This article was published in December 2008 as part of the special ASH anniversary brochure, 50 Years in Hematology: Research That Revolutionized Patient Care.
Normally, blood flows through our arteries and veins smoothly and efficiently, but if a clot, or thrombus, blocks the smooth flow of blood, the result - called thrombosis - can be serious and even cause death. Diseases arising from clots in blood vessels include heart attack and stroke, among others. These disorders collectively are the most common cause of death and disability in the developed world. We now have an array of drugs that can be used to prevent and treat thrombosis - and there are more on the way - but this was not always the case.
Classes of Antithrombotic Drugs
The most important components of a thrombus are fibrin and platelets. Fibrin is a protein that forms a mesh that traps red blood cells, while platelets, a type of blood cell, form clumps that add to the mass of the thrombus. Both fibrin and platelets stabilize the thrombus and prevent it from falling apart. Fibrin is the more important component of clots that form in veins, and platelets are the more important component of clots that form in arteries where they can cause heart attacks and strokes by blocking the flow of blood in the heart and brain, respectively, although fibrin plays an important role in arterial thrombosis as well.
There are two classes of antithrombotic drugs: anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs. Anticoagulants slow down clotting, thereby reducing fibrin formation and preventing clots from forming and growing. Antiplatelet agents prevent platelets from clumping and also prevent clots from forming and growing.
The anticoagulants heparin and dicumarol were discovered by chance, long before we understood how they worked. Heparin was first discovered in 1916 by a medical student at The Johns Hopkins University who was investigating a clotting product from extracts of dog liver and heart. In 1939, dicumarol (the precursor to warfarin) was extracted by a biochemist at the University of Wisconsin from moldy clover brought to him by a farmer whose prize bull had bled to death after eating the clover.
Both of these anticoagulants have been used effectively to prevent clots since 1940. These drugs produce a highly variable anticoagulant effect in patients, requiring their effect to be measured by special blood tests and their dose adjusted according to the results. Heparin acts immediately and is given intravenously (through the veins). Warfarin is swallowed in tablet form, but its anticoagulant effect is delayed for days. Therefore, until recently, patients requiring anticoagulants who were admitted to a hospital were started on a heparin infusion and were then discharged from the hospital after five to seven days on warfarin.
In the 1970s, three different groups of researchers in Stockholm, London, and Hamilton, Ontario, began work on low-molecular-weight heparin (LMWH). LMWH is produced by chemically splitting heparin into one-third of its original size. It has fewer side effects than heparin and produces a more predictable anticoagulant response. By the mid 1980s, LMWH preparations were being tested in clinical trials, and they have now replaced heparin for most indications. Because LMWH is injected subcutaneously (under the skin) in a fixed dose without the need for anticoagulant monitoring, patients can now be treated at home instead of at the hospital.
With the biotechnology revolution has come genetically engineered "designer" anticoagulant molecules that target specific clotting enzymes. Anti-clotting substances and their DNA were also extracted from an array of exotic creatures (ticks, leeches, snakes, and vampire bats) and converted into drugs by chemical synthesis or genetic engineering. Structural chemists next began to fabricate small molecules designed to fit into the active component of clotting enzymes, like a key into a lock.
The first successful synthetic anticoagulants were fondaparinux and bivalirudin. Bivalirudin, a synthetic molecule based on the structure of hirudin (the anti-clotting substance found in leeches), is an effective treatment for patients with heart attacks. Fondaparinux is a small molecule whose structure is based on the active component of the much larger LMWH and heparin molecules. It has advantages over LMWH and heparin and has recently been approved by the FDA. Newer designer drugs that target single clotting factors and that can be taken by mouth are undergoing clinical testing. If successful, we will have safer and more convenient replacements for warfarin, the only oral anticoagulant available for more than 60 years.
Blood platelets are inactive until damage to blood vessels or blood coagulation causes them to explode into sticky irregular cells that clump together and form a thrombus. The first antiplatelet drug was aspirin, which has been used to relieve pain for more than 100 years. In the mid-1960s, scientists showed that aspirin prevented platelets from clumping, and subsequent clinical trials showed that it reduces the risk of stroke and heart attack. In 1980, researchers showed that aspirin in very low doses (much lower than that required to relieve a headache) blocked the production of a chemical in platelets that is required for platelet clumping. During that time, better understanding of the process of platelet clumping allowed the development of designer antiplatelet drugs directed at specific targets. We now have more potent drugs, such as clopidogrel, dipyridamole, and abciximab. These drugs are used with aspirin and effectively prevent heart attack and stroke; they also prolong the lives of patients who have already had a heart attack.
Impact of These Developments on Health
Antithrombotic therapy has had an enormous impact in several significant ways. Heparin has made bypass surgery and dialysis possible by blocking clotting in external tubing. Antithrombotic therapy has reduced the risk of blood clots in leg veins (also known as deep-vein thrombosis or DVT), a condition that can lead to death from pulmonary embolism (a clot that blocks an artery to the lungs) by more than 70 percent. And most importantly, it has markedly reduced death from heart attacks, the risk of stroke in people with heart irregularities (atrial fibrillation), and the risk of major stroke in patients with mini-strokes.