Blog entry by Arif Khwaja

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by Arif Khwaja - Wednesday, 25 July 2012, 6:46 PM
Anyone in the world

One of my favourite non-nephrology medical writers has to be Des Spence whose blog ( is rapidly becoming a must read. After previously dismissing chronic kidney disease as ' a failed experiment, a mockery of evidence-based medicine', Spence turns his attention to the $3 billion fine imposed Glaxo Smith Kline over amongst other things suppression of data concerning the cardiovascular risks of rosiglitazone. Spence points out that despite its' faults, pharma is essentially an industry ' doing untold good' and that its far too easy to blame pharma -  he argues the real problem is a 'global medical culture' that encourages naivety and deference rather than respect and scepticism. In particular he is scathing about expert panels who he describes as 'educational mercenaries'. 

Now whilst I don't agree all of his arguments reading his article reminded me of the time I visited a pharma-sponsored symposium at the WCN/ISN in Milan a few years ago. At that symposium Dr Geoffrey Block from Denver gave an impassioned talk on the evils of phosphorus in CKD. Phosphorus increased vascular calcification in CKD and the only way to reduce phosphorus was to use more dialysis and/or more phosphate binders (presumably the rather expensive non-calcium binders). What i remember more than anything was the call for phosphorus to be recognised as a cardiac toxin in CKD patients with a plea for food labelling - so that high phosphorus foods would receive some kind 'health warning' analogus to say high salt warnings that appear on much food packaging now. There was not much discussion of the negative DCOR study (a huge study showing sevelamer had no impact on mortality in dialysis patients) but instead a focus on how we probably needed to reduce phosphorus in the predialysis population. 

So hows that all going?  Well a recent publication in JASN online by Block suggests that the ' calcium bad, sevelamer/lanthanum good' narrative that has been pushed very hard by pharma (with I am afraid the collusion of some 'experts' in the CKD-MBD field), does not as yet stand up to any critical scrutiny...In this study 148 patients with estimated GFR=20–45 ml/min per 1.73 m were assigned to calcium acetate, lanthanum carbonate, sevelamer carbonate, or placebo. The primary endpoint was change in mean serum phosphorus from baseline whilst secondary endpoints looked at effects on FGF23, vascular calcification and bone mineral density. No surprise that the study met its primary endpoint - yes phosphate binders reduce serum phosphorus more effectively than placebo! As expected iPTH levels were significantly higher in the placebo group compared to the binder group at 9 months though interestingly FGF-23 levels were unchanged. In a subset of 90 patients (60 with binders and 26 placebo) imaging was performed which revealed some interesting results. Patients on phosphate binders had a small but significant increase in bone mineral density but a also a significant increase in progression of coronary artery calcification! The authors rather optimistically state that 'The apparent adverse effects on vascular calcification and salutary effects on BMD were most pronounced among patients randomized to calcium acetate' yet no statistics are provided - probably because only 20 patients on binders had an increase in calcification over 9 months and so any meaningful analysis of these 20 patients on three different binders was not possible!!

So what do I make of it all?

i) There is absolutely no RCT evidence to show that non-calcium binders are superior to calcium-based binders in the dialysis population on key patient centred outcomes such as death

ii) Whilst many have argued that the thresholds for serum phosphorus in the pre-dialysis population should be lowered, there is as yet no evidence to support this. In fact what this study shows is that further lowering of serum phosphorus with binders in predialysis patients with CKD may actually not be safe. Until an RCT comes out the honest answer is that we just dont know what to do..

iii) As nephrologists we can spend money in all sorts of ways... prescribing expensive drugs, employing more nursing staff, more dieticians, more counsellors, more dialysis... For those of us who work in an environment where money is an issue, if we are going to prescribe expensive drugs (in the UK the non-calcium binders are around ten times as expensive as calcium binders) we need to have solid data to show that these drugs have a significant impact on outcomes that matter to patients such as death, fractures, hospitalisations, quality of life.. I am afraid I see no robust data for the non-calcium binders

iv) It is entirely appropriate for pharmaceutical companies to push agendas that are going to maximise sales of their products. As Des Spence says we need experts who have a sense of scepticism and are not simply 'educational mercenaries'. But more than that as individual nephrologists we have a duty not to blindly accept expert opinion in the absence of data....



1. Effects of Phosphate Binders in Moderate CKD. Geoffrey A. Block, David C. Wheeler, Martha S. Persky, Bryan Kestenbaum, Markus Ketteler, David M. SpiegelMatthew A. Allison, John Asplin, Gerard Smits, Andrew N. Hoofnagle, Laura Kooienga, Ravi Thadhani, Michael Mannstadt, Myles Wolf and Glenn M. Chertow. JASN online July 2012


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