The most common vascular patterns were, in decreasing order of frequency, sliding venous flaps (40.7 percent), type IA arterialized venous flaps (20.9 percent), type IIA arterialized venous flaps (8.8 percent), pedicled arterialized venous flaps (6.6 percent), and both type IIB arterialized venous flaps and proximally pedicled venous flaps (5.5 percent each). Infrequent vascular patterns included type IB arterialized venous flaps (4.4 percent), type III arterialized venous flaps (3.3 percent), free venous flow-through (2.2 percent), and distally based venous flaps (1.1 percent).
In the majority of cases (54.7 percent), flaps were placed over well-perfused wound beds. In 18.6 percent of cases, flaps were placed over bare bone or cartilage. (See Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 3, which shows a star plot illustrating unconventional perfusion flap models’ features in different animal species. AVF, arterialized venous flap; VF, venous flap; UPF, unconventional perfusion flap, http://links.lww.com/PRS/D416.) In 15.6 percent of the models, an impermeable barrier was placed under the unconventional perfusion flap to prevent flap nutrition or gas exchanges from the wound bed. When rabbits were used, unconventional perfusion flaps were frequently based on skeletonized ears or ear segments. In these cases (11.6 percent of all experimental models), the flap was also completely dependent on its own vascular pedicle, not being able to depend on a vascularized wound bed. In 18.7 percent of cases, some sort of surgical delay procedure was performed before flap elevation to increase flap survival.
Concerning flap composition, most unconventional perfusion flaps were fasciocutaneous (85.7 percent; p < 0.001). Flaps included bone and/or cartilage in 13.2 percent of cases. There was only one study reporting a myofasciocutaneous flap, corresponding to 1.1 percent of all optimized experimental models.17 In almost all cases, unconventional perfusion flaps were noninnervated (91.2 percent; p < 0.001).
Meta-analysis of experimental unconventional perfusion flaps using a random effects model estimated an overall flap survival rate of 90.8 percent (95 percent CI, 86.9 to 93.6 percent; p < 0.001). [See Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 4, which shows a forest plot of all studies reporting unconventional perfusion flap survival rates. Meta-analysis of experimental unconventional perfusion flaps using a random effects model estimated an overall flap survival rate of 90.8 percent (95 percent CI, 86.9 to 93.6 percent; p < 0.001), http://links.lww.com/PRS/D417.] Study heterogeneity assessment for this parameter was as follows: Cochran Q = 134.98; p < 0.001; I2 47.40; and τ2 = 1.24. The funnel plot of the studies used to produce this estimate suggested there was evidence of publication bias regarding this parameter, which was further supported by the Egger test (p < 0.001).18,19 [See Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 5, which shows a funnel plot of the studies used to estimate the survival rate of the experimental unconventional perfusion flaps. This graphic suggests there is publication bias. This was confirmed by the application of the Egger test (p < 0.001). Study heterogeneity assessment for this parameter was as follows: Cochran Q = 134.98; p < 0.001; I2 = 47.40; and τ2 = 1.24, http://links.lww.com/PRS/D418.]
The estimated proportion of experimental unconventional perfusion flaps presenting complete survival or nearly complete survival was 74.4 percent (95 percent CI, 62.1 to 83.7 percent; p < 0.001). [See Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 6, which shows a forest plot of all studies describing the proportion of unconventional perfusion flaps presenting complete survival or nearly complete survival. The estimated proportion of experimental unconventional perfusion flaps presenting complete survival or nearly complete survival was 74.4 percent (95 percent CI, 62.1 to 83.7 percent; p < 0.001), http://links.lww.com/PRS/D419.] Evaluation of study heterogeneity regarding this variable was as follows: Cochran Q = 162.77; p < 0.001; I2 = 71.74; and τ2 = 2.58. The funnel plot regarding the estimation of this parameter suggested the presence of publication bias. [See Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 7, which shows a funnel plot of the studies used to estimate proportion of experimental unconventional perfusion flaps that presented complete survival or nearly complete survival. This graphic might suggest there is publication bias. However, the Egger test failed to confirm this assumption (p = 0.342). Evaluation of study heterogeneity regarding this variable was as follows: Cochran Q = 162.77; p < 0.001; I2 = 71.74; and τ2 = 2.58, http://links.lww.com/PRS/D420.] However, the Egger test failed to support this assumption (p = 0.342).
In all animal species except the pig, most flaps presented complete or nearly complete survival. [See Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 8, which shows bar charts illustrating the survival of the most common types of unconventional perfusion flaps according to animal species and vascular pattern used. AVF, arterialized venous flap; UPF, unconventional perfusion flap. There were no statistically significant differences between the different types of unconventional perfusion flaps (p < 0.05), http://links.lww.com/PRS/D421.] In the pig, there was only one study using a type III arterialized venous fasciocutaneous flap. In this model, all flaps suffered complete necrosis.20 No significant differences were found between unconventional perfusion flap necrosis rates among the other animal species. In the same way, no significant differences were found between survival rates of the different vascular patterns (see Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 8, http://links.lww.com/PRS/D421). Similarly, no differences were found in unconventional perfusion flap survival rates regarding sex; anatomical location where the flap was produced; wound bed blood supply, including the placement or not of an impermeable barrier underneath the flap; resort to surgical delay procedures; and unconventional perfusion flap histologic composition and/or innervation. All articles addressing the clinical features of unconventional perfusion flaps described flap congestion, edema, venous engorgement, blister formation, and/or epidermolysis as constant findings in the first days after surgery.
As far as the authors could determine, this article is the first systematic review and meta-analysis on the experimental use of unconventional perfusion flaps. Using a random effects model, the authors estimated the unconventional perfusion flap survival rate to be 90.8 percent (see Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 4, http://links.lww.com/PRS/D417). Moreover, using a similar methodology, the estimated proportion of unconventional perfusion flaps that survive completely or nearly completely was 74.4 percent (see Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 6, http://links.lww.com/PRS/D419). These data indicate that, according to the available literature, the majority of unconventional perfusion flaps performed in the experimental setting survived, although a significant fraction of these flaps presented a variable degree of necrosis.
Interestingly, the estimated overall unconventional perfusion flap survival rate in the experimental setting (90.8 percent) was similar to that reported by the authors in a previous meta-analysis addressing the clinical application of unconventional perfusion flaps (89. percent).1 In contrast, the estimated proportion of unconventional perfusion flaps presenting complete or nearly complete survival was 74.4 percent in the experimental setting, compared with 92.0 percent in the clinical context.1 However, in both meta-analyses, the majority of unconventional perfusion flaps presented complete or nearly complete survival. The differences observed may be partially explained by the different vascular patterns used in the experimental and clinical contexts. In the experimental setting, the most common vascular constructs were, in decreasing order of frequency, sliding venous flaps (40.7 percent), type IA arterialized venous flaps (20.9 percent), and type IIA arterialized venous flaps (8.8 percent). In the clinical context, the patterns most frequently reported were type IA arterialized venous flaps (33.5 percent), type IV arterialized venous arterial flaps (14.8 percent), and type I venous flap (12.5 percent).1,21
Contrary to what could be expected, no differences were found in unconventional perfusion flap survival rates regarding vascular pattern, sex, anatomical location, wound bed blood supply (including the placement or not of an impermeable barrier underneath the flap), resort to surgical delay procedures, and unconventional perfusion flap histologic composition and/or innervation. This may be attributable to either inherent meta-analysis limitations (i.e., publication bias, as negative or neutral results are less likely to be published and thus to be included in studies such as this one) or the lack of biological association.22–25 Therefore, further experimental studies addressing these issues are warranted.
The animal species most commonly used to produce unconventional perfusion flaps was the rabbit (57.1 percent), followed by the rat (26.4 percent), the dog (14.3 percent), and the pig (2.2 percent). Mice were not used for this purpose. This contrasts with the majority of the literature on experimental flap surgery, which indicates that the rat is the most widely used animal model.26 This is certainly because rabbits and rats are easy to obtain and keep, relatively inexpensive, and sufficiently large for microvascular procedures to be performed.26–28 Although dogs and pigs have larger vessels, they are more expensive to obtain and to maintain. In addition, the use of these animal species has been submitted to increasingly stringent control by ethical committees and animal welfare bodies.29–31 Noteworthily, there were no significant differences in unconventional perfusion flap survival rates in the most commonly used animal species (i.e., rabbit, rat, and dog) (see Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 8, http://links.lww.com/PRS/D421).
Concerning flap composition, the majority of unconventional perfusion flaps were fasciocutaneous (85.7 percent). Flaps included bone and/or cartilage in 13.2 percent of cases. It was possible to identify a single study reporting myofasciocutaneous flaps, corresponding to 1.1 percent of all experimental models.17 This adds strength to the widely held belief that unconventional perfusion is most adequately suited to perfuse tissues with low metabolic needs, such as those of the integument, cartilage, and/or bone.1,3–6,8
The authors feel that care must be used when extrapolating the results of this meta-analysis for the clinical setting, because there are important differences between the unconventional perfusion flaps performed experimentally and those performed in humans (Table 1). Moreover, the blood supply to the integument of various experimental animals has been shown to vary substantially from that reported in humans.32,33 For example, Taylor and Minabe32 and Taylor and Pan32 have shown that in loose-skinned animals, such as the rabbit, the rat, or the dog, there is a preponderance of the direct cutaneous vessels, compared with the dominance of the musculocutaneous vessels in humans and pigs. Furthermore, experimental animals, particularly those with loosely draped skin, possess a layer of smooth muscle in the deep aspect of the integument known as panniculus carnosus, which is associated with vascular plexuses of its own.27,34 In humans, this layer is virtually absent in the majority of the body, being represented mostly by the platysma and the palmaris longus muscles. In pigs, the panniculus carnosus layer is present in most of the integument. However, it is firmly adherent to overlying skin and to the underlying muscle fascia, making pig skin apparently a more suitable model for comparison with the human integument.35,36 Despite all these data, the only study conducted on the pig hindlimb to produce a type III arterialized venous fasciocutaneous flap revealed complete necrosis of all flaps.20 This may be explained by the greater thickness of the pig’s integument relative to that of the other experimental animal species and even humans in the usual locations where these flaps are harvested in this latter species.1,35 In fact, according to most authors, unconventional perfusion flaps depend, at least initially, on gas exchanges in the vicinity of the venous system of the flap, which could help explain why thin flaps present the best results in the clinical setting.1,7,37,38
Preclinical meta-analyses such as this one have become increasing frequent in recent years, as they provide a systematic and reproducible way to thoroughly identify, assess, and critically evaluate available evidence on a specific experimental subject.14 Moreover, meta-analyses of animal studies allow a quantitative estimate with maximal statistical power, precision, and generalizability to be obtained, avoiding unnecessary repetition of experiments, and thus minimizing resource waste and especially laboratory animal use and suffering.39 This is particularly useful when evidence is apparently contradictory, as is the case with unconventional perfusion flaps.40
Clinically, several pressing questions remain to be addressed to increase the efficacy of these flaps. For example, several authors have reported a higher rate of necrosis and subsequent need for another flap when there is prior bacterial contamination or colonization of the wound bed.1,38 Nevertheless, to the best of the authors’ knowledge, there are no studies on the susceptibility of unconventional perfusion flaps to different bacteria, in diverse concentrations, associated or not with foreign bodies. Furthermore, the choice of the best vascular architecture to increase the survival of unconventional perfusion flaps clinically according to the anatomical region being reconstructed, the size of the defect, and/or the composition of the flap itself would benefit from a firmer grasp of the underlying physiologic mechanisms. Although several authors have proposed algorithms based on their clinical experience and/or on the revision of clinical series, experimental data to systematically and unequivocally tackle these issues are strikingly lacking.1,2,7,38,41–44
This article presents in a systematic fashion the available information on the experimental application of unconventional perfusion flaps. This, in turn, may aid researchers in conducting studies aimed at answering several of the yet lingering questions regarding the clinical application of these flaps.
This study may be affected by several types of bias, as occurs in all meta-analyses, particularly retrospective meta-analyses, such as this one.45,46 One of the problems of including unconventional perfusion flaps performed in different animal species using multiple vascular patterns is that there is a variable degree of inherent heterogeneity. In fact, this heterogeneity was confirmed for both population estimates using the Cochran Q test (p < 0.001). The authors tried to partially circumvent this problem by using random effects models for estimating population parameters.16
Another major potential caveat of this study was the effect of publication bias. The latter bias reflects the observation that positive results are more likely to be published compared with neutral or negative ones. The Egger test supported the presence of this type of bias for the estimate of overall unconventional perfusion flap survival but failed to support it in the estimation of the proportion of unconventional perfusion flaps whose survival was complete or nearly complete. It is widely accepted that the most efficacious way to downplay the effect of publication bias is to perform a systematic and comprehensive review of the literature, as was performed in this study.45,46 In addition, the authors have strictly adhered to the widely accepted Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses checklist for systematic reviews and meta-analyses to minimize the risk of committing methodologic mistakes.47,48
Finally, the authors believe that although this article has the significant merit of providing a synthesis of the available literature regarding the use of experimental unconventional perfusion flaps, it contributes only modestly to understanding the mechanisms underlying the survival or necrosis of these flaps, making further studies in this field warranted. Ideally, a large-animal study in primates could help to elucidate more perfectly the mechanisms of unconventional perfusion flap perfusion, viability, and overall survival in humans. However, such a study would be logistically vexing and expensive to conduct.
According to the present data, the majority of unconventional perfusion flaps performed in the experimental setting survive (90.8 percent; 95 percent CI, 86.9 to 93.6 percent; p < 0.001). Furthermore, survival is complete or nearly complete in an estimated 74.4 percent of cases (95 percent CI, 62.1 percent to 83.7 percent; p < 0.001). Although the most common vascular patterns reported in the literature were sliding venous flaps (40.7 percent) and type IA arterialized venous flaps (20.9 percent), statistical scrutiny failed to establish the superiority of a given vascular pattern between different studies. There were no significant differences in unconventional perfusion flap survival rates in the most commonly used animal species (i.e., rabbit, rat, and dog). These data suggest that the rabbit, rat, and canine experimental unconventional perfusion flap models can adequately mimic the clinical application of unconventional perfusion flaps.
Diogo Casal received a grant from the Programme for Advanced Medical Education sponsored by Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Fundação Champalimaud, Ministério da Saúde, and Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia, Portugal. The authors are very grateful to Filipe Franco for producing all of the drawings in this article.
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