Another challenge for HIV patients

Long-term study will explore way to curb heart attacks

BY MEREDITH COHN
BALTIMORE SUN/TNS

BALTIMORE — People infected with HIV can now live long, healthy lives — so long as they don’t have a heart attack.

Jamilla Howard R.N., a research nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital, left, is shown with Stacey Scott, 45, from Baltimore, who is HIV-positive. Scott is a participant in a trial to see if a cholesterol-lowering drug can stave off heart disease.
(ALGERINA PERNA/BALTIMORE SUN/TNS)

Cardiovascular problems among HIV patients are emerging as the latest threat they face and a major challenge for medical experts, whose success using antiretroviral drugs to prolong patients’ lives has given rise to new risks.

“When I first started taking care of patients in the 1980s they virtually would all die, but now they’re living and getting complications from the disease, the most prominent of which is cardiovascular disease,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

National study
Fauci said the search is on for a consistent method to stave off heart attacks and strokes in those with HIV. A promising avenue may be adding a daily lipid-lowering drug to the mix, even in patients without the usual signs of trouble such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

To test the idea, the National Institutes of Health has lined up about 100 hospitals, academic centers and health facilities around the globe — including the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore — to take part in a long-term study that will provide a drug known as pitavastatin to HIV patients without signs of cardiovascular disease to see if it prevents heart problems.

Years of study
Pitavastatin is used routinely in heart patients to lower cholesterol and has proven safe to take with HIV medications.

Doctors such as Fauci already had been giving it to their healthy HIV patients assuming it would help them not only by keeping high cholesterol at bay but by also lowering HIV-associated inflammation that can cause plaque buildup in the blood vessels.

However, there is no solid scientific evidence the statin works in healthy HIV patients, Fauci said.

The REPRIEVE trial, which stands for Randomized Trial to Prevent Vascular Events in HIV, will follow patients for an average of four years each. They will come in a few times a year for tests at participating facilities.

Willing enrollee
Stacey Scott, a 45-year-old East Baltimore mother, didn’t hesitate to enroll in the study when she learned about it from her Hopkins doctor, Dr. Christie Basseth, who has been caring for her for a dozen years.

“I have HIV and a history of heart disease in my family, and if they want to spend the four years making sure my heart is good, I’m all for it,” Scott said.

She wouldn’t always have been interested in taking another pill. Scott was devastated to learn she had the virus in 1994 but quickly abandoned her regimen HIV medications because they made her feel sick.

The virus soon took its toll; she developed full-blown AIDS.

Helping others
Considering the effect on her young son if she died and learning about a new generation of medications moved her to “straighten up.”

She now religiously takes an antiretroviral drug and a study pill each morning. And though it’s not always comfortable for her, she forces herself to speak to the young women in her neighborhood about the dangers of drug use and promiscuity. She said she even will show them her pill box and tell them of her brush with death.

Scott views the study as another way to help herself and others.

“This is a good opportunity,” she said. “I hope it works.”

A top killer
There are about 1.2 million people now living with HIV around the country, though 1 in 8 don’t know. Experts say the untreated HIV not only causes harm to those infected but also allows the virus to be easily spread.

About 6,700 people die from HIV and AIDS in the United States each year, making it a top 10 killer for those age 25 to 44. Most infected people die of related problems like cancers, infections — and heart attacks.

Previous research on HIV by Dr. Matthew Feinstein, a cardiovascular disease fellow at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, showed that heart disease was being vastly underestimated in HIV patients.

Higher risk
The risk of a heart attack is one and a half to two times higher in an HIV patient than a healthy person. Feinstein found the virus was still having this profound affect even when it was suppressed by medications.

The affect could not be attributed to patients living longer and suffering from the same health conditions as other Americans with poor diet and exercise habits, though aging does play a role.

Feinstein said it likely has more to do with chronic inflammation spurred by HIV that is harming the body’s vessels.

“There seems to be an accelerated risk of developing plaque in the arteries including heart arteries,” Feinstein said. “It leads to an earlier manifestation of heart disease.”

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