Better stroke treatment moves tantalizingly within reach



Stroke is one of the most feared medical conditions, with the specter of suddenly finding oneself unable to talk, eat, walk, or live independently, according to study results.

In mid-February, results from three trials reported at the International Stroke Conference in Nashville, Tenn., changed the face of ischemic stroke treatment by proving that emergency endovascular catheterization to remove the embolus blocking cerebral blood flow produced better long-term outcomes than standard treatment with intravenous thrombolysis.

Courtesy American Heart Association

It wasn’t just that patients did better with endovascular embolectomy; it was how much they did better. In the two trials run in the United States and abroad, SWIFT PRIME and ESCAPE, the percentage of patients rated as not disabled (a modified Rankin Scale score of 0-1) when assessed after 90 days was 36% and 42% for patients treated with endovascular therapy in the two studies, compared with 17% and 19% in the two control arms. Embolectomy boosted the fraction of patients having the best stroke outcomes more than twofold, a breathtaking leap in efficacy.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Saver from UCLA, lead investigator for SWIFT PRIME, called it a “once-in-a-field” result, meaning that never again will stroke clinicians see this degree of incremental improvement by adding a new intervention.

The frustrating irony is how challenging delivery of this disease-altering treatment will be on a national scale. One problem is that it didn’t result from a single change in treatment, but from a careful mix of new diagnostic techniques with sophisticated CT imaging, new systems for expediting diagnosis, triage, transport, and treatment, in combination with new technology in the form of emboli-retrieving stents.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Saver

Dr. Jeffrey L. Saver

Stroke management specialists see a daunting series of issues to tackle as they attempt to roll out emergency endovascular interventions on a routine scale throughout much of the United States. Many more centers must open, modeled on the ones that succeeded in the trials. The centers need to be rationally positioned so they are close to patients but also give each center enough case volume to foster high interventional-skill levels. Staffing must be found for fast-moving stroke response teams that can make the diagnostics and interventions available around the clock and interpret the images to select appropriate patients. Ambulance systems have to be set up that take likely stroke patients to the centers that will best meet their treatment needs.

The stroke and public health communities will need to invest a lot of time, money, and leadership to make this happen, but it’s a clear mandate, given the promise endovascular treatment now holds to blunt the impact of one of medicine’s most feared maladies.

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