Phosphodiesterase 4 inhibitors for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Plain language summary

In people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), what are the benefits and risks of phosphodiesterase 4 inhibitors?

Background of the review

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung condition caused by damage from harmful chemicals that are breathed in and is predominantly seen in people who smoke tobacco. These chemicals set up a cascade of inflammatory reactions, which damage structures in the lung but also increase mucus production in the airways. These processes lead to intermittent symptoms of breathlessness and decreased capacity to perform day-to-day tasks. In addition, people with COPD are at greater risk of developing exacerbations (‘flare ups’), which become more frequent and severe over time. People vary in terms of how they are affected by COPD. This is in part related to the severity of the disease but also to differences in response to medicines, an individual’s fitness and coexistent conditions. The only way to prevent further lung damage in most people is to stop smoking.

Medicines prescribed to manage COPD generally aim to improve symptoms, reduce exacerbations or both. In the early stages, bronchodilator medicines are helpful because these relax the small muscles in the airway allowing more air to move freely in and out of the lungs. Some long-acting agents may reduce exacerbations. Steroid-containing inhalers may be added specifically to target inflammation in the lungs and thus modestly reduce the number of exacerbations.

Phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4) inhibitors are a relatively new class of medicines that have been marketed to improve COPD. They have both bronchodilator and anti-inflammatory effects. Moreover, the two currently available medicines, roflumilast and cilomilast, are taken as a tablet. Our review collated and analysed existing trials to define the benefits and risks of PDE4 inhibitors in COPD.

What did we look at?

We found 34 completed trials involving 24,084 adults, with results reported up to October 2016. These consisted mainly of trials in people with moderate to very severe disease who discontinued other regular COPD medications. However, there were seven trials that allowed continuation of usual COPD medicines. The trials ranged from 6 to 52 weeks’ duration and the average age of participants was 64 years. The trials were all sponsored by the manufacturers of PDE4 inhibitors.

What did we find out?

Compared with placebo, these medicines provide a small improvement in lung function measurements and reduce the likelihood of an exacerbation of COPD. Based on these results, we would expect that out of 100 people who took PDE4 inhibitors every day for a year, 28 would experience at least one exacerbation which is five fewer than for others who did not receive these medicines.

However, people reported that these medicines only provided a small effect on levels of breathlessness and quality of life. Furthermore, around 5% to 10% of people in trials who received roflumilast or cilomilast reported side effects such as diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. We would expect that out of 100 people who took PDE4 inhibitors every day for a year, 11 would experience diarrhoea, which is seven more than for others who did not receive these medicines. There was also a two- to three-fold increase in the risk of sleep or mood disturbance for the roflumilast 500 μg dose, although overall the total number of reported incidents was still small. There was no effect on rates of hospitalisation and deaths. The effects were the same regardless of the severity of COPD, or whether other medicines for COPD were being taken.

Quality of the evidence

The studies were generally well designed, as people did not know if they were receiving this new treatment or a placebo medicine. Overall we rated the evidence as being of moderate to high quality.

It is of concern that results seen in trials published in journals by pharmaceutical companies showed a greater benefit of these medicines than those which were unpublished. Therefore, this relies on unpublished trial data being made accessible and up to date. The psychiatric adverse effects data remain unpublished. Longer-term trials are necessary to get a more accurate estimate of the benefits and safety of these medicines over time, including whether they slow COPD disease progression.

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