Background: Nucleoside analogue reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTI) disrupt neuronal mitochondrial DNA synthesis, impairing energy metabolism and resulting in a distal symmetrical polyneuropathy (DSP), an antiretroviral toxic neuropathy (ATN) that causes significant morbidity in HIV disease. Serum acetyl-l-carnitine (ALCAR) levels are decreased in neuropathy associated with NRTI therapy. ALCAR enhances neurotrophic support of sensory neurons and promotes energy metabolism, potentially causing nerve regeneration and symptom relief.
Objective: To assess the efficacy of oral ALCAR (1500 mg twice daily) for up to 33 months in an open cohort of 21 HIV-positive patients with established ATN.
Methods: Skin biopsies were excised from the leg before ALCAR treatment, at 6–12 month intervals thereafter and from HIV-negative non-neuropathic controls. Fibre types in epidermal, dermal and sweat gland innervation were quantified immunohistochemically.
Results: After 6 month's treatment, mean immunostaining area for small sensory fibres increased (epidermis 100%, P = 0.006; dermis 133%, P < 0.05) by more than that for all fibre types (epidermis 16%, P = 0.04; dermis 49%, P < 0.05; sweat glands 60%, P < 0.001) or for sympathetic fibres (sweat glands 41%, P < 0.0003). Compared with controls, epidermal, dermal and sweat gland innervation reached 92%, 80% and 69%, respectively, after 6 month's treatment. Innervation improvements continued (epidermis and dermis) or stabilized (sweat glands) after 24 month's treatment. Neuropathic grade improved in 76% of patients and remained unchanged in 19%. HIV RNA load, CD4 and CD8 cell counts did not alter significantly throughout the study.
Conclusions: ALCAR treatment improves symptoms, causes peripheral nerve regeneration and is proposed as a pathogenesis-based treatment for DSP.
From the aBlond McIndoe Centre, the bDepartment of Primary Care and Population Sciences and the cRoyal Free Centre for HIV Medicine, Royal Free and University College Medical School, London and dBlond McIndoe Research Laboratories, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK.
Correspondence to Dr M. Youle, Royal Free Centre for HIV Medicine, Royal Free Hospital, Pond St, London NW3 2QG, UK.
Received: 23 January 2003; revised: 23 July 2003; accepted: 10 September 2003.
*Joint first authors