WASHINGTON – Less than a quarter of patients with heartburn that appears refractory to proton pump inhibitor treatment truly have reflux-related, drug-refractory heartburn with a high symptom–related probability, but patients who fall into this select subgroup often have significant symptom relief from surgical fundoplication, based on results from a randomized, multicenter, Department of Veterans Affairs study with 78 patients.
Although laparoscopic Nissen fundoplication relieved the heartburn symptoms of just two-thirds of patients who met the study’s definition of having true proton pump inhibitor (PPI)–refractory heartburn, this level of efficacy far exceeded the impact of drug therapy with baclofen or desipramine, which was little better than placebo,, said at the annual Digestive Disease Week®.
“Fundoplication fell out of favor because of the success of PPI treatment, and because of complications from the surgery, but what our results show is that there is a subgroup of patients who can benefit from fundoplication. The challenge is identifying them,” said Dr. Spechler, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at the University of Texas, Dallas. “If you go through a careful work-up you will find the patients who have true PPI-refractory acid reflux and heartburn, and in the end we don’t have good medical treatments for these patients,” leaving fundoplication as their best hope for symptom relief.
The study he ran included 366 patients seen at about 30 VA Medical Centers across the United States who had been referred to his center because of presumed PPI-refractory heartburn. The careful work-up that Dr. Spechler and his associates ran included a closely supervised, 2-week trial of a standardized PPI regimen with omeprazole, careful symptom scoring on this treatment with a reflux-specific, health-related quality of life questionnaire, endoscopic esophageal manometry, and esophageal pH monitoring while on omeprazole.
This process placed patients into several distinct subgroups: About 19% dropped out of the study during this assessment, and another 15% left the study because of their intolerance of various stages of the work-up. Nearly 12% of patients wound up being responsive to the PPI regimen, about 6% had organic disorders not related to gastroesophageal reflux disease, and 27% had functional heartburn with a normal level of acid reflux, which left 78 patients (21%) who demonstrated true reflux-related, PPI-refractory heartburn symptoms.
The researchers then randomized this 78-patient subgroup into three treatment arms, with one group of 27 underwent fundoplication surgery. A group of 25 underwent active medical therapy with 20 mg omeprazole b.i.d. plus baclofen, which was started at 5 mg t.i.d. and increased to 20 mg t.i.d. In baclofen-intolerant or nonresponding patients, this treatment was followed up with desipramine, increasing from a starting dosage of 25 mg/day to 100 mg/day. A third group of 26 control patients received active omeprazole at the same dosage but placebo in place of the baclofen and desipramine. These three subgroups showed no statistically significant differences at baseline for all demographic and clinical parameters recorded.
The study’s primary endpoint was the percentage of patients in each treatment arm who had a “successful” outcome, defined as at least a 50% improvement in their gastroesophageal reflux health-related quality of life score (J Gastrointest Surg. 1998 Mar-Apr;2) after 1 year on treatment, which occurred in 67% of the fundoplication patients, 28% in the active medical arm, and 12% in the control arm. The fundoplication-treated patients had a significantly higher rate of a successful outcome, compared with patients in each of the other two treatment groups, while the success rates among patients in the active medical group and the control group did not differ significantly, Dr. Spechler said.
Dr. Spechler had no disclosures to report.