'Spectacular' Polypill Results Also Puzzle Docs

Jake Remaly

September 07, 2022

New research shows that "polypills" can prevent a combination of cardiovascular events and cardiovascular deaths among patients who have recently experienced a myocardial infarction (MI).

But results from the SECURE trial, published last month in The New England Journal of Medicine, also raise questions.

How do the polypills reduce cardiovascular problems? And will they ever be available in the United States?

Questions about how they work center on a mystery in the trial data: the polypill — containing aspirin, an angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor, and a statin — apparently conferred substantial cardiovascular protection while producing average blood pressure and lipid levels that were virtually the same as with usual care.

As to when polypills will be available, the answer may hinge on whether companies, government agencies, or philanthropic foundations come to see making and paying for such treatments — combinations of typically inexpensive generic drugs in a single pill for the sake of convenience and greater adherence — as financially worthwhile.

A Matter of Adherence?

In the SECURE trial, presented late August at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress 2022 in Barcelona, investigators randomly assigned 2499 patients with an MI in the previous 6 months to receive usual care or a polypill.

Patients in the usual-care group typically received the same types of treatments included the polypill, only taken separately. Different versions of the polypill were available to allow for titration to tolerated doses of the component medications: aspirin (100 mg), ramipril (2.5, 5, or 10 mg), and atorvastatin (20 mg or 40 mg).

Researchers used the Morisky Medication Adherence Scale to gauge participants' adherence to their medication regimen and found the polypill group was more adherent. Patients who received the polypill were more likely to have a high level of adherence at 6 months (70.6% vs 62.7%) and 24 months (74.1% vs 63.2%), they reported. (The Morisky tool is the subject of some controversy because of aggressive licensing tactics of its creator.)

The primary endpoint of cardiovascular death, MI, stroke, or urgent revascularization was significantly less likely in the polypill group during a median of 3 years of follow-up (hazard ratio, 0.76; P = .02).

"A primary-outcome event occurred in 118 of 1237 patients (9.5%) in the polypill group and in 156 of 1229 (12.7%) in the usual-care group," the researchers report.

"Probably, adherence is the most important reason of how this works," Valentin Fuster, MD, physician-in-chief at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, who led the study, said at ESC 2022.

Still, some clinicians were left scratching their heads by the lack of difference between treatment groups in average blood pressure and levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

Dr Martha Gulati

In the group that received the polypill, average systolic and diastolic blood pressure at 24 months were 135.2 mmHg and 74.8 mmHg, respectively. In the group that received usual care, those values were 135.5 mmHg and 74.9 mmHg, respectively.

Likewise, "no substantial differences were found in LDL-cholesterol levels over time between the groups, with a mean value at 24 months of 67.7 mg/dL in the polypill group and 67.2 mg/dL in the usual-care group," according to the researchers.

One explanation for the findings is that greater adherence led to beneficial effects that were not reflected in lipid and blood pressure measurements, the investigators said. Alternatively, the open-label trial design could have led to different health behaviors between groups, they suggested.

Martha Gulati, MD, director of preventive cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, said she loves the idea of polypills. But she wonders about the lack of difference in blood pressure and lipids in SECURE.

Gulati said she sees in practice how medication adherence and measurements of blood pressure and lipids typically go hand in hand.

When a patient initially responds to a medication, but then their LDL cholesterol goes up later, "my first question is, 'Are you still taking your medication or how frequently are you taking it?'" Gulati told Medscape Medical News. "And I get all kinds of answers."

"If you are more adherent, why wouldn't your LDL actually be lower and why wouldn't your blood pressure be lower?" she asked.

Can the Results Be Replicated?

Ethan J. Weiss, MD, a cardiologist and volunteer associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said the SECURE results are "spectacular," but the seeming disconnect with the biomarker measurements "doesn't make for a clean story."

"It just seems like if you are making an argument that this is a way to improve compliance...you would see some evidence of improved compliance objectively" in the biomarker readings, Weiss said.

Trying to understand how the polypill worked requires more imagination. "Or it makes you just say, 'Who cares what the mechanism is?' These people did a lot better, full stop, and that's all that matters," he said.

Weiss said he expects some degree of replication of the results may be needed before practice changes.

Dr Steven E. Nissen

To Steven E. Nissen, MD, chief academic officer of the Heart and Vascular Institute at Cleveland Clinic, in Ohio, the results "don't make any sense."

"If they got the same results on the biomarkers that the pill was designed to intervene upon, why are the [primary outcome] results different? It's completely unexplained," Nissen said.

In general, Nissen has not been an advocate of the polypill approach in higher-income countries.

"Medicine is all about customization of therapy," he said. "Not everybody needs blood pressure lowering. Not everybody needs the same intensity of LDL reduction. We spend much of our lives seeing patients and treating their blood pressure, and if it doesn't come down adequately, giving them a higher dose or adding another agent."

Polypills might be reasonable for primary prevention in countries where people have less access to healthcare resources, he added. In such settings, a low-cost, simple treatment strategy might have benefit.

But Nissen still doesn't see a role for a polypill in secondary prevention.

"I think we have to take a step back, take a deep breath, and look very carefully at the science and try to understand whether this, in fact, is sensible," he said. "We may need another study to see if this can be replicated."

Dr Dhruv S. Kazi

For Dhruv S. Kazi, MD, the results of the SECURE trial offer an opportunity to rekindle conversations about the use of polypills for cardiovascular protection. These conversations and studies have been taking place for nearly two decades.

Kazi, associate director of the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Center for Outcomes Research in Cardiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts, has used models to study the expected cost-effectiveness of polypills in various countries.

Although polypills can improve patients' adherence to their prescribed medications, Kazi and colleagues have found that treatment gaps are "often at the physician level," with many patients not prescribed all of the medications from which they could benefit.

Availability of polypills could help address those gaps. At the same time, many patients, even those with higher incomes, may have a strong preference for taking a single pill.

Kazi's research also shows that a polypill approach may be more economically attractive as countries develop because successful treatment averts cardiovascular events that are costlier to treat.

"In the United States, in order for this to work, we would need a polypill that is both available widely but also affordable," Kazi said. "It is going to require a visionary mover" to make that happen.

That could include philanthropic foundations. But it could also be a business opportunity for a company like Barcelona-based Ferrer, which provided the polypills for the SECURE trial.

The clinical and economic evidence in support of polypills has been compelling, Kazi said: "We have to get on with the business of implementing something that is effective and has the potential to greatly improve population health at scale." 

The SECURE trial was funded by the European Union Horizon 2020 program and coordinated by the Spanish National Center for Cardiovascular Research (CNIC). Ferrer International provided the polypill that was used in the trial. CNIC receives royalties for sales of the polypill from Ferrer. Weiss is starting a biotech company unrelated to this area of research.

N Engl J Med. Published online August 26, 2022. Abstract, Editorial

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