Hopeful new treatment for stroke may be no better than the old one

David Brown / The Washington Post
Published Feb 9, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Three long-awaited studies have shown that mechanically removing a blood clot from a stroke patient's brain is no more useful than the older treatment of giving an IV dose of a clot-dissolving drug to the whole body.

The results of the clinical trials, presented this week at a meeting in Hawaii, shocked and surprised stroke physicians. Many had already adopted the more aggressive strategy over the last decade.

“For the stroke field this is a really big deal,” Walter Koroshetz, deputy director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said of the findings, which were presented over three days at the International Stroke Conference in Honolulu.

NINDS paid for two of the trials, one of which cost $27 million. One study took eight years to complete because it was so difficult to enroll patients willing to take the chance they'd be randomly assigned to get the older treatment.

Practitioners hoped that “endovascular treatment,” in which a catheter is threaded into a blocked artery and the clot pulled out, would do for stroke patients what it has done for heart attack patients. In them, going after clots with angioplasty balloons and stents is clearly more effective than giving clot-dissolving drugs through a vein in the arm.

“We did this study with the strong expectation that we would find a positive benefit. We were surprised,” said Joseph Broderick of the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Institute, who headed one of the studies.

His view was echoed by Alfonso Ciccone, a neurologist from Milan who led a clinical trial in Italy: “We were surprised. We wanted the superiority of endovascular treatment.”

Whether the findings will cause physicians to abandon the practice is uncertain.

Insurance companies and Medicare, the health insurer for the elderly, already cover the endovascular procedure. It costs about $23,000 compared with $11,000 for acute stroke treatment using intravenous clot-dissolving (“thrombolytic”) drugs.

Stroke stats — Stroke is the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States. About 800,000 people suffer a stroke each year, and about 130,000 die. Nearly 90 percent of strokes occur when a clot blocks an artery in the brain, starving the region downstream of blood and oxygen. If flow isn't restored quickly, brain tissue and the functions it controls — movement, speech, cognition — are damaged or die.