Eyes on ESC '21: Hope for EMPEROR-Preserved, Guidelines Remade

August 23, 2021

There will be so much more to the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress 2021, which begins August 27 with an all-virtual format, than detailed primary results of EMPEROR-Preserved, a trial that could mark a turning point for heart failure (HF) medical therapy.

Also among the featured Hot Line and Late-Breaking Science sessions are — along with many other studies — explorations of arrhythmia management (ablation or guided by loop recorder); secondary prevention, including by vaccination; oral anticoagulation, notably after transcatheter valve procedures; and colchicine or thrombosis prophylaxis in hospitalized patients with COVID-19.

There will even be a head-to-head comparison of two long-familiar left atrial appendage (LAA) occluders, and a population-based, randomized trial of sodium restriction through wide-scale use of a potassium-based salt substitute.

The Congress will also introduce four guideline documents at sessions throughout the Congress, one on each day. They cover new and modified recommendations for heart failure; pacing, including cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT); cardiovascular (CV) disease prevention; and, with cosponsorship from the European Association for Cardio-Thoracic Surgery (EACTS), valvular heart disease.

The Virtues of Virtual

That next year's Congress is slated for August 27 to 30 in Barcelona, Spain should be welcome news for anyone whose "what if" curiosity about all-virtual conferences has already been satisfied. But with experience comes wisdom, as the medical societies have learned that online scientific meetings have some winning qualities that may be worth keeping, as least for a while.

"I think there is no doubt that the digital format will continue, for several reasons. One is that this pandemic is not over," ESC Congress Program Committee Chair Stephan Windecker, MD, Bern University Hospital, Switzerland, told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology. "As long as it is not over, the digital format is here to stay."

But it also appears that people who haven't been able to attend the Congress in person are keen to log in and engage online, Windecker said. The 2020 all-virtual conference drew a much younger pool of registrants, on average, than did the live conferences before the pandemic.

"I think that's an indication of people that may be in training, in early stages of their career, or they don't have the support from departments or from their practice, or other financial means." But they are able to participate via computer, tablet, or smartphone.

"Another advantage is that the recorded content can be replayed at the convenience of whoever wants to consume it at a later point in time," he added. "Those are just some examples why the digital format is likely to stay," on its own or in a new age of hybrid meetings.  

New and Updated Guidelines

Leading off the guideline series is the document on diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic heart failure, which leveraged the past few busy years of HF clinical trials to arrive at a number of new recommendations and strengthened level-of-evidence ratings. It covers both drug and device therapy of HF with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF) and acute decompensated HF, and tweaks and further enshrines the concept of HF with mildly reduced ejection fraction (HFmrEF).

Several updated recommendations for both long-used and novel medications, notably the sodium-glucose cotransporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors, will be included because of the recently appreciated evidence-based impact in HFrEF, Windecker noted.

"I think it will be particularly interesting to look for the SGLT2 inhibitors as not a completely new class of drugs, but certainly one where there has been a lot of new evidence, to look at how those drugs will be integrated in the overall care pathway."

A top-line preview of the new HF guideline limited to drug therapy, presented at last month's Heart Failure Association of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC-HFA), provided a simple answer to a common question in the new, bountiful age of HFrEF medications: Which meds, initiated in what order?

As it happens, the new recommendation for first-line HFrEF drug therapy is not a silver bullet, but a shotgun — prompt initiation of at least four meds, one from each of four drug classes: renin-angiotensin system (RAS) inhibitors, beta blockers, mineralocorticoid receptor antagonists (MRA), and SGLT2 inhibitors. Each class, as described in the document, is to be started as soon as safely feasible, in a sequence deemed appropriate for each individual patient.

Spotlight on EMPEROR-Preserved

The world already knows that the trial, which tested the SGLT2 inhibitor empagliflozin (Jardiance, Boehringer Ingelheim/Eli Lilly) on top of standard therapy, "met" its primary endpoint in almost 6000 patients with HF with preserved ejection fraction (HFpEF), who included some with HFmrEF by more contemporary definitions.

That means patients in EMPEROR-Preserved assigned to take empagliflozin showed significantly fewer events that made up the study's primary endpoint, a composite of CV death or HF hospitalization. It appears to be the first clearly significant overall medical therapy benefit for a clinical primary endpoint in a major randomized HFpEF drug trial.

And that, pending fuller presentation of trial results at the Congress on August 27, could be a huge deal for the half of HF patients with left ventricular ejection fractions (LVEF) higher than the HFrEF range.

Those early top-line results weren't a decisive bombshell for a field now filled with hope for a practice-changing empagliflozin outcome in EMPEROR-Preserved, which isn't a certainty. They were more like the "boom" of a mortar launching a rocket of fireworks that may explode into a chrysanthemum or green comet or, sometimes, turn out to be no more than a dud. The promise of the early cursory results critically depends on further details.

"Provided there is a compelling benefit, this is what everyone has been waiting for in this condition for decades," Mikhail N. Kosiborod, MD, director of cardiometabolic research at Saint Luke's Mid-America Heart Institute, Kansas City, Missouri, said for theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.

"Already knowing that the trial met the primary endpoint is obviously very intriguing and encouraging," he added. "But there are things we don't know, such as: What is the magnitude of benefit? And whether that benefit, whatever the magnitude, is driven by reductions in both heart failure hospitalizations and cardiovascular death, or only one of the two."

For example, "If we see an impressive benefit for reduction of hospitalizations, but not a significant reduction in death, that would still be a huge advance. That's because, to date, we don't have any drug for HFpEF that has convincingly demonstrated a compelling reduction in heart failure hospitalization or improvement in symptoms, function, or quality of life," observed Kosiborod, who wasn't part of EMPEROR-Preserved.

There have been "suggestions" from HFrEF trials that empagliflozin and dapagliflozin (Farxiga, AstraZeneca) "have very comparable effects on at least the endpoint of cardiovascular death or hospitalization for heart failure," he said. "So, my expectation would be that whatever is observed in EMPEROR-Preserved is likely a class effect, as well."

Following EMPEROR-Preserved on the agenda is EMPEROR-Pooled, a patient-level combined analysis of the EMPEROR series of trials that spans the range of HF, regardless of ejection fraction or diabetes status, primarily exploring the effects of empagliflozin on renal function.

Other Offerings, Friday, August 27

Scheduled immediately after EMPEROR-Preserved is a presentation on the SMART-MI trial, which should clarify whether management guided by continuous ambulatory monitoring is effective in patients considered at especially high arrhythmic risk. Entry called for recent myocardial infarction (MI) and an LVEF of 36% to 50% with evidence of cardiac autonomic dysfunction.

The trial randomly assigned 400 such patients to be or not be implanted with a Reveal LINQ (Medtronic) loop recorder and followed them for up to 18 months, primarily for detection of potentially serious arrhythmic events. Endpoints that involved mortality, hospitalization or other clinical events were secondary.

In a timeslot preceding both SMART-MI and EMPEROR-Preserved, the GUIDE-HF trial is following a projected 3600 patients with HF implanted with a CardioMEMS HF System (Abbott) pulmonary artery (PA) pressure sensor to explore its value for guiding management.

The trial's three cohorts, followed for at least 12 months, include randomized sensor-monitored and control groups of patients with NYHA class 2 to 4 symptoms, as well as a third observational set of patients in NYHA class 3. That's the indication for which the CardioMEMS monitor gained approval in the United States in 2014 based on the 2011 CHAMPION trial, and which fared just as well in the 2017 CHAMPION Post-Approval Study.

The Friday Hot Lines also include Dal-GenE, which has entered about 6000 patients with recent MI to test the once-abandoned cholesterol ester transfer protein (CETP) inhibitor dalcetrapib (DalCor) for any secondary-prevention benefits when used selectively. The trial's hook: all its patients are confirmed to have the AA genotype of the rs1967309 variant in the ADCY9 gene, which has been associated with a pronounced clinical response to CETP inhibition.

Saturday, August 28

The direct oral anticoagulants (DOACs) have largely replaced vitamin K antagonists (VKA) in patients with nonvalvular AF. But whether DOACs are similarly preferable in the growing world population of people who have undergone transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR or TAVI), an issue explored with variable results in the ATLANTIS and GALILEO trials, is far from settled.

The ENVISAGE-TAVI AF trial explored the question for the factor X inhibitor edoxaban (Savaysa, Lixiana, Daiichi-Sankyo) in 1400 patients with AF and a transfemoral TAVR in the previous 5 days, who were randomly assigned to the DOAC or standard management along with discretionary antiplatelet therapy. They've been followed for up to 3 years for a composite endpoint of clinical events — including death, MI, and stroke — and for major bleeding.

The day will also feature MASTER DAPT, a comparison of two dual-antiplatelet therapy (DAPT) regimens in an estimated 4300 patients considered to be high-risk for bleeding who had received the sirolimus-eluting Ultimaster (Terumo) coronary stent, which has a bioresorbable polymer coating.

Investigators have randomly assigned patients to receive either: 1) very-short-duration DAPT, for about a month after stenting, followed by a P2Y12 inhibitor alone for up to a year after the procedure; or 2) a more conventional regimen of a P2Y12 inhibitor for 6 to 12 months with aspirin maintained for a total of 12 months.

Later that day, investigators from the FIGARO-DKD trial will present their results based on 7437 patients with type 2 diabetes (T2D) and chronic kidney disease (CKD), a much fuller version than the top-line findings announced by sponsor Bayer 3 months ago.

Those top-line results suggested that patients assigned to receive the nonsteroidal nonselective mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist (MRA) finerenone (Kerendia) on top of standard care benefited with a drop in risk for the primary endpoint of CV death or non-fatal CV events.

Finerenone was recently approved in the United States for treating patients with both T2D and CKD based on the published FIDELIO-DKD trial, which had seen less CKD progression and fewer CV events in such patients who took the novel MRA.

Although similar in design to FIGARO-DKD, FIDELIO-DKD had entered fewer patients with early-stage diabetic kidney disease (DKD). That led researchers to pool the two trials' populations to create a cohort that spans the spectrum of DKD severity. An analysis of the pooled cohort, dubbed FIDELITY, is on the schedule after FIGARO-DKD.

After FIDELITY is the prospective APAF-CRT trial that is following a projected 1830 patients with permanent, symptomatic AF and a recent hospitalization for AF or HF and who were not good candidates for standard ablation. They were assigned to receive either atrioventricular junctional (AV) ablation followed by CRT, with or without a defibrillation, on top of optimal meds — a so-called "ablate and pace" strategy — or an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) with rate-control drug therapy.

The new analysis represents the trial's second phase in which mortality was followed for 4 years as the primary endpoint, in contrast to the previously reported initial phase that followed the first 102 patients for 2 years for the composite primary endpoint of death, worsening HF, and HF hospitalization. The first phase had halted enrolment before reaching its planned target of 280 patients after an interim analysis showed a significant benefit for ablate and pace. 

Next up: DECAAF 2, a randomized assessment of whether catheter ablation for AF guided by delayed gadolinium enhancement on MRI, a proxy for scar tissue, can be more effective than standard AF ablation by pulmonary vein isolation (PVI) alone. An estimated 900 patients with persistent AF who had never before undergone ablation for the arrhythmia were randomly assigned to one strategy or the other and followed for AF recurrence over 18 months.

Sunday, August 29

The TOMAHAWK trial aimed to clarify the optimal timing of invasive coronary angiography for resuscitated patients with non-ST-segment elevation out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, a broad population in a setting for which there is little randomized-trial guidance. Investigators randomly assigned 558 such patients to undergo immediate invasive angiography or to direct intensive care unit admission for initial standard care with discretionary delayed angiography. Patients were followed for all-cause mortality, with other clinical events and neurologic outcomes as secondary endpoints.

Next on the schedule, the RIPCORD-2 trial randomly assigned 1100 patients with stable known or suspected coronary artery disease (CAD) to undergo conventional angiography alone or with added direct pressure-wire measurement of fractional flow reserve (FFR) to guide management decisions. Primary outcomes include healthcare costs and patient-reported quality-of-life at 1 year.

Slated for later that day, the Asymptomatic Carotid Surgery Trial-2 (ACST-2) has entered an estimated 3600 patients with a substantial carotid artery narrowing not associated with symptoms but for which either carotid endarterectomy (CEA) or carotid artery stenting (CAS) was considered anatomically feasible. There also must have been "substantial uncertainty" regarding the optimal procedure choice.

The trial, conducted in 40 countries primarily in Europe and North America and launched in 2008, randomly assigned the patients to undergo either CEA or CAS, in both cases with appropriate medical therapy, and followed them for periprocedural events and up to 10 years for strokes and stroke-related events.

The LOOP study, which is to directly follow ACST-2, has explored whether screening for AF using the Medtronic Reveal LINQ monitor in older patients with non-AF stroke risk factors — with oral anticoagulation prescribed for those who test positive — can lower their risk for stroke or systemic embolism. It randomly assigned 6000 such patients to care guided by the loop recorder or to standard care.

On a somewhat larger scale, the Salt Substitute and Stroke Study (SSaSS) randomly assigned a total of 20,996 people in about 600 villages across northern China and Tibet to sodium-restriction intervention and control groups by village. All participants had a history of stroke or were at least 60 years of age with uncontrolled hypertension.

As described by the trial's online portal, participants in villages assigned to the intervention group were given a supply of a low-sodium, potassium-supplementing salt substitute to replace their own salt supplies, along with education on the health benefits of sodium restriction. Participants in control villages continued their normal diets and, at the trial's beginning, received "advice to reduce their salt intake." All were required to own a telephone.

Clinical events, including strokes and hospitalizations throughout a 5-year follow-up, were tracked by phone calls made to all participants every 6 months and were documented at follow-up home visits.

Sunday is also to feature a Late-Breaking Trials session with a focus on COVID-19, which leads off with COLCOVID, a test of colchicine in patients hospitalized for suspected SARS-CoV-2 infection and in acute respiratory distress.

The 1279 participants in Argentina were randomly assigned to receive or not receive the potent anti-inflammatory agent on top of antivirals and other standard management and followed for death or new need for mechanical ventilation. A successful outcome would contrast with the RECOVERY trial, which terminated a colchicine group of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 because of a lack of efficacy earlier this year.

COLCOVID is to be followed by the MICHELLE trial of rivaroxaban (Xarelto, Bayer/Janssen) prophylaxis compared with no preventive oral anticoagulant in 320 patients who, when hospitalized with COVID-19, had been on parenteral anticoagulants because of an elevated risk for venous thromboembolism. The trial, conducted in Brazil, called for postdischarge rivaroxaban at a once-daily dosage of 10 mg for about 1 month.

The session also includes a presentation called "Insights into the Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Comprehensive Analysis from the GUIDE-HF Trial," the primary outcomes of which will be reported on the first day of the Congress.

Following is a presentation on the PREPARE-IT study of icosapent ethyl (Vascepa, Amarin), given at high dosages intended to be anti-inflammatory, compared with placebo in an estimated 4000 adults. The trial has two groups: a prevention group of adults living and circulating in the community; and a treatment group of patients at least 40 years of age with confirmed symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection for whom the need for hospitalization isn't clear.

Monday, August 30

The final day of the Congress features a trial called Influenza Vaccination after Myocardial Infarction (IAMI), which has tested the secondary preventive effect of influenza vaccination by randomly assigning 2571 patients to receive a standard vaccine or a saline placebo injection on one occasion.

Entry to the international trial called for a diagnosis of MI with or without ST-segment elevation, or stable CAD and age at least 75 years with other risk factors. The patients were followed for death, MI, stent thrombosis, and a slew of secondary endpoints over 12 months.

Monday offerings continue later in a time block leading off with the STEP trial, which has randomly assigned an estimated 8000 patients at 40 centers in China who are 60 to 80 years of age with a systolic blood pressure (SBP) of 140 to <190 mm Hg to be on standard guideline-based therapy or an intensive drug-management strategy.

The SBP goals are 130 to <150 mm Hg for standard care and 110 to <130 mm Hg for the intensive regimen. The composite primary endpoint includes death and clinical events related to acute coronary syndromes, HF, revascularization, and stroke.

Following on heels of STEP, the Amulet IDE trial — the first major randomized comparison of two transcatheter LAA closure devices — entered 1878 patients with nonvalvular AF who were considered high-risk for bleeding and stroke or systemic embolism.

They were randomly assigned in the noninferiority trial to receive either the AMPLATZER Amulet (Abbott Medical Devices) or the WATCHMAN (Boston Scientific) closure devices and were followed for safety and efficacy for up to 5 years.

Both LAA closure devices, intended to make patients with AF less reliant on oral anticoagulation, are now available on both sides of the Atlantic — as well as many other countries — after the Amulet's United States market approval on August 16, based largely on the Amulet IDE trial.

Rounding out the final Hot Line set is one of the latest efforts to show the efficacy and safety of a very short DAPT period after coronary stenting in patients with acute coronary syndromes (ACS), the STOPDAPT-2 ACS trial.

The study assigned 3008 patients in Japan to receive aspirin and clopidogrel for either 1 month or 1 year after implantation with an everolimus-eluting cobalt-chromium stent and followed them for up to 5 years for a composite of MI, CV death, stent thrombosis, stroke, and bleeding.

The trial follows the published STOPDAPT-2 trial that showed superiority for the 1-month DAPT regimen in a predominantly stable-CAD population treated with the same kind of stent.

Program Structure and Format

A total of 15 online channels are to be available in the morning, European time, their schedules running in parallel. Presentations often are prerecorded, but also include live sessions at 8:00 AM CET and noon CET (2:00 AM and 6:00 AM ET) to liven up the channel offerings, Windecker observed, and to make them more immediate and potentially interactive.

Many of the parallel channels are devoted throughout the Congress to particular silos of cardiology; for example, arrhythmias and device therapy is on channel 3; CAD and acute care is on 5; HF is on 6; and preventive cardiology is on 9.

Other channels swing across different topics from day to day, such as channel 1, which covers COVID-19 topics on the first and third day of the meeting, "advances in science" on day 2, and "digital health, public health, health economics" on day 4.

The focus each day, starting at 2:00 PM CET (8:00 AM ET) and continuing into the evening in Europe, shifts over to the Prime Time live program, which features the Hot Line and guideline presentations and many of the live abstract presentations.

Kosiborod, not a researcher with the EMPEROR trials, is chair of the Dapagliflozin in Preserved Ejection Fraction Heart Failure ( PRESERVED-HF ) trial, which is scheduled for presentation at the September 2021 Heart Failure Society of American meeting.

Follow Steve Stiles on Twitter: @SteveStiles2. For more from theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology, follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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