More Than Half of People Living With HIV Have Coronary Plaque

More than half of people living with HIV and suppressed viral loads nonetheless had imaging-confirmed coronary artery disease — and despite longtime use of HIV drugs that have been associated with cardiovascular trouble, none of those drugs were implicated in disease risk in this study.

“Traditional risk factors and duration of HIV infection was associated with severe coronary artery disease,” said Andreas Knudsen, MD, PhD, an infectious disease provider at Copenhagen University Hospital, Hvidovre, Denmark, during his presentation at the 18th European AIDS Conference. “When we adjusted for time since diagnosis of HIV, none of the drugs remained associated with the severity of coronary artery disease.”

Notably, that included abacavir, which was found in another EACS presentation and in past research to be associated with increased rates of heart attacks. Abacavir is sold individually as a generic as well as a component of Epzicom (abacavir/lamivudine) and the single-drug regimen Triumeq (dolutegravir/abacavir/lamivudine).

The Copenhagen Comorbidity in HIV Infection (COCOMO) study enrolled 1099 people living with HIV in the Danish capital beginning in 2015, and 705 of them had angiographies via CT available to include in the results. The participants were almost all male (89%), at a healthy weight (BMI of 25), and 96% had undetectable viral loads.

Large minorities of participants also had traditional risk factors for coronary artery disease. More than 1 in 4 smoked, 1 in 5 had high cholesterol, and 42% had high blood pressure. In addition, many had used drugs that have been associated with cardiovascular trouble, including abacavir, which 26% of participants had used; indinavir, used by 17% of participants; zidovudine/AZT, used by 47%; and didanosine, which 14% used. (While abacavir is still in use, the other three drugs are considered legacy drugs and are not in current use.)

In addition, nearly 1 in 3 (29%) were currently using a protease inhibitor, which has been associated with heart failure.

When the investigators looked at participants’ CTs, they found that, by the Coronary Artery Disease-Reporting and Data Systems (CAD-RAMS) scoring system, close to half (46%) had clear arteries with no signs of coronary artery disease. But that also meant that 54% had some blockage or stiffening of the arteries. The good news is that 27% of those people had minimal or mild coronary artery disease.

But a full 17% had confirmed obstructive coronary artery disease, and another 1 in 10 participants had the highest level of blockages. When they broke the data down by traditional and HIV-medication-related risk factors for coronary artery disease, they found something interesting. Although obesity was associated with the presence of atherosclerosis, it wasn’t associated with severe disease. But diabetes was the reverse of that: it wasn’t associated with the presence of the disease, but it was associated with more severe disease.

And when they looked at abacavir, they found no relationship between the drug and atherosclerosis. “Abacavir was not associated with the presence of atherosclerosis and was also not associated with severity of disease,” said Knudsen.

Although past use of AZT, indinavir, and didanosine were associated with severity of atherosclerosis, that association went away when Knudsen and team adjusted the findings for time since diagnosis. What was associated atherosclerosis was length of time living with HIV itself. For every 5 years a person lived with HIV, the study found the risk of having any atherosclerosis increased 20% and severity increased 23%. In addition, being a man was associated with a nearly 2.5-times increased risk of having any atherosclerosis and a 96% increased chance of having more severe atherosclerosis. Having diabetes was associated with a nearly threefold increased risk of atherosclerosis, as was every additional decade of life for a person who was living with HIV.

The findings confirm the baseline data of the REPRIEVE trial, which recently released data showing similarly high rates of atherosclerotic plaque in people living with HIV who didn’t register as “at risk” for cardiovascular disease using traditional scoring methods.

“It’s important in that it’s a huge study that’s confirmatory [of] what we know, which is that there are high levels of subclinical coronary artery disease in people living with HIV,” said Steven Grinspoon, MD, professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and principal investigator of REPRIEVE.

As for the lack of association between abacavir and cardiovascular risk, he said he’s taking the findings with a grain of salt.

“It’s hard to make a lot out of that,” he said. “It’s hard to know in a cross-sectional study. People put people on different things.”

In Spain, where Jose Ignacio Bernardino, MD, treats people living with HIV at La Paz University Hospital in Madrid, abacavir is mostly a moot point, as clinicians have long since moved away from maintaining people living with HIV on any abacavir-containing regimens. What’s more important in the study, he told Medscape Medical News, is that “worrisome” high level of risk. REPRIEVE will test whether statins can reduce heart disease events in people living with HIV. But in the meantime, he said the take-away for clinicians from the study is the primary importance of traditional cardiovascular risk factors.

“We have to acknowledge that the major cardiovascular risk factor is age,” he said. “When patients are approaching their 50s, I usually try to stress a lot about cardiovascular risk factors in general. I stress healthy lifestyle — get physical exercise, hypertension, glucose, lipids — in every single patient.”

Knudsen and Bernardino have disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Grinspoon reports receiving personal and consulting fees from Theratechnologies and ViiV Healthcare.

18th European AIDS Conference: Best Poster BPD3/2.
Presented October 29, 2021.

Heather Boerner is a science journalist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her book, Positively Negative: Love, Pregnancy, and Science’s Surprising Victory Over HIV, came out in 2014.

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