first trial (STOP) a chronic transfusion regimen for maintaining sickle haemoglobin lower than 30% was compared with standard care in 130 children with sickle cell disease judged (through transcranial Doppler ultrasonography) as high-risk for first stroke. During the trial, 11 children in the standard care group suffered a stroke compared to one in the transfusion group, odds ratio 0.08 (95% confidence interval 0.01 to 0.66). This meant the trial was terminated early. The transfusion group had a high complications rate, including iron overload, alloimmunisation, and transfusion reactions. The second trial (STOP II) investigated risk of stroke when transfusion was stopped after at least 30 months in this population. The trial closed early due to a significant difference in risk of stroke between participants who stopped transfusion and those who continued as measured by reoccurrence of abnormal velocities on Doppler examination or the occurrence of overt stroke in the group that stopped transfusion. The third trial (SWiTCH) was a non-inferiority trial comparing transfusion and iron chelation (standard management) with hydroxyurea and phlebotomy (alternative treatment) with the combination endpoint of prevention of stroke recurrence and reduction of iron overload. This trial was stopped early after enrolment and follow up of 133 children because of analysis showing futility in reaching the composite primary endpoint. The stroke rate (seven strokes on hydroxyurea and phlebotomy, none on transfusion and chelation, odds ratio 16.49 (95% confidence interval 0.92 to 294.84)) was within the non-inferiority margin, but the liver iron content was not better in the alternative arm.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: The STOP trial demonstrated a significantly reduced risk of stroke in participants with abnormal transcranial Doppler ultrasonography velocities receiving regular blood transfusions. The follow-up trial (STOP 2) indicated that individuals may revert to former risk status if transfusion is discontinued. The degree of risk must be balanced against the burden of chronic transfusions. The combination of hydroxyurea and phlebotomy is not as effective as "standard" transfusion and chelation in preventing secondary stroke and iron overload. Ongoing multicentre trials are investigating the use of chronic transfusion to prevent silent infarcts, the use of hydroxyurea as an alternative to transfusion in children with abnormal transcranial Doppler ultrasonography velocities, and the use of hydroxyurea to prevent conversion of transcranial Doppler ultrasonography velocities from conditional (borderline) to abnormal values.

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