Gregg C. Fonarow, MD, recommended.
Less than 2 months before Dr. Fonarow made that striking statement during the virtual annual meeting of the Heart Failure Society of America, investigators first reported results from the EMPEROR-Reduced trial at the European Society of Cardiology’s virtual annual meeting, showing that the sodium-glucose transporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitor empagliflozin (Jardiance) successfully cut events in patients with heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF). That report, a year after results from a similar trial (DAPA-HF) showed the same outcome using a different drug from the same class, dapagliflozin (Farxiga), cemented the SGLT2 inhibitor drug class as the fourth pillar for treating HFrEF, joining the angiotensin receptor neprilysin inhibitor (ARNI) class (sacubitril valsartan), beta-blockers (like carvedilol), and mineralocorticoid receptor antagonists (like spironolactone).
EMPEROR-Reduced: Empagliflozin’s HFrEF benefit solidifies class effects
This rejiggering of the consensus expert approach for treating HFrEF left cardiologists wondering what sequence to use when starting this quadruple therapy. Within weeks, the answer from heart failure opinion leaders was clear:
“Start all four pillars simultaneously. Most patients can tolerate, and will benefit from, a simultaneous start,” declared Dr. Fonarow, professor and chief of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
His rationale? Patients get benefits from each of these drug classes “surprisingly early,” with improved outcomes in clinical trials appearing within a few weeks, compared with patients in control arms. The consequence is that any delay in starting treatment denies patients time with improved health status, function, and survival.
Study results documented that the four foundational drug classes can produce rapid improvements in health status, left ventricular size and shape, and make clinically meaningful cuts in both first and recurrent hospitalizations for heart failure and in mortality, Dr. Fonarow said. After 30 days on quadruple treatment, a patient’s relative risk for death drops by more than three-quarters, compared with patients not on these medications.
The benefits from each of the four classes involve distinct physiologic pathways and hence are not diminished by concurrent treatment. And immediate initiation avoids the risk of clinical inertia and a negligence to prescribe one or more of the four important drug classes. Introducing the four classes in a sequential manner could mean spending as long as a year to get all four on board and up-titrated to optimal therapeutic levels, he noted.
“Overcome inertia by prescribing [all four drug classes] at the time of diagnosis,” Dr. Fonarow admonished his audience.
The challenge of prescribing inertia
The risk for inertia in prescribing heart failure medications is real. Data collected in the CHAMP-HF (Change the Management of Patients with Heart Failure) registry from more than 3,500 HFrEF patients managed at any of 150 U.S. primary care and cardiology practices starting in late 2015 and continuing through 2017 showed that, among patients eligible for treatment with renin-angiotensin system (RAS) inhibition (with either ARNI or a single RAS inhibiting drug), a beta-blocker, and a mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist (MRA), 22% received all three drug classes. A scant 1% were on target dosages of all three drug classes, noted Stephen J. Greene, MD, in a separate talk at the meeting when he cited his published findings.
The sole formulation currently in the ARNI class, sacubitril/valsartan (Entresto) has in recent years been the poster child for prescribing inertia in HFrEF patients after coming onto the U.S. market for routine use in 2015. A review run by Dr. Greene of more than 9,000 HFrEF patients who were at least 65 years old and discharged from a hospital participating in the Get With the Guidelines–Heart Failure registry during October 2015–September 2017 showed that 8% of eligible patients actually received a sacubitril/valsartan prescription. Separate assessment of outpatients with HFrEF from the same era showed 13% uptake, said D. Greene, a cardiologist at Duke University, Durham, N.C.
Substantial gaps in prescribing evidence-based treatments to HFrEF patients have existed for the past couple of decades, said Dr. Greene. “Even a blockbuster drug like sacubitril/valsartan has been slow to implement.”
Quadruple therapy adds an average of 6 years of life
One of the most strongest arguments favoring the start-four-at-once approach was detailed in what’s quickly become a widely cited analysis published in July 2020 by a team of researchers led by Muthiah Vaduganathan, MD. Using data from three key pivotal trials they estimated that timely treatment with all four drug classes would on average produce an extra 6 years of overall survival in a 55-year old HFrEF patient, and an added 8 years free from cardiovascular death or first hospitalization for heart failure, compared with less comprehensive treatment. The analysis also showed a significant 3-year average boost in overall survival among HFrEF patients who were 80 years old when using quadruple therapy compared with the “conventional medical therapy” used on control patients in the three trials examined.
Dr. Greene called these findings “remarkable.”
“Four drugs use five mechanistic pathways to produce 6 added years of survival,” summed up Dr. Vaduganathan during a separate talk at the virtual meeting.
In addition to this substantial potential for a meaningful impact on patents’ lives, he cited other factors that add to the case for early prescription of the pharmaceutical gauntlet: avoiding missed treatment opportunities that occur with slower, step-wise drug introduction; simplifying, streamlining, and standardizing the care pathway, which helps avoid care inequities and disrupts the potential for inertia; magnifying benefit when comprehensive treatment starts sooner; and providing additive benefits without drug-drug interactions.
“Upfront treatment at the time of [HFrEF] diagnosis or hospitalization is an approach that disrupts treatment inertia,” emphasized Dr. Vaduganathan, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
New approaches needed to encourage quick uptake
“Efficacy alone has not been enough for efficient uptake in U.S. practice” of sacubitril/valsartan, other RAS inhibitors, beta-blockers, and MRAs, noted Dr. Greene.
He was more optimistic about prospects for relatively quick uptake of early SGLT2 inhibitor treatment as part of routine HFrEF management given all the positives that this new HFrEF treatment offers, including some “unique features” among HFrEF drugs. These include the simplicity of the regimen, which involves a single dosage for everyone that’s taken once daily; minimal blood pressure effects and no adverse renal effects while also producing substantial renal protection; and two SGLT2 inhibitors with proven HFrEF benefit (dapagliflozin and empagliflozin), which bodes well for an eventual price drop.
The SGLT2 inhibitors stack up as an “ideal” HFrEF treatment, concluded Dr. Greene, which should facilitate quick uptake. As far as getting clinicians to also add early on the other three members of the core four treatment classes in routine treatment, he conceded that “innovative and evidence-based approaches to improving real-world uptake of guideline-directed medical therapy are urgently needed.”
EMPEROR-Reduced was funded by Boehringer Ingelheim and Lilly, the companies that market empagliflozin (Jardiance). CHAMP-HF was funded by Novartis, the company that markets sacubitril/valsartan (Entresto). Dr. Fonarow has been a consultant or adviser to Novartis, as well as to Abbott, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Bayer, CHF Solutions, Edwards, Janssen, Medtronic, and Merck. Dr. Greene has received research funding from Novartis, has been a consultant to Amgen and Merck, an adviser to Amgen and Cytokinetics, and has received research funding from Amgen, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Merck. Dr. Vaduganathan has had financial relationships with Boehringer Ingelheim and Novartis, as well as with Amgen, AstraZeneca, Baxter Healthcare, Bayer, Cytokinetics, and Relypsa.