Traditional Chinese Medicine Improves Outcomes in HFrEF

Ted Bosworth

August 26, 2023

When added to guideline-directed therapies for heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF), a traditional Chinese medicine called qiliqiangxin reduced the composite endpoint of cardiovascular death and heart failure hospitalization by more than 20%, results of a large placebo-controlled trial show.

"The risk reductions in both cardiovascular death and heart failure hospitalization were substantial, clinically important, and consistent across all subgroups," reported Xinli Li, MD, PhD, First Affiliated Hospital, Nanjing Medical University, China.

Qiliqiangxin, a commonly used therapy in China for cardiovascular disease, is not a single chemical entity but a treatment composed of 11 plant-based substances that together are associated with diuretic effects, vasodilation, and "cardiotonic" activity, Li said. He also cited studies showing an upregulation effect on peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor g peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gcoactivator 1-α).

The results were presented August 26 at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) 2023 Congress.

Hard Endpoints Pursued in Rigorous Design

There have been numerous studies of qiliqiangxin for cardiovascular diseases, including a double-blind study that associated this agent with a greater than 30% reduction in the surrogate endpoint of N-terminal pro–B-type natriuretic peptide (NT-proBNP).

In the newly completed multicenter trial, called QUEST, the goal was to determine whether this therapy could reduce hard endpoints relative to placebo in a rigorously conducted trial enrolling patients receiving an optimized triple-therapy heart failure regimen.

Few patients in the study received a sodium glucose co-transporter-2 (SGLT-2 inhibitor), which was not a standard at the time the study was designed but is now part of the quadruple guideline-directed medical therapy in most European and North American guidelines.

In this trial, 3119 patients were randomly assigned at 133 centers in China to take four capsules of qiliqiangxin or placebo three times per day. At a median follow-up of 18.3 months, outcomes were evaluable in nearly all 1561 patients randomly assigned to the experimental therapy and 1555 patients randomly assigned to placebo.

The key inclusion criteria were a left ventricular ejection fraction of 40% or less and a serum NT-proBNP level of at least 450 pg/mL. Patients in New York Heart Association class IV heart failure were excluded.

At enrollment, more than 80% of patients in both arms were receiving a renin-angiotensin system (RAS) inhibitor (angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor, angiotensin receptor blocker, or angiotensin receptor neprilysin inhibitor), more than 80% were receiving a mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist, and more than 85% were receiving a β-blocker.

Death and Hospitalization Reduced 22%

By hazard ratio (HR), the primary composite endpoint of CV death and heart failure hospitalization was reduced by 22% relative to placebo (HR, 0.78; P < .001). When evaluated separately, the relative reductions in these respective endpoints were 17% (HR, 0.83; P = .045) and 24% (HR, 0.76; P = .002).

The risk reduction was robust (HR, 0.76; P < .001) in patients with an ischemic cause but nonsignificant in those without (HR, 0.92; P = .575). A significant benefit was sustained in patients receiving an angiotensin receptor neprilysin inhibitor (HR, 0.84; P = .041), as well as those who did not receive this class of drug (HR, 0.77; P = .012).

However, the benefit of qiliqiangxin among patients receiving all components of guideline-directed triple therapy (RAS inhibitor, β-blocker, and mineralocorticoid antagonist) was only a trend (HR, 0.86; P = .079).

All-cause mortality, a secondary endpoint, was lower among patients randomly assigned to qiliqiangxin than to those assigned to placebo, but this difference fell just short of statistical significance (14.21% vs 16.85%; P = .058).

Qiliqiangxin was well tolerated. The proportion of patients with a serious adverse event was numerically lower with qiliqiangxin than with placebo (17.43% vs 19.74%), whereas discontinuations associated with an adverse event were numerically higher in the qiliqiangxin  group (1.03% vs. 0.58%), albeit still very low in both study arms.

Overlap of Drug Benefits Suspected

Given the safety of this drug and its highly significant reduction in a composite endpoint used in other major HFrEF trials, the ESC-invited discussant, Carolyn S.P. Lam, MBBS, PhD, National Heart Centre, Singapore, called the outcome "remarkable” and a validation for "the millions of people" who are already taking qiliqiangxin in China and other Asian countries.

Using the DAPA-HF trial as a point of reference, Lam noted that relative reduction in the composite endpoint of cardiovascular death for the SGLT-2 inhibitor dapagliflozin relative to placebo on top of triple guideline-directed medical therapy was lower (17% vs 24%), but there were significant reductions in each of the components, as well as a nonsignificant signal of a mortality benefit.

However, Lam pointed out that there does seem to be more of an overlap for the benefits of qiliqiangxin than dapagliflozin relative to other components of triple therapy based on the lower rate of benefit when patients were optimized on triple therapy.

"The subgroup analysis [of this study] is very important," Lam said. Qiliqiangxin may be best in patients who cannot take one or more of the components of triple therapy, she suggested, even though she called for further studies to test this theory. She also cautioned that the pill burden of four capsules taken three times per day might be onerous for some patients.

Of the many questions still to be answered, Lam noted that the low rate of enrollment for patients (<10%) taking SGLT-2 inhibitors makes the contribution of qiliqiangxin unclear among those receiving the current standard of quadruple guideline-directed medical therapy.

She also suggested that it will be important to dissect the relative contribution of the different active ingredients of qiliqiangxin.

"This is not a purified compound that we are used to in western medicine," Lam said. While she praised the study as "scientifically rigorous" and indicated that the results support a clinical benefit from qiliqiangxin, she thinks an exploration of the mechanism or mechanisms of benefit is a next step in understanding where this therapy fits in HFrEF management.

Li reports financial relationships with AstraZeneca, Bayer, Novartis, Roche, and Yiling. Lam reports financial relationships with more than 25 pharmaceutical or device manufacturers, many of which produce therapies for heart failure, as well as with Medscape/WebMD Global LLC. The study was supported by the Chinese National Key Research and Development Project and Yiling Pharmaceuticals.

European Society of Cardiology (ESC) 2023 Congress. Presented August 26, 2023.

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