- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2006

Millions of chest pain and heart attack sufferers thought they were getting a phenomenal medical advance when tiny coils that ooze medicine were placed in their arteries to keep them from squeezing shut again.

These devices, called drug-coated stents, worked so much better than plain old metal ones that 6 million people worldwide received them in the few years they have been available. It was a modern record for any medical device.

Now their long-term safety is in question.

Doctors think these stents may raise the risk of life-threatening blood clots months and even years later unless people stay on Plavix, an anti-clotting drug whose long-term safety in stent patients has not been established.

Thousands of people are being urged to take the $4-a-day drug until more is known.

Thousands of others each day who develop new blockages are being treated by doctors no longer sure of what to do. Many are returning to the old metal stents, and some are fundamentally rethinking when to use stents at all and are considering alternatives such as bypass surgery or medications.

A Food and Drug Administration panel will meet on the issue Thursday and Friday. Medical journals are rushing studies into print, and powerful physicians’ groups are reconsidering treatment guidelines. Stents can be removed but only with surgery that mirrors the implantation procedure.

“It’s such a huge public health issue with so many people involved,” said Dr. Robert Califf of Duke University, who worked on one study to be presented to the FDA.

Doctors also worry about overreacting to a risk that appears small — five or fewer clots in every 1,000 patients.

“The benefit of having a drug-eluting stent is tremendous,” said Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Stents are used in angioplasties. Through a blood vessel in the groin, doctors push a tube to a blocked heart artery, inflate a balloon to flatten the clog, and prop the artery open with a stent.

About 652,000 Americans had angioplasties in 2003 — more than twice the 268,000 who had bypass operations, which are riskier, costlier and take far longer to heal. Angioplasties became more popular when the first drug-coated stent came out that year, virtually eliminating the procedure’s main drawback: scar tissue requiring a repeat effort to reopen the vessel.

Two brands are sold in the United States — Taxus, by Boston Scientific Corp., and Cypher, by Johnson & Johnson’s Cordis Corp. Labels say patients should take baby aspirin and Plavix for three months with Cypher and six months with Taxus, based on how long the stents release medication and how long doctors thought it took for the artery to repair itself by forming a new lining. Many doctors prescribe Plavix for up to a year.

Now it seems the coated stents may keep this essential artery lining from forming for a long time, maybe permanently. Without the lining or Plavix, clots can form and stick to stents.

It happened in May to David Reinhart, 41, a legal secretary in Manhattan who collapsed two weeks after finishing the year of Plavix his doctor recommended.

“I feel a bit of a guinea pig,” Mr. Reinhart said. “It’s obvious there’s a lot they really don’t know about it yet.”

If it weren’t for Swiss efficiency, the risk might not be known. Switzerland’s government required a study to prove the new stents were worth their cost — $2,200 to $2,700 versus $600 to $800 for old ones — and to test how long Plavix should be taken. This produced the bombshell finding that patients with coated stents had double the risk of cardiac problems after stopping Plavix than those with plain metal stents.

“Everyone has been scrambling around looking in their databases” to see if it is true in their patients, said Dr. Christopher Cannon of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who consults for Sanofi-Aventis SA, which sells Plavix in the United States with Bristol-Myers Squibb.

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