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Why are Baseline HIV RNA Levels 100,000 Copies/mL or Greater Associated With Mortality After the Initiation of Antiretroviral Therapy?

Wood, Evan PhD*†; Hogg, Robert S PhD*†; Yip, Benita BSc(Pharm)*; Harrigan, P Richard PhD*‡; Montaner, Julio S. G MD, FRCPC, FCCP*‡

JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes: March 1st, 2005 - Volume 38 - Issue 3 - p 289-295
doi: 10.1097/01.qai.0000149792.14334.25
Clinical Science
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Background: There is conflicting evidence regarding the impact of baseline plasma HIV RNA on virologic responses after the initiation of triple-drug antiretroviral therapy (highly active antiretroviral therapy [HAART]). This has made it difficult to interpret the recently reported association between baseline plasma HIV RNA and mortality. We evaluated whether baseline CD4 cell count and plasma HIV RNA predicted virologic suppression (<500 copies/mL) and rebound (≥500 copies/mL) among adherent HIV-infected patients.

Methods: Antiretroviral-naive HIV-infected patients were stratified by baseline CD4 cell count, plasma HIV RNA, and adherence level. Cox and logistic regression were used to evaluate the time to suppression and rebound and the odds of ever achieving HIV RNA suppression.

Results: A total of 1422 individuals initiated HAART between August 1, 1996 and July 31, 2000 and were followed to March 31, 2002. Adherent patients with HIV RNA levels ≥100,000 copies/mL and 50 to 99,999 copies/mL were slower to suppress HIV RNA than patients with baseline HIV RNA <50,000 copies/mL in Kaplan-Meier analyses. Although the odds of RNA suppression among adherent patients with baseline RNA levels <50,000 copies/mL and 50 to 99,999 copies/mL were similar (P = 0.197), patients with baseline HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL were markedly less likely ever to achieve suppression during follow-up (adjusted odds ratio: 0.27 [95% confidence interval: 0.13-0.54]; P < 0.001). No differences in the rate of virologic rebound were observed between adherent patients in the various baseline HIV RNA strata, and CD4 cell count was not associated with suppression or rebound.

Conclusions: Baseline HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL was associated with a significantly lower likelihood of ever achieving HIV RNA suppression during follow-up. These findings likely explain the association between baseline HIV RNA levels and mortality and have important implications for the development of therapeutic guidelines.

From the *British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, St. Paul's Hospital, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; †Department of Health Care and Epidemiology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; and ‡Department of Medicine, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Received for publication June 10, 2004; accepted October 21, 2004.

E. Wood and R. S. Hogg are supported by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Reprints: Julio S. G. Montaner, AIDS Research Program, University of British Columbia/St. Paul's Hospital, 667-1081 Burrard Street, Vancouver, British Columbia V6Z 1Y6, Canada (e-mail: jmontaner@hivnet.ubc.ca).

The treatment of HIV infection with highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) is based on the short-term goal of maximal and durable suppression of plasma HIV RNA levels in an effort to restore and preserve immunologic function, improve quality of life, and reduce HIV-related morbidity and mortality.1,2

Several studies have recently demonstrated that baseline plasma HIV RNA levels ≥100,000 copies/mL are independently associated with mortality after the initiation of HAART.3,4 These findings have caused a great deal of uncertainty among clinicians, because the explanation for these observations remains unknown.5,6 For instance, the association between baseline plasma HIV RNA and mortality is difficult to reconcile with studies indicating that higher plasma HIV RNA levels at baseline are not associated with poorer virologic outcomes after the initiation of HAART.7,8

A limitation of previous studies that have examined the role of baseline plasma HIV RNA and CD4 cell count on virologic responses3,7,9,10 is that they have not been adjusted for patient adherence, which is known to be among the strongest determinants of virologic suppression.11-15 Therefore, we conducted the present population-based study to evaluate the role of baseline plasma HIV RNA and CD4 cell count in predicting virologic responses to HAART while taking into consideration the potentially confounding effect of patient adherence.

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METHODS

The HAART Observational Medical Evaluation and Research (HOMER) study run through the British Columbia Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS Drug Treatment Program has been described in detail elsewhere.10,16 Briefly, the center is the only free source of antiretroviral medications in the province of British Columbia, and pharmaceutic sales suggest that <1% of HIV-infected patients obtain antiretrovirals outside the program.17 For all program participants, a complete prospective profile of antiretroviral therapy is maintained.

In the present study, analyses were restricted to HIV-infected men and women who were antiretroviral naïve, were first prescribed triple-drug antiretroviral therapy between August 1, 1996 and July 31, 2000, and were followed to March 31, 2002. Study subjects were initially prescribed triple-drug combination therapy with regimens that included 2 nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors and a protease inhibitor or a nonnucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor at the discretion of the enrolling physician. Patients who initiated HAART with more than 3 antiretroviral agents were excluded from the present study, because studies that have reported an association between baseline HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL and mortality have been restricted to patients starting triple therapy.3,4 For the purposes of these analyses, we followed the intent-to-treat principle, and subjects were included as they were first dispensed antiretrovirals, regardless of whether they later modified their therapeutic regimen.

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HIV-1 RNA Responses

We evaluated time to HIV RNA suppression and rebound. As previously reported,7,14 suppression was defined as the first of at least 2 consecutive plasma HIV RNA measures <500 copies/mL. Event-free patients were right-censored at the date of last HIV RNA measure before March 31, 2002. Rebound was defined as the first of at least 2 consecutive plasma HIV-1 RNA levels ≥500 copies/mL after any HIV RNA measure <500 copies/mL.7 The rebound event was conservatively assumed to occur at the midpoint between the last undetectable HIV RNA measure and the first of the 2 consecutive measures ≥500 copies/mL.18 Suppressed patients who did not rebound were right-censored as of the last HIV RNA measure before March 31, 2002. To be consistent with previous studies, the rebound analysis was restricted to those patients who were suppressed ≤8 months after the initiation of therapy.7,18

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Statistical Analyses

For both outcomes (suppression and rebound), we evaluated the cumulative event rates using Kaplan-Meier methods, and Cox proportional hazards regression was used to calculate the univariate and adjusted relative hazards.19 The assumption of proportional hazards was validated by inspection of log (−log [survival function]) estimates against log time plots. To evaluate the impact of baseline virologic and immunologic status, we stratified patients into low (<50,000 copies/mL), medium (50-99,999 copies/mL), and high (≥100,000 copies/mL) HIV RNA strata, and low (<50 cells/μL), medium (50-199 cells/μL), and high (≥200 cells/μL) CD4 cell count strata. These categories were selected a priori on the basis of several recent studies and therapeutic guidelines that have highlighted the clinical significance of these cutoffs.1-4,10,20

We also further stratified patients into adherent and nonadherent categories using prescription refill compliance.21 The definition of adherence was based on the ratio of time that medication dispensed would last as a proportion of follow-up time during the first year on therapy. We have previously demonstrated how this estimate strongly and independently predicts virologic response and mortality and how it can adjust for the potentially confounding effect of treatment interruption.14,15,18,22 Patients were a priori defined as nonadherent if they received antiretroviral medications <95% of the time, based on previously published work.14,18 Additional variables examined in these analyses included protease inhibitor use in the initial regimen (yes vs. no), a prior diagnosis of AIDS (yes vs. no), age, gender, physician experience (≥6 patients previously enrolled in the program),17 and date of therapy initiation (before or after July 1997).23

To derive adjusted relative hazards of each event (suppression and rebound) among adherent and nonadherent patients in each HIV RNA stratum, we also developed fixed models with indicator variables for each adherence and HIV RNA stratum while adjusting for CD4 cell count and other relevant covariates. All multivariate models described were fit using the same protocol of adjusting for all variables that were statistically significant (P < 0.05) in univariate analyses.

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Subanalyses

Because patients with a lower baseline plasma HIV RNA level may be expected to achieve virologic suppression more rapidly,7 as a subanalysis, we also fit a logistic model to evaluate whether potential differences in the rate of virologic suppression translated into differences in the likelihood of ever achieving HIV RNA suppression during follow-up. In addition, in an effort to reconcile the reported association between plasma HIV RNA levels and mortality,3,4 we examined plasma HIV RNA suppression rates among those patients who died during the study period. All statistical analyses were performed using SAS software version 8.0 (SAS, Cary, NC). All tests of significance were 2-sided, with a P value <0.05 indicating that an association was statistically significant.

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RESULTS

Between August 1, 1996 and July 31, 2000, 1583 antiretroviral-naive participants aged 18 years and older began triple-drug combination therapy. Of these, 161 (10.0%) were excluded from this analysis for not having baseline CD4 cell count and plasma HIV-1 RNA level measures available within 6 months before the start of antiretroviral therapy. Therefore, the study sample was based on 1422 (90.0%) subjects (1198 [84.3%] men, 224 [15.7%] women). No differences in sex, baseline AIDS status, and subsequent mortality were observed between the study sample and those excluded. Persons excluded from this analysis were more likely to be younger (P = 0.04) and taking protease inhibitors (P = 0.02), however. The overall median follow-up time was 40.1 months (interquartile range [IQR]: 27.7-52.9 months). At baseline, the median age of participants was 37.2 years (IQR: 32.2-43.7 years), median CD4 cell count was 270 cells/μL (IQR: 130-420 cells/μL), and median plasma HIV RNA level was 120,000 copies/mL (IQR: 38,000-300,000 copies/mL). Overall, 983 (69.1%) patients initiated therapy with a protease inhibitor, and 439 (30.9%) patients initiated therapy with a nonnucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor. Antiretroviral regimens used in the cohort have been recently described,10 and a detailed description of medications used by patients in the present study can be obtained from the corresponding author. Overall, there were 193 deaths during the study period, among which 39 were attributed to accident/suicide (25 [13.0%]) or to illicit drug overdoses (14 [7.3%]).

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HIV-1 RNA Suppression (<500 copies/mL)

Figure 1 shows the Kaplan-Meier cumulative plasma HIV RNA suppression estimates for the overall cohort stratified by adherent (panel A) and nonadherent (panel B) patients and by HIV RNA strata. Among adherent patients, statistically significant differences in suppression rates were noted between the 3 HIV RNA strata (all log-rank comparisons, P < 0.05).

FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1

Table 1 shows the adjusted relative hazard of suppression. Baseline CD4 cell count was not statistically associated with time to suppression. In contrast, patients in the medium and high plasma HIV RNA strata took longer to suppress (both P < 0.05) than patients in the low HIV RNA stratum after adjustment for adherence, which was also highly statistically significant (P < 0.05). In this and the models presented below, there were no statistically significant interaction effects detected between baseline covariates, but fixed models with indicator variables were prepared to compare adherent patients in each baseline HIV RNA stratum. Here, the previous finding was confirmed by building a Cox model with indicator variables representing each adherence and baseline HIV RNA stratum, with adherent patients in the low HIV RNA stratum being the reference category. As shown in Table 2, adherent patients in the medium and high HIV RNA strata were slower to suppress than adherent patients in the low HIV RNA stratum (both P < 0.05).

TABLE 1

TABLE 1

TABLE 2

TABLE 2

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HIV-1 RNA Rebound (>500 copies/mL)

Figure 2 shows the Kaplan-Meier cumulative plasma HIV RNA rebound estimates for the overall cohort stratified by adherent (panel A) and nonadherent (panel B) patients and by HIV RNA strata. Among adherent patients, no statistical differences were noted between the 3 HIV RNA strata (all log-rank comparisons, P > 0.1).

FIGURE 2

FIGURE 2

Table 3 shows the adjusted relative hazard of rebound for the 970 patients who were suppressed to <500 copies/mL at least once within 32 weeks after the initiation of HAART. As shown here, there were no statistical differences in the rate of HIV RNA rebound between baseline CD4 cell count or HIV RNA strata. As shown in Table 4, this was confirmed when we fit a Cox model with indicator variables and found no difference between adherent patients in the various HIV RNA strata (both P > 0.1).

TABLE 3

TABLE 3

TABLE 4

TABLE 4

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Subanalyses

We returned to the observed difference in the rate of HIV RNA suppression by HIV RNA strata that was observed in Figure 1 (panel A) and confirmed in Table 1. We then built a logistic model to evaluate whether differences in the time to suppression observed in the Cox regression analyses translated into differences in the likelihood of ever achieving HIV RNA suppression at any time during follow-up. As shown in Table 5, although there was no difference in the adjusted odds of suppression among adherent patients in the low and medium baseline HIV RNA strata (P = 0.197), adherent patients in the ≥100,000-copies/mL HIV RNA stratum had a markedly lower odds of achieving suppression at any time during follow-up (adjusted odds ratio [AOR] = 0.27 [95% confidence interval (CI): 0.13-0.54]; P < 0.001) even after adjustment for baseline CD4 cell count and other relevant covariates.

TABLE 5

TABLE 5

Finally, taking all these findings into consideration, we evaluated whether the previously reported association between baseline HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL and mortality3,4 could possibly be the result of a relation between failure to achieve virologic suppression and baseline HIV RNA. We excluded the 39 accidental deaths because we assumed that they were potential confounders, and we examined virologic responses among the 154 nonaccidental deaths observed during follow-up. We found that 102 (66%) patients who died never achieved suppression during follow-up as defined previously. We also noted that among the 31 patients who were ≥95% adherent but did not achieve HIV RNA suppression during follow-up and later died, 27 (87.1%) had baseline HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL. The nonaccidental causes of death in the cohort have been previously described10 and are overwhelmingly attributed to AIDS-related causes.

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DISCUSSION

The present study demonstrates that higher HIV RNA levels were associated with slower rates of virologic suppression and that patients with HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL were statistically less likely ever to achieve virologic suppression at any time during follow-up. In contrast, baseline HIV RNA and CD4 cell count were not statistically associated with virologic rebound and CD4 cell count was not associated with suppression. It is also noteworthy that most deaths observed during the study period were among patients who did not achieve HIV RNA suppression and that among adherent patients who did not suppress and later died, 87% had baseline HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL.

In the present study, baseline CD4 cell count was not associated with time to virologic suppression or rebound among adherent patients. This finding contrasts with those of several recent studies that have considered this issue.8,9,24,25 Of note, such findings have been cited as reason to consider earlier initiation of antiretroviral therapy in recent guidelines.1,2 These earlier observational studies were not adjusted for patient adherence, however, and our findings suggest that prior analyses may have been at least partially confounded by characteristics of patients who present later for treatment, which may include, among others, incomplete adherence.26 Our findings are also consistent with the findings of a collaborative study that baseline CD4 cell count was not associated with virologic responses.7

Similarly, our observation that adherent patients with baseline HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL were significantly less likely ever to suppress plasma HIV RNA during follow-up is in contrast with recently reported findings.7,8 Again, our findings may differ because of the fact that these earlier studies were unable to adjust for patient adherence. Our results are particularly striking, considering that the median follow-up interval was longer than 40 months. Nevertheless, in comparison to adherent patients with baseline HIV RNA <50,000 copies/mL, adherent patients with baseline HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL were less likely ever to achieve HIV RNA suppression during the entire follow-up period (AOR = 0.27 [95% CI: 0.13-0.54]; P < 0.001), even after adjustment for baseline CD4 cell count and other covariates.

We also found that among adherent patients who did not suppress HIV RNA during follow-up and who later died, 87.1% had baseline HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL. It is also noteworthy that there was no statistical difference in the odds of achieving HIV RNA suppression between patients in the <50,000-copies/mL and 50,000-99,999-copies/mL strata, which may explain why we have recently shown no difference in mortality among these patients.4 Together, these findings suggest that the association between baseline HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL and mortality3,4 may be attributable to the inadequate potency of conventional triple-therapy regimens for many patients with baseline HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL. In fact, although data have not been available to date, it should be noted that this explanation has been previously speculated on.27

One possible clinical strategy to address our findings would be to stage patients for earlier antiretroviral treatment before HIV RNA rises to greater than 100,000 copies/mL. It has been previously well articulated by others6,7 that HIV RNA only increases gradually and nonuniformly among untreated patients7,28,29 and that earlier initiation of treatment would place patients at increased risk of side effects, toxicity, and premature evolution of resistance.30,31 An alternative strategy that should ideally be explored through a prospective clinical trial would be to stage patients with higher HIV RNA levels for more potent initial antiretroviral regimens.32,33

It is important to stress that these data arose in a setting in which all HIV/AIDS care, antiretrovirals, and laboratory monitoring are available free of charge and in which previous studies have shown that virtually all patients acquire antiretrovirals through a single centralized source.17 In addition, because a complete prospective record of antiretroviral dispensation was maintained, it was possible to determine precisely each individual's level of prescription refill compliance. Although using refill compliance as a surrogate for adherence has been previously validated,14,15,21,22 a limitation of the present study is that patients were defined as adherent based on their behavior during the first year of therapy and then assigned to adherent strata for an analysis of baseline characteristics. As previously discussed,16,18,22 this approach strives to reduce the potential for reverse causation, where patients stop therapy because of morbidity caused by HIV infection. It also enables a comparison between patients who were similarly adherent but had different baseline characteristics. In addition, like other population-based studies,7,34 we were unable to use the ultrasensitive assay of <50 copies/mL, because 500 copies/mL was the lower limit of detection for most of the study period. If differences existed between the 3 baseline HIV RNA strata with regard to the degree of suppression below 500 copies/mL, however, analyses of clinical trial data have demonstrated that differences in rebound would likely have been observed.35 Finally, we should also point out that many of the patients beginning HAART in the present study would have initiated therapy with a triple-combination regimen that is less potent than the regimens currently used in contemporary practice. Although this is a limitation of the present study, it can also be viewed as a strength, because the observational studies that have demonstrated elevated mortality rates among patients initiating HAART with plasma HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL were conducted among patients initiating HAART over a similar period and using similar HAART regimens. In fact, several of these studies were conducted among the same cohort the present study was drawn from.4,10

In summary, we found that patients with HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL were statistically less likely ever to achieve virologic suppression at any time during follow-up. This finding suggests that the association between baseline plasma HIV RNA ≥100,000 copies/mL and mortality3,4 may be explained by a more common failure of conventional triple-therapy regimens to suppress HIV RNA among patients with higher HIV RNA levels. In contrast to several recent studies that did not adjust for patient adherence,9,24,25 we found that baseline HIV RNA and CD4 cell count were not statistically associated with virologic rebound among adherent patients and that CD4 cell count was not associated with virologic suppression. If appropriately confirmed, these findings have important implications for the development of therapeutic guidelines.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The authors thank Bonnie Devlin, Diane Campbell, Elizabeth Ferris, Nada Gataric, Kelly Hsu Myrna Reginaldo, Chandra Lips, and Peter Vann for their research and administrative assistance. They also thank Keith Chan, Mark Tyndall, Kevin Craib, and Martin Schechter for their advice on the statistical methods.

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Keywords:

plasma viral load; adherence; suppression; rebound; survival

© 2005 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.