The results from ARBITER 6 were released this week.
The interpretation is less clear.
I've been in a minority who has doubted that most drugs that lower LDL are actually beneficial in primary prevention. Statins clearly show benefit, but really no other agents have shown a reduction in all cause mortality or, in primary prevention, in cardiovascular mortality. As such, I'd been raising concerns about ezetimibe even before ENHANCE was published, and have been unconvinced that anyone should be treated with combination therapy to achieve LDL goals, since there is little to suggest added benefit when other lipid-lowering drugs are combined with a statin.
Recently, the Oxford Niaspan Study found that CIMT was improved when niacin was combined with a statin, but CIMT is a surrogate marker and it's not so clear that changes in CIMT will predict clinical benefits. However, of all the non-statin therapies, niacin has been the one that looks most promising for reducing cardiovascular mortality, at least in secondary prevention.
Now, soon after that study, we have ARBITER 6, showing that niacin plus a statin seemingly reduced cardiovascular events compared with ezetimibe plus a statin. There were 2 events in the niacin arm (1%) and 9 in the ezetimibe arm (5%) and this was statistically significant. So, what can we conclude from this?
One possibility is that niacin actually does add some clinical benefit to a statin in secondary prevention, while ezetimibe does not.
Another possibility is that ezetimibe is actively harmful, while niacin is neutral. There were slightly more events in ENHANCE in the ezetimibe arm, but the numbers were tiny.
A third possibility is that this was due to chance. The actual results are quite "fragile" in the sense that only a few events moving from one arm to the other would make the difference disappear. While, in theory, a statistical test captures this, there's been a sense in the EBM world that very small event numbers create a fragility of results not adequately captured by a p value. It seems extremely unlikely that niacin really reduces events by 80%, since this should have been obvious in prior trials of niacin. As such, either niacin combined with a statin is much superior to niacin alone, or these results are in part due to the play of chance. (It's not likely that ezetimibe raises events by this degree when used with a statin, since we would likely have noticed this in other trials.)
ARBITER 6 was stopped early for benefit, based on CIMT results. This seems like an odd decision to say the least, since change in CIMT is not a clinical outcome requiring an ethical decision to stop a trial. The early stopping was unfortunate since with more events we might be more certain about whether the reduction in events was real.
I'll be interested to see how others interpret ARBITER 6. So far I've communicated with one lipid expert (who has not shared my views about non-statin therapy) and he doesn't believe that ezetimibe is clearly to be avoided, while another expert (who does share my views about non-statin therapy) doesn't feel that ARBITER 6 means that niacin should be used. Apparently neither one found ARBITER 6 substantially reshaped their positions on this.
My best guess is that niacin reduces events a bit, though not as much as ARBITER 6 suggests. If so, for the highest risk patients, such as those who have CV events while on a statin, adding niacin might make sense. Given the side effects with niacin (36% of patients in ARBITER 6 had flushing, and many more in the niacin arm than the ezetimibe arm discontinued therapy), I'd hesitate to use niacin in lower risk patients even for secondary prevention, out of concern that they might discontinue both niacin and the statin.
I'd be quite hesitant to treat anyone with ezetimibe at this point. While I was a skeptic that ezetimibe did anything beneficial even before ARBITER 6, I'm now substantially more concerned that it could be causing real harm.