Pulmonary hypertension (PH), when pressure in the blood vessels leading from the heart to the lungs is too high, is primarily a disease of adults: Patient registries suggest that the mean age of diagnosis is around age 50. However, more and more children are developing this condition, says Chinwe Unegbu, M.D., an assistant professor in the Division of Anesthesiology, Pain and Perioperative Medicine at Children’s National Health System.
Although adults with PH have several different effective treatments, Dr. Unegbu adds, children have few options. One of these is a class of medications known as phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE-5) inhibitors, which act on molecular pathways that can open up constricted blood vessels. However, some studies have raised questions about the safety of this class of medications, particularly with long-term use of high dosages.
In a new study, Dr. Unegbu and colleagues performed a systematic review of available literature on this class of drugs evaluating their effectiveness and safety for pediatric patients. The review showed that like all medications, PDE-5 inhibitors have some risks. However, Dr. Unegbu says, the review showed that their benefits, including improved echocardiography measurements, cardiac catheterization parameters and oxygenation, far outweigh potential harmful side effects.
“Pediatricians across the nation view the rise in pediatric PH cases with growing concern because the disease can worsen, leading to right ventricular failure and death,” says Dr. Unegbu, lead author of the study. “PH can occur in newborns, infants and children who have a number of health conditions, including congenital heart disease, the most common birth defect among newborns. There are few available treatments for the growing population of children affected by this condition, so it is heartening that the evidence supports PDE-5 inhibitors for patients with PH.”
Patients with PH experience increased pressure in the pulmonary arteries, which carry blood from the heart to the lungs where it picks up oxygen that is ferried throughout the body. According to the National Institutes of Health, this leads patients to suffer from shortness of breath while doing routine tasks, chest pain and a racing heartbeat. Changes to the arteries make it progressively harder for the heart to pump blood to the lungs, which forces the heart to work even harder. Despite the heart muscle compensating by growing larger, less blood ultimately flows from the right to the left side of the heart which can compromise the kidney, liver and other organs, Dr. Unegbu says.
The study team included four researchers from Johns Hopkins University: Corina Noje, M.D., John D. Coulson, M.D., Jodi B. Segal, M.D., M.P.H., and study senior author Lewis Romer, M.D. The researchers scoured Medline, Embase, SCOPUS and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, looking for studies that examined PDE-5 inhibitor use by pediatric patients with primary and secondary PH. Their goals included describing the nature and scale of the pediatric PH, assessing available pharmacologic therapies and conducting the systematic review of clinical studies of PDE-5 inhibitors, a mainstay of PH therapy.
They identified 1,270 studies. Twenty-one met the criteria to be included in the comprehensive review, including eight randomized controlled trials – the gold standard. The remaining 13 were observational studies in children ranging in age from extremely preterm to adolescence.
“Although there is some risk associated with PDE-5 inhibitor use by pediatric patients with PH, overwhelmingly the data indicate the benefits of using this class of drugs far outweigh the risks. When we looked at specific clinical outcomes, we see definite improvement in a number of measures including oxygenation, hemodynamics and better clinical outcomes: The patients are doing better, feeling better and their exercise capacity rises,” Dr. Unegbu says.
Because of lingering concerns about increased mortality, they also looked at toxicity data associated with this class of drugs. “With the exception of a single trial, the remaining trials included in our review did not demonstrate increased mortality in patients placed on this class of medicines, which was reassuring to us,” she says. Side effects ranged from mild to moderate, such as flushing and headaches. “We can say with a good degree of confidence that providers should feel fairly comfortable prescribing PDE-5 inhibitors.”
Ideally, researchers would like to have access to patient-specific measures that are a good fit for neonates and infants. Unlike adults, infants’ exercise capacity cannot be measured by their ability to climb stairs or use a treadmill. Another limitation, the study authors note, is the dearth of adequately powered clinical trials conducted in kids.
“Most of the studies have been conducted in adults. However, this disease unfolds in a much different fashion in children compared with adults,” Dr. Unegbu says. “We are desperately in need of high-quality studies in the form of randomized controlled trials in pediatric patients and studies that examine the full range of formulations of this class of drugs.”