Ribavirin (RBV) is an antiviral nucleoside analogue commonly used in combination with interferon for the treatment of chronic hepatitis C. Severe anemia develops in about 10% of treated patients, and requires close monitoring of hemoglobin and often RBV dose reduction, which may compromise sustained virologic response. Anemia is likely related to extensive RBV accumulation in erythrocytes subsequent to active unidirectional transmembraneous transport. RBV exerts its toxicity through an inhibition of intracellular energy metabolism and oxidative membrane damage, leading to an accelerated extravascular hemolysis by the reticulo-endothelial system. Concentration-dependent toxicity and improvement of anemia upon dosereduction point towards the importance of pharmacokinetic factors for RBV-induced anemia. On the other hand, pronounced variability in the correlation between RBV concentration and Hb reduction limits the prediction of anemia based on plasma or erythrocyte concentrations in individual patients and points towards additional factors determining individual susceptibility to RBV-induced anemia. Recent studies suggest that erythrocyte oxidative defense mechanisms may play an important role in RBV-induced anemia. Clinical risk factors for severe RBV-induced anemia include impaired renal function, high age, high dose per body weight and female gender. Determination of RBV concentrations has little value in the management of anemia. The only proven effective prevention of RBV-induced anemia is the concomitant administration of erythropoietin. Future research on RBV pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics, as well as erythrocyte antioxidant defense mechanisms may improve safety and efficacy of RBV therapy and guide the development of new treatments for RBV-induced anemia and alternative antiviral agents.
Section of Internal Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine and Public Medicine, University of Bari, Piazza G. Cesare, 11; 70124 Bari, Italy.
Publication date: November 1, 2006
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