ESAs in Patients with CKD and Cancer: Is the Risk Worth the Benefit?

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Anemia is a common manifestation of CKD. Currently, there are no guidelines for nephrologists regarding erythropoietin stimulating agents (ESAs or Epo or Darbe) use in patients with CKD with previous or active malignancy. Recently an excellent review of this topic was published in Kidney International by Hazzan et al. Let’s go over some of the key points.


Erythropoietin Biology and Relevance in Malignancy

  • Besides stimulating erythropoiesis, Epo has been shown to have both anti-apoptotic and pro-proliferative actions in endothelial cells, brain +/- spinal cord, kidney and heart. Furthermore, Epo has also been shown to promote angiogenesis in endothelial cells. These non-erythroid functions of Epo are not fully understood.
  • Epo mediated angiogenesis appears to be physiologic and driven by hypoxia but may play pathological role in proliferative diabetic retinopathy.
  • Because angiogenesis is important for tumor survival and progression, it is important to know if cancer cells express the EPo receptor (EpoR). Initial evaluations for the EpoR on cancer cells, tested either for the Epo- receptor antibody (the antibodies used were non-specific) or mRNA transcripts (which were potentially contaminated by other cell types from blood or stromal tissue) and were less informative. Recent development of first specific antibody to the EpoR (A82) with both positive and negative controls will allow more rigorous testing for the EpoR protein on cancer cells. Swift et al. studied 66 cell lines and found either no or very low levels of the EpoR protein. Although current data does not show strong evidence of presence of functional EpoR on cancer cells, we need more evidence to draw a definite conclusion.
  • In absence of EpoR, Epo induced supra-physiologic Hb levels would increase oxygen delivery to cancer cells and potentially stimulate proliferation.
  • Also, hypothetically, binding of Epo to EpoR expressed on activated macrophages can suppress NF-kB activation and proinflammatory genes, resulting in an immunosuppressive effect. 

Nephrology Literature on ESA usage in Patients with CKD and Cancer

  • The TREAT trial was a landmark study in the field of nephrology which was published in 2009 in the NEJM. The TREAT (and CHOIR) trials changed how we treated anemia. In this study, more than 4000 diabetic CKD patients with anemia were randomized to either higher hemoglobin (Hb) target (13 g/dl) with darbepoetin or lower hb target (9 g/dl) in placebo arm. Surprisingly, there was a trend towards increased risk of death due to cancer in the Epo group (darbepoetin alfa group 39 deaths, placebo group 25 deaths, P=0.08). Also, in patients with a previous history of cancer, there was increased mortality due to malignancy in Epo group (darbepoeitin alpha 14/188 deaths, Control 1/160 deaths, P=0.002). These results, for the first time, raised concern regarding possible association of Epo with cancer.
  • However, a year later in 2010 Japanese study in CKD stages 4 and 5, failed to show an increased incidence of cancer with Epo. But this study targeted lower Hb (10.1 g/dl) and had a short follow up period.
  • Seliger et al found that Epo increased the risk of stroke, only in CKD patients with diagnosis of cancer. But cancer group received higher initial ESA dose even though the pre-ESA Hb was similar in both groups.

Oncology Literature on ESA use in Patients with CKD and Cancer

Head and neck cancer trials had used Epo to increase tumor oxygenation in an effort to increase efficacy of radiotherapy.

  • ENHANCE TRIAL 2003 was conducted in head and neck cancer patients given ESAs while under-going only radiotherapy (no chemotherapy). Surprisingly, locoregional progression-free survival was found to be poorer with epoetin (where patients were treated to Hb 14–15 g/dl) than with placebo.
  • Similar results were found by DANISH RCT which reported 10% difference in 3-year local/regional control in favor of the control group (P=0.01) compared to darbepoetin group 

Meta-Analysis of Outcomes of Mortality with ESAs

  • Cochrane database analysis– Dec 2012 , found strong evidence that ESAs increased mortality during the active study periods (death occurring up to 30 days after active study protocol) (hazard ratio 1.17; 95% CI 1.06–1.29), and borderline evidence that ESAs decreased overall survival (hazard ratio 1.05; 95% CI 1.00–1.11). The increase in mortality risk was seen in studies where patients had Hb higher than 12 g/dl before Epo treatment. 
  • Mortality risk was higher in patients who received Epo without concurrent chemotherapy but these trends in patients receiving Epo and concurrent chemotherapy are not clear.
  • There is insufficient evidence to know if the risk is dependent on the cancer type. 

Clinical Implications and Recommendations for ESA use in Patients with CKD and Cancer 
1. The nondialysis CKD/ESRD patient with current cancer:

  • Only FDA indication for ESA treatment is for anemia caused by current myelosuppressive chemotherapy; there is no indication for patients with cancer not receiving chemotherapy.
  • If acute severe, symptomatic anemia is present, then blood transfusion is the treatment of choice. 
  • Suggest generally limiting the Hb target to an upper level of 10 g/dl to prevent risk of stroke and mortality with higher Hb targets.
  • For the occasional patients who still have anemia-related symptoms, a slightly higher Hb target may be considered. 
  • Intravenous iron may be given to minimize total ESA dose exposure.
  • The FDA and some oncology guidelines recommend against the use of ESAs if chemotherapy treatment is with curative intent.
  • Hazzan et al feel that ESA treatment is probably reasonable for the advanced non-dialysis CKD/ESRD patient receiving chemotherapy with curative intent but with an upper Hb target of only 10 g/dl. However patient counselling of the risk and benefits is mandatory before Epo use. 

2. The nondialysis CKD/ESRD patient with a previous history of cancer:

  • Discuss with patient`s oncologist if the cancer is cured. Ask about risk of recurrence and the risk for other tumors related to the primary malignancy or its treatment.
  • For up to 5 years after potential cure, treat with ESAs as if active cancer was present, maintaining an upper limit of Hb of 10 g/dl.
  • Even after confirmed cure with very low risk for recurrence, make efforts to reduce ESA dose exposure by ruling out other treatable causes of anemia. (Remember TREAT trial) 

3. The nondialysis CKD/ESRD patient with no active or previous cancer:

  • If high risk for cancer such as strong family history of colon cancer or breast cancer or if the patient is a smoker, or past exposure to cyclophosphamide, use conservative Hb targets to minimize any potential risk of ESA, if any.
  • If no risk factors for malignancy then treat as per usual CKD/ESRD protocols. 

The article does not discuss situation where patient with active cancer have metastatic disease and limited life expectancy. If patients are on palliative chemotherapy or have stopped cancer treatment, then I feel that in such patients it is reasonable to give them Epo to improve quality of life, after a detailed discussion of the risk involved. This may be one situation where the benefit outweighs harm.
These seem to be practical recommendations to me until we have new data on this topic. How do you deal with your patient in this situation? What is the practice pattern at your Centre?

Amit Langote MD
Nephrology Fellow
Ottawa, Canada

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