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Semin Thromb Hemost. 2000;26 Suppl 1:5-21.

An update on heparins at the beginning of the new millennium.

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Department of Pathology and Pharmacology, Loyola University Medical Center, Maywood, Illinois 60153, USA.


Unfractionated heparin has enjoyed the sole anticoagulant status for almost half a century. Besides an effective anticoagulant, this drug has been used in several additional indications. Despite the development of newer anticoagulant drugs, unfractionated heparin has remained the drug of choice for surgical anticoagulation and interventional cardiology. In the area of hematology and transfusion medicine, unfractionated heparin has continued to play a major role as an anticoagulant drug. The development of low-molecular-weight heparins (LMWHs) represents a refinement for the use of heparin. These drugs represent a class of depolymerized heparin derivatives with a distinct pharmacologic profile that is largely determined by their composition. These drugs produce their major effects by combining with antithrombin and exerting antithrombin and anti-Xa inhibition. In addition, the LMWHs also increase non-antithrombin-dependent effects such as TFPI release, modulation of adhesion molecules, and release of profibrinolytic and antithrombotic mediators from the blood vessels. The cumulative effects of each of the different LMWHs differ and each product exhibits a distinct profile. Initially these agents were developed for the prophylaxis of postsurgical deep-vein thrombosis. However, at this time these drugs are used not only for prophylaxis, but also for the treatment of thrombotic disorders of both the venous and arterial type. To a large extent, the LMWHs have replaced unfractionated heparin in most subcutaneous indications. With the use of these refined heparins, outpatient anticoagulant management has gone through a dramatic evolution. For the first time, patients with thrombotic disorders can be treated in an outpatient setting. Thus, the introduction of LMWHs represents a major advance in improving the use of heparin. The development of the oral formulation of heparin and LMWHs also provides an important area that may impact on the use of heparin and LMWHs. The increased awareness of heparin-induced thrombocytopenia has necessitated the development of newer methods to identify patients at risk of developing this catastrophic syndrome. Furthermore, a strong interest has developed in alternate drugs or the management of patients with this syndrome. Despite the development of alternate anticoagulants that are mostly antithrombin derived (hirudins, hirulog), these agents have failed to provide similar clinical outcome as heparin in many indications. However, antithrombin drugs are useful in the anticoagulant management of heparin-compromised patients. The FDA has approved a recombinant hirudin (Refludan) and a synthetic antithrombin agent, argatroban (Novastan), for this indication. The development of synthetic heparin pentasaccharide and anti-Xa agents may have an impact on the prophylaxis of thrombotic disorders. However, these monotherapeutic agents do not mimic the polytherapeutic actions of heparin. Furthermore, these agents do not inhibit thrombin. Heparin and LMWHs are capable of inhibiting not only factor Xa and thrombin, but other serine proteases in the coagulation network. The only way the newer drugs can mimic the actions of heparin is in combination modalities (polytherapeutic approaches). It has been suggested that newer antiplatelet drugs also exhibit anticoagulant actions. While these drugs may exhibit weak effects on thrombin generation, none of the currently available antiplatelet drugs exhibit any degree of antithrombin actions. It is likely that heparins synergize or augment the effects of the new antiplatelet drugs. Currently, combination approaches are used to anticoagulate patients in these studies. The dosage of heparins has been arbitrarily reduced. This may not be an optimal procedure. Additional clinical studies are needed to study these combinations where the alterations of these drugs are compared. Such combinations will require newer monitoring approaches. The development of oral thrombin agents, GP IIb.

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