Painful condition affecting kidney failure patients increases risk of death

September 28, 2007

A painful and debilitating condition that affects patients with kidney failure may be more common than previously believed and appears to be strongly associated with prior exposure to certain contrast agents used in imaging studies. In addition, individuals with this syndrome - called nephrogenic systemic fibrosis (NSF) - appear to have a significantly increased risk of dying. The findings from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) investigators appear in the October issue of the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism.

"Our analysis found that hemodialysis patients who had undergone imaging studies using a gadolinium-containing contrast agent have more than 10 times the risk of developing NSF as do patients with no prior exposure to gadolinium," says Jonathan Kay, MD, director of the Rheumatology Clinical Research Unit at MGH, the report's senior author. "Among those with NSF, the risk of dying within two years was three to five times greater than for patients without the condition from the same dialysis centers."

The primary symptoms of NSF are rapid and progressive thickening, hardening and darkening of the skin, primarily on the arms and legs. Originally believed to affect only the skin, the condition now is known to involve internal organs. NSF can be extremely painful, causing the skin to contract to the point where movement is difficult or impossible. The condition has been reported only during the past 10 years and only among patients with abnormal kidney function, primarily those with advanced kidney disease. In 2006, an Austrian physician noted that NSF developed in several of his dialysis patients who had undergone MR imaging studies using gadolinium-containing contrast.

Reports of NSF in the medical literature have discussed only small numbers of cases and have not included comparative information from patients shown to not have the disorder. To better assess the prevalence of NSF among patients with advanced kidney disease and to examine a potential association with gadolinium-containing contrast agents, the team led by Derrick J. Todd, MD, PhD, now a rheumatology fellow at the Brigham & Women's Hospital, enrolled hemodialysis patients treated at six outpatient centers in the Boston area.

The investigators devised a simple examination to check for the three skin features of NSF - tightening, thickening and darkening - and also collected demographic information. Available electronic medical records for participants were analyzed for any history of imaging studies, predominantly MRI examinations, using gadolinium-containing contrast.

Among 186 study participants, 25 (13 percent) were determined to have NSF based on the presence of at least two of the three skin findings. Examination of skin biopsy samples from five study participants supported the examination-based diagnosis of NSF in each. Electronic medical records were available for 90 participants; 17 of those had a skin examination consistent with NSF, all but one with documented prior exposure to gadolinium. The investigators were particularly surprised to find that 48 percent of participants with skin changes of NSF died within two years of their examination. Among participants without NSF, the death rate was 20 percent, which would be expected among patients with advanced kidney failure undergoing long-term hemodialysis treatment.

"Our study demonstrates a definite and very strong association between exposure to gadolinium-containing contrast and the subsequent development of NSF," says Kay, an associate clinical professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. "We need to address the mechanism by which this devastating disease occurs and develop effective treatment and preventive strategies, so that gadolinium-containing contrast agents - which provide important clinical information - can be used safely in patients with kidney failure."

At this time, Kay notes, patients scheduled to undergo such imaging studies should first have their kidney function checked, and gadolinium-containing contrast should not be used in those with significant underlying kidney disease. More information is needed to determine the risk for those with milder forms of kidney disease. The study was conducted by Todd and co-author Anna Kagan, MD, PhD, while they were medical residents at MGH. Lori B. Chibnik of Brigham and Women's Hospital was the study's biostatician.
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Massachusetts General Hospital (www.massgeneral.org), established in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The MGH conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the United States, with an annual research budget of more than $500 million and major research centers in AIDS, cardiovascular research, cancer, computational and integrative biology, cutaneous biology, human genetics, medical imaging, neurodegenerative disorders, regenerative medicine, systems biology, transplantation biology and photomedicine.

Massachusetts General Hospital

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