The role of Homocysteine as a predictor for coronary heart disease.GMS Health Technol Assess. 2007 Nov 09; 3:Doc11.GH
BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVE
There is an ongoing debate on the role of the cytotoxic aminoacid homocysteine as a causal risk factor for the development of coronary heart disease. Results from multiple case control-studies demonstrate, that there is a strong association between high plasma levels of homoysteine and prevalent coronary heart disease, independent of other classic risk factors. Furthermore, results from interventional studies point out that elevated plasma levels of homocysteine may effectively be lowered by the intake of folic acid and B vitamins. In order to use this information for the construction of a new preventive strategy against coronary heart disease, more information is needed: first, whether homocysteine actually is a causal risk factor with relevant predictive properties and, second, whether by lowering elevated homocysteine plasma concentrations cardiac morbidity can be reduced. Currently in Germany the determination of homocysteine plasma levels is reimbursed for by statutory health insurance in patients with manifest coronary heart disease and in patients at high risk for coronary heart disease but not for screening purposes in asymptomatic low risk populations. Against this background the following assessment sets out to answer four questions: Is an elevated homocysteine plasma concentration a strong, consistent and independent (of other classic risk factors) predictor for coronary heart disease?Does a therapeutic lowering of elevated homoysteine plasma levels reduce the risk of developing coronary events?What is the cost-effectiveness relationship of homocysteine testing for preventive purposes?Are there morally, socially or legally relevant aspects that should be considered when implementing a preventive strategy as outlined above?
In order to answer the first question, a systematic overview of prospective studies and metaanalyses of prospective studies is undertaken. Studies are included that analyse the association of homocysteine plasma levels with future cardiac events in probands without pre-existing coronary heart disease or in population-based samples. To answer the second question, a systematic overview of the literature is prepared, including randomised controlled trials and systematic reviews of randomised controlled trials that determine the effectiveness of homocysteine lowering therapy for the prevention of cardiac events. To answer the third question, economic evaluations of homocysteine testing for preventive purposes are analysed. Methodological quality of all materials is assessed by widely accepted instruments, evidence was summarized qualitatively.
For the first question eleven systematic reviews and 33 single studies (prospective cohort studies and nested case control studies) are available. Among the studies there is profound heterogeneity concercing study populations, classification of exposure (homocysteine measurements, units to express "elevation"), outcome definition and measurement, as well as controlling for confounding (qualitatively and quantitatively). Taking these heterogeneities into consideration, metaanalysis of single patient data with controlling for multiple confounders seems to be the only adequate method of summarizing the results of single studies. The only available analysis of this type shows, that in otherwise healthy people homocysteine plasma levels are only a very weak predictor of future cardiac events. The predictive value of the classical risk factors is much stronger. Among the studies that actively exclude patients with pre-existing coronary heart disease, there are no reports of an association between elevated homocysteine plasma levels and future cardiac events. Eleven randomized controlled trials (ten of them reported in one systematic review) are analysed in order to answer the second question. All trials include high risk populations for the development of (further) cardiac events. These studies also present with marked clinical heterogeneity: primarily concerning the average homocysteine plasma levels at baseline, type and mode of outcome measurement and as study duration. Except for one, none of the trials shows a risk reduction for cardiac events by lowering homocysteine plasma levels with folate or B vitamins. These results also hold for predefined subgroups with markedly elevated homocysteine plasma levels. In order to answer the third questions, three economic evaluations (modelling studies) of homocysteine testing are available. All economic models are based on the assumption that lowering homocysteine plasma levels results in risk reduction for cardiac events. Since this assumption is falsified by the results of the interventional studies cited above, there is no evidence left to answer the third question. Morally, socially or legally relevant aspects of homocysteine assessment are currently not being discussed in the scientific literature.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION
Many currently available pieces of evidence contradict a causal role of homocysteine in the pathogenesis of coronary heart disease. Arguing with the Bradford-Hill criteria at least the criterion of time-sequence (that exposure has to happen before the outcome is measured), the criterion of a strong and consistent association and the criterion of reversibility are not fulfilled. Therefore, homocysteine may, if at all, play a role as a risk indicator but not as risk factor. Furthermore, currently available evidence does not imply that for the prevention of coronary heart disease, knowledge of homocysteine plasma levels provides any information that supersedes the information gathered from the examination of classical risk factors. So, currently for the indication of prevention, there is no evidence that homocysteine testing provides any benefit. Against this background there is also no basis for cost-effectiveness calculations. Further basic research should clarify the discrepant results of case control studies and prospective studies. Maybe there is a third parameter (confounder) associated with homocysteine metabolism as well with coronary heart disease. Further epidemiological research could elucidate the role of elevated homocysteine plasma levels as a risk indicator or prognostic indicator in patients with pre-existing coronary heart disease taking into consideration the classical risk factors.