Defibrillators post-MI — a note of caution

The use of implantable cardioverter-defibrillators for the prevention of sudden death in patients who are at high risk for but have not yet had cardiac arrest (primary prevention) is gradually expanding. A number of trials have shown mortality benefit in different populations:

  • MADIT: benefit in patients with coronary disease, ejection fraction less than 35%, spontaneous nonsustained ventricular tachycardia and inducible VT with electrophysiologic testing.
  • MUSTT: benefit in patients with similar criteria to MADIT, but EF less than 41%.
  • MADIT II: benefit in patients with prior MI and EF less than 31%. Important study, since EPS no longer required.
  • DEFINITE: patients with non-ischemic cardiomyopathy, VPC’s or NSVT, EF less than 36% had a significant reduction in arrhythmic death but only a trend towards reduction in overall mortality.
  • SCD-HEFT (reported but not yet published): benefit in patients with EF ≤ 35%, both ischemic and non-ischemic, particularly in class II rather than class III CHF.

On the negative side, the CABG-PATCH trial, published in 1997, failed to demonstrate any benefit from the implantation of an ICD in patients with ejection fractions under 36% and an abnormal signal-averaged ECG who had just undergone coronary bypass surgery. It has been speculated that active ischemia is an important component of sudden death, and thus patients who had just been revascularized would not benefit as much from an ICD.

Another negative trial has just been published in this week’s NEJM: the DINAMIT trial. In this study from Germany, 674 patients with ejection fractions under 36% who had had an MI less than 40 days previously and demonstrated reduced heart-rate variability or persistent sinus tachycardia (poor prognostic signs related to autonomic system activation), were randomized to therapy with or without an ICD.

Although arrhythmic deaths were significantly reduced by the device, this was almost exactly compensated for by an increase in non-arrhythmic deaths, so the overall death rate was the same in both treatment arms. The authors speculate that in this group of patients, with decreased heart rate variability and a recent MI, the risk of non-arrhythmic, pump-failure death is high, so that ICD therapy ends up converting some arrhythmic deaths to pump failure deaths without affecting the overall outcome.
How do we reconcile these results with the MADIT II trial, in which post-MI patients with reduced LV systolic function benefited from ICD placement? It turns out that most of the MADIT patients had their MI in the remote past. In fact, in a subgroup analysis, the benefit from the ICD was limited to patients whose MI was over 18 months previous to trial entry. This meshes quite well with the data from the current study.

Why remote MI’s should benefit from ICD placement so much more than recent ones is a bit puzzling to me. One possibility is that, as indicated in the CABG PATCH trial, residual ischemia is an important contributor to sudden death risk. In that case, patients with recent MI’s are more likely to have been screened and revascularized when necessary than patients with older events. In MADIT II, patients were not systematically evaluated for ischemia prior to enrollment. Could it be that appropriate screening and treatment of residual ischemia would reduce the potential benefit of defibrillator placement?