Science in medicine
??The?Journal?of?Clinical?Investigation http://www.jci.org Volume 116 Number 1 January 2006
Biological basis for the cardiovascular
consequences of COX-2 inhibition:
therapeutic challenges and opportunities
Tilo Grosser, Susanne Fries, and Garret A. FitzGerald
Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics and Department of Pharmacology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
One should not increase, beyond what is necessary,
the number of entities required to explain anything.
— Occam’s razor
Arachidonic acid (AA) is subject to metabolism by prostaglandin G/H
synthase (PGHS; commonly known as COX) enzymes, lipoxygen-
ases, and epoxygenases to form a mesmerizing array of biologically
active products. The COX enzymes are bisfunctional proteins, pos-
sessing both COX and hydroperoxidase (HOX) activities, catalyzing
the biotransformation of AA into the PG endoperoxide intermedi-
ates PGG2 and PGH2. These are, in turn, acted on by isomerases and
synthases to form the PGs and thromboxane A2 (TxA2) (1–3). All of
these products activate G protein–coupled receptors; the phenotypes
resulting from deletion of these receptors has informed considerably
our understanding of prostanoid biology (4). NSAIDs, which include
both traditional NSAIDs (tNSAIDs) and selective inhibitors of COX-2
and which are among the most commonly used drugs (5), relieve pain
and inflammation by suppressing the COX function of PGHS and
the consequent formation of PGE2 (6) and prostacyclin (PGI2) (7), but
perhaps also of other prostanoids. The failure of NSAIDs to inhibit
PGHS HOX–dependent free radical formation may contribute to the
failure of these drugs to modify disease progression in arthritis (8).
Several groups made observations (9–12) that predicted the dis-
covery of a second COX enzyme (13–15). Unlike COX-1, which
appeared to be expressed constitutively in most tissues, COX-2 was
subject to rapid induction by inflammatory cytokines and mito-
gens and was speculated to account largely if not exclusively for PG
formation in inflammation and cancer. Drug screening in cellular
and biological systems identified compounds selective for COX-2
(16, 17). The elucidation of the COX structures subsequently
explained this capability (18, 19). The COX enzymes are remarkably
similar, both sharing a hydrophobic tunnel that affords access of
the lipid substrate to the active site, deep within the proteins. How-
ever, the COX-2 tunnel is more accommodating and includes a side
pocket not present in COX-1 (Figure 1). This affords both broader
substrate recognition and a structural explanation for the ability to
detect drugs selective for COX-2 in pharmacological screens (20).
The attraction in developing such compounds was that they might
not induce the commonest complication of tNSAIDs — gastroin-
testinal (GI) intolerance — which the “COX-2 hypothesis” attrib-
uted entirely to inhibition of COX-1–derived protective PGE2 and
PGI2 by gastroduodenal epithelium and platelet COX-1–derived
TxA2 (21). Subsequently, the simplicity of this concept has been
challenged by increasing evidence supporting the importance of
COX-2 in resolution of mucosal inflammation and in ulcer healing
(22). Despite this and epidemiological evidence suggesting that the
incidence of severe tNSAID-related GI adverse effects was in decline
(23), the race for the approval of drugs designed as COX-2–specific
inhibitors gained momentum. The conventional bases for approval
by the FDA of the first 3 of these drugs — celecoxib, rofecoxib, and
valdecoxib —were relatively small: clinical studies consisted mostly
of hundreds of volunteers and were short-term (mostly less than 6
Nonstandard?abbreviations?used: AA, arachidonic acid; APC, Adenoma Prevention
with Celecoxib; APPROVe, Adenomatous Polyp Prevention on Vioxx; CABG, coronary
artery bypass grafting; CLASS, Celecoxib Long-term Arthritis Safety Study; EDGE,
Etoricoxib versus Diclofenac Sodium Gastrointestinal Evaluation; EMEA, European
Medicines Agency; GI, gastrointestinal; HOX, hydroperoxidase; IP, PGI2 receptor;
MEDAL, Multinational Etoricoxib and Diclofenac Arthritis Long-term; PGHS, pros-
taglandin G/H synthase; PGI2, prostacyclin; PGIM, PGI2 metabolite; RCT, randomized
controlled-outcome trial; TARGET, Therapeutic Arthritis Research and Gastrointes-
tinal Event Trial; tNSAID, traditional NSAID; TxA2, thromboxane A2; VIGOR, Vioxx
Gastrointestinal Outcome Research.
Conflict?of?interest: G.A. FitzGerald receives financial support for investigator-initi-
ated research from Bayer, Merck, and Boehringer Ingelheim, all of which manufacture
drugs that target COXs. G.A. FitzGerald is a member of the Steering Committee of the
Multinational Etoricoxib and Diclofenac Arthritis Long-term (MEDAL) Study
Program. This author also serves as a consultant for Johnson & Johnson, Bayer,
Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, Boehringer Ingelheim, and NiCox.
Citation?for?this?article: J. Clin. Invest. 116:4–15 (2006).
science in medicine
?The?Journal?of?Clinical?Investigation http://www.jci.org Volume 116 Number 1 January 2006
months) studies in which endoscopic visualization of drug-induced
ulceration was compared among the coxib, a tNSAID, and placebo.
The superiority of the COX-2 inhibitors over their tNSAID com-
parators in these studies was striking (24–28).
Mechanistic basis for a cardiovascular hazard
resulting from inhibition of COX-2
During the course of drug development, we found that both cele-
coxib and rofecoxib suppressed urinary 2, 3-dinor 6-keto PGF1α, a
stable PGI2 metabolite (PGIM), to a degree
comparable to that attained by treatment
with structurally distinct tNSAIDs (29, 30).
While the latter drugs inhibited platelet
aggregation ex vivo transiently at the time of
peak action, the coxibs had no such effect,
compatible with the absence of COX-2
from mature human platelets (31). Unlike
the tNSAID comparators in these studies
— ibuprofen and indomethacin — neither
celecoxib nor rofecoxib inhibited COX-1–
derived TxA2 coincident with its impact on
PGI2. Thus, the cardiovascular effects of
TxA2 would be expected to be exaggerated.
However, as PGI2 was known to act as a gen-
eral restraint on any recognized stimulus to
platelet activation, it was not suggested that
upsetting a notional “balance” between the 2
prostanoids was likely to be the mechanism
of drug action. Correspondingly, variation
in other endogenous mediators, such as
NO, would be expected to modulate the
impact of COX-2 inhibition on cardiovas-
cular function. Given that similar observa-
tions were made with both celecoxib and
rofecoxib, it appeared that this effect was
mechanism based, rather than an off-target
effect restricted to 1 compound. Despite the
presence of only COX-1 in endothelial cells
under static conditions in vitro (32), PGI2
— a dominant product of endothelium (33)
— appeared largely to derive from COX-2
under physiological conditions in humans.
Prior findings of Topper and Gimbrone
(34) were invoked to explain these observa-
tions. They had found that subjection of
endothelial cells in culture to laminar shear
upregulated COX-2 expression. Thus, induc-
tion of COX-2 was likely to have occurred in
response to blood flow under physiologi-
cal conditions in vivo. Studies that led to
approval of the coxibs were too short and
too small in subject number to have exclud-
ed a risk of myocardial infarction or stroke
attributable to this hypothesis.
Insight into the consequences of suppress-
ing PGI2 in vivo were limited at the time;
deletion of the PGI2 receptor (IP) augmented
the response to an exogenous thrombogenic
stimulus in mice (7). However, it was claimed
that redundancy with other antithrombotic
systems, particularly the elaboration of NO, would annul the impact
of PGI2 suppression in vivo. When deletion of the IP was shown to
restrain the effect of endogenous TxA2 on platelet activation and
vascular proliferation in response to injury (35), it was questioned
whether loss of 2 copies of the IP would mimic the substantial but
incomplete suppression of PGIM attained in humans (S1). Subse-
quent experiments revealed that IP deletion predisposed to thrombo-
sis in a gene dose–dependent fashion; the effect of a COX-2 inhibitor
in thrombosis models was intermediate between IP+/– and IP–/– mice
Schematic depiction of the structural differences between the substrate-binding channels of COX-1
and COX-2 that allowed the design of selective inhibitors. The amino acid residues Val434,
Arg513, and Val523 form a side pocket in COX-2 that is absent in COX-1. (A) Nonselective inhibi-
tors have access to the binding channels of both isoforms. (B) The more voluminous residues in
COX-1, Ile434, His513, and Ile532, obstruct access of the bulky side chains of COX-2 inhibitors.
Figure modified with permission from Nature from protein structures reported in refs. 18 and 20.
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??The?Journal?of?Clinical?Investigation http://www.jci.org Volume 116 Number 1 January 2006
(Y. Cheng, personal communication). It has also been suggested that
the presence of PGIM does not reflect endothelial biosynthesis of
PGI2 and that COX-2 is undetectable in endothelial cells ex vivo (S2).
While one can never attribute with certainty a tissue of origin to a
metabolite measured in urine (36) or plasma (37), studies in vitro had
indicated that endothelium is the major tissue source of PGI2 (33)
and local vascular stimulation and short-term systemic administra-
tion of PGI2 is reflected by readily detectable alterations in urinary
PGIM levels (38, 39). Furthermore, expression of COX-2 is evident
in human endothelial cells ex vivo (Figure 2A), and expression of
endothelial COX-2 may be modulated in a flow-dependent manner
in mice (Figure 2, B–F). Indeed, the human cDNAs for COX-2 were
originally cloned from unstimulated endothelial cells (40, 41), reflec-
tive of constitutive expression of the enzyme. Aside from physiologi-
cal conditions, one would expect that vascular stimulation by the
products of platelet activation and by inflammatory cytokines might
upregulate endothelial and vascular smooth muscle cell expression of
COX-2, as occurs in atherosclerotic lesions (42, 43). Indeed, excretion
of both PGIM and the TxA2 metabolite 2, 3-dinor TxB2, are together
increased in patients with severe atherosclerosis (43, 44, S3). The fail-
ure of some studies to report COX-2 expression in endothelial cells
ex vivo may reflect the particular experimental circumstances and/or
discordance between the offset kinetics of flow-induced gene expres-
sion and the time of sample preparation.
Subsequent work expanded our understanding of the effects of
PGI2 on cardiovascular biology (Figure 3). Celecoxib suppressed
PGI2-dependent vascular bioactivity and undermined the anti-
thrombotic effect of aspirin in dogs (45). Selective COX-2 inhibition
suppressed PGI2 and predisposed to platelet activation and arte-
rial thrombosis under conditions of hypoxia-induced pulmonary
hypertension in rodents (46). Similarly, selective COX-2 inhibition
suppressed PGI2 and enhanced platelet–vessel wall interactions
in vivo and platelet adhesion to hamster cheek pouch arterioles
(47). PGI2 was shown in endothelial cells to stimulate substantially
thrombomodulin (48). Thus, removal of this natural constraint to
thrombin activation would interact with augmented
platelet activation to promote assembly of the pro-
thrombinase complex and consequent thrombosis,
perhaps particularly in the microvasculature. Reper-
fusion injury of the myocardium is augmented in
mice lacking the IP (49), suggesting a limit to the
benefit of such therapeutic strategies in patients who
suffered a thrombosis, and COX-2–dependent PGI2
was shown to afford protection against oxidant inju-
ry to cardiomyocytes in vivo (50).
Aside from effects most relevant to acute human
syndromes of thrombotic vascular occlusion, suppres-
sion of COX-2 may also predispose to a more gradual
elevation of cardiovascular risk during prolonged dos-
ing with inhibitors. Deletion of the IP was found to
promote initiation and early progression of atheroscle-
rosis in mice genetically predisposed to hyperlipidemia
(51, 52). This appears to reflect removal of a constraint
to the activation of both neutrophils and platelets,
their interaction with the vessel wall, and the resultant
oxidant stress. Additionally, COX-2–dependent PGI2
formation appears to contribute to the atheroprotec-
tion afforded by estrogen and mediated via its ER-α
receptor in vivo (52). Deletion of the IP (53, 54), like
COX-2 inhibition (37), elevates blood pressure (54)
and augments the pressor response to dietary sodium (53, 54). Final-
ly, both deletion of the IP and inhibition of COX-2 modulate vascular
remodeling induced by hemodynamic stress — such as hypertension
— in vivo (55). Additional effects on AA metabolism resulting from
COX-2 inhibition, including a failure to metabolize the vasocon-
strictor 20-hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acid (20-HETE) to a vasodilator
product (56) and augmented metabolism via lipoxygenase and cyto-
chrome P450 enzymes, may impact blood pressure regulation. How-
ever, evidence that such effects contribute to the renovascular effects
of COX-2 inhibitors remains to be provided in vivo. COX-2 is also
the dominant source of PGE2 and PGD2 biosynthesis under physi-
ological conditions in humans (S4, S5). Deletion of the EP2 receptor
for PGE2, like deletion of the IP, results in salt-sensitive hypertension
(57), and both PGE2 (via the IP) and PGD2 inhibit platelet activation,
at least in vitro (S6, S7). The extent to which inhibition of these other
PGs might contribute to a cardiovascular hazard of COX-2 inhibitors
remains to be established. In the interim, one might speculate how
the disparate effects of PGI2 suppression on atherogenesis, blood
pressure, and the remodeling response might converge, over time, to
result in transformation of cardiovascular risk in patients initially at
low risk when exposed to chronic COX-2 inhibition (58).
In summary, a substantial body of evidence has accumulated
that 1 mechanism, suppression of COX-2–dependent PGI2 forma-
tion, can both augment the response to thrombotic and hyperten-
sive stimuli and initiate and accelerate atherogenesis.
Concordance of clinical experience
with mechanism-based predictions
Given the assumption that this mechanism explains the observed
cardiovascular complications of COX-2 inhibitors, how would
such a hazard be expected to become clinically manifest?
First, the actual degree of selectivity attained at the vascular inter-
face in vivo would be an important variable. Although assays in
whole blood in vitro suggest a clear segregation between the degree
of selectivity attained by the drugs under consideration, there are
Expression of COX-2 mRNA in the endothelium (arrows) of human (A) and COX-2
protein in murine (B–E) arteries. (A) In situ detection of COX-2 mRNA in the endothe-
lium of a human umbilical artery. Image kindly provided by James N. Topper, Frazier
Healthcare Ventures, Palo Alto, California, USA. (B–E) Immunostaining shows COX-2
upregulation 4 weeks after left common carotid artery ligation in mice. Scale bars: 50 µm.
Baseline COX-2 expression (brown staining) is evident in the intima in cross sections
of the right common, unligated carotid artery, which served as a control. Magnifica-
tion, ×20 (B); ×40 (C). Flow reduction induced further COX-2 expression in the intimal
layer and marked endothelial expression as shown in D and E. Magnification, ×20
(D); ×40 (E). LC, left common carotid artery; RC, right common carotid artery. B–E
are reproduced here with permission from Circulation Research (55).
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?The?Journal?of?Clinical?Investigation http://www.jci.org Volume 116 Number 1 January 2006
substantial interindividual differences in drug response (59) and
consequent overlap in the degree of selectivity attained in vivo. Selec-
tivity for COX-2 can be viewed as a continuous variable within the
class of NSAIDs. Indeed, some tNSAIDs — diclofenac, nimesulide,
meloxicam, and nabumetone — express average selectivity for COX-2
similar to that of celecoxib in human whole blood in vitro (28).
Sufficient concentration of any selective COX-2 inhibitor becomes
nonselective as it begins to inhibit COX-1, at least in vitro (28, 60).
Second, the more prolonged the drug exposure (determined by dose,
duration of action, and duration of treatment), the more likely an
Roles of the COX isozymes in cardiovascular (A and C) and renal (B) biology. ACE, angiotensin-converting enzyme; ADP, adenosine
diphosphate; aPC, activated protein C; BK, bradykinin; ecNOS, endothelial cell NOS; MBF, medullary blood flow; RAS, renin-angiotensin
system; TM, thrombomodulin.
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??The?Journal?of?Clinical?Investigation http://www.jci.org Volume 116 Number 1 January 2006
adverse consequence. Third, concordant administration of low-dose
aspirin, which favors inhibition of COX-1 (61), would be expected
to mitigate but not abolish the hazard. The degree and duration
of simultaneous inhibition of the 2 COX enzymes would also be
expected to influence the existence of a cardiovascular hazard from
tNSAIDs (see below). Finally, IP–/– mice are more responsive to
thrombogenic stimuli; they do not develop spontaneous throm-
bosis (7). Thus, a clinical or genetic predisposition to thrombosis
would favor emergence of a drug-related cardiovascular event.
Aside from the question posed by clinical pharmacology, the
first evidence consistent with the hypothetical cardiovascular
hazard emerged in the Vioxx Gastrointestinal Outcome Research
(VIGOR) study (62), in which a 2-fold divergence in the incidence
of serious GI adverse events between rofecoxib and the tNSAID
naproxen coincided with a 5-fold divergence in the incidence of
myocardial infarction (20 versus 4 events). This study was conduct-
ed with a high dose (50 mg/day) of rofecoxib in patients in whom
low-dose aspirin was precluded. Most of the patients suffered from
RA, a disease associated with an odds ratio of a myocardial infarc-
tion roughly 50% higher than in patients with osteoarthritis or
no arthritis (63). These results generated considerable controversy;
some researchers claimed that rofecoxib was neutral and that the
result reflected a cardioprotective effect of naproxen, based on its
extended duration of action (64), permitting this mixed inhibitor
of COX-1 and COX-2 to behave like aspirin.
The corresponding outcomes study of celecoxib (Celecoxib
Long-term Arthritis Safety Study [CLASS]) was published in a
highly unorthodox manner (65). Partial presentation of the data
seemed to suggest that high-dose (800 mg/day) celecoxib had
caused fewer GI adverse effects than its tNSAID comparators;
however, this turned out not to be the case when the full data
set was revealed (66). This study, conducted with, on average, a
shorter-lived, less selective COX-2 inhibitor than rofecoxib, also
demonstrated no difference in the incidence of cardiovascular
events. Around 20% of the patients took aspirin, and much was
made of the apparent divergent incidence of GI adverse effects on
ibuprofen versus celecoxib in a post hoc analysis of nonaspirin
users. Perhaps aspirin had masked the GI advantage of celecoxib.
However, if so, it may also have masked the cardiovascular haz-
ard. A similar underpowered and retrospective analysis suggests
that cardiovascular events occurred more often with celecoxib
than with ibuprofen in nonaspirin users. Interestingly, the inci-
dence of both GI and cardiovascular events on diclofenac and
celecoxib appeared to be similar (67).
In summary, the number of events reported in the VIGOR study
was small. However, if the estimate of the difference between the
2 treatment groups was reliable, this was larger than might be
expected from an “aspirin-like” effect of naproxen; clearly it was
Illustration of the expected interaction of baseline cardiovascular and
thrombotic risk with components of drug exposure including dose, dura-
tion of action, and duration of treatment with a selective inhibitor of COX-2.
The approximate relationship of cardiovascular hazard detected in con-
trolled studies within this interaction are indicated (not to scale). APC
study, ref. 81; APPROVe study, ref. 72; CABG studies, parecoxib/valde-
coxib after bypass surgery, refs. 77, 78; VIGOR study, ref. 62.
The spectrum of selectivity for COX inhibition. (A) The relative affinities
of tNSAIDs and coxibs (open circles) for COX-1 and COX-2. The con-
centrations required to inhibit COX-1 and COX-2 by 50% (IC50) have
been measured using whole-blood assays of COX-1 and COX-2 activ-
ity in vitro. The diagonal line indicates equivalent COX-1 and COX-2
inhibition. Drugs plotted below the line (orange) are more potent inhibi-
tors of COX-2 than drugs plotted above the line (green). The distance
to the line is a measure of selectivity. Note the log scale. For example,
lumiracoxib is the compound with the highest degree of selectivity for
COX-2 as its distance to the line is the largest. Celecoxib and diclof-
enac have similar degrees of selectivity for COX-2, as their distances
to the line are similar; however, diclofenac is active at lower concentra-
tions and thus located more to the left. Figure modified with permis-
sion from The New England Journal of Medicine (28). (B) Implication
of the relative degrees of selectivity. Increasing degrees of selectivity
for COX-2 are associated with augmented cardiovascular risk while
increasing degrees of selectivity for COX-1 are associated with aug-
mented GI risk. The relative size of the circles indicates approximately
the variation in sample sizes among the trials.
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compatible with the coincidence of a cardiovascular hazard from
rofecoxib and some protection from naproxen.
The traditional approach to drug safety is to rely upon pharmaco-
epidemiology. However, this is an insensitive detector system when
the need is to identify a small absolute increase — maybe 1–2% in
retrospect — in the absolute incidence of a problem that occurs com-
monly in the age group under study. In addition to these limitations,
epidemiological (observational) studies are subject to many sources
of bias, and in this particular case, the common use of prescription
databases was also potentially confounded by unrecorded over-the-
counter use of tNSAIDs and aspirin.
Further attention to the prospect of a car-
diovascular hazard from the COX-2 inhibi-
tors (coxibs) was prompted initially by a
comparison of trial data for both drugs,
including the VIGOR and CLASS studies,
with a control group, based on data drawn
from the placebo groups of 4 primary pre-
vention trials of low-dose aspirin (68). How-
ever, this indirect analysis was subject to
considerable methodological criticism. The
estimated cardiovascular event rates in 2 of
the placebo groups lay below while 2 were
above those calculated for rofecoxib and
celecoxib. Roughly 70% of the data for the
pooled estimate in the control group was
drawn from the first 2 studies. However,
the controversy around this paper prompt-
ed a spate of observational studies. Several
(69–71) but not all of these detected a car-
diovascular hazard associated with 50 mg/d
rofecoxib, but most failed to do so with
lower doses such as that (25 mg/d) used in
the randomized controlled-outcome trial
(RCT), the Adenomatous Polyp Prevention
on Vioxx (APPROVe) study, that subse-
quently led to the withdrawal of the drug
(72).?Most observational studies and over-
view analyses of the small, short studies that
provided the basis for drug approval also
failed to detect a hazard from celecoxib (73)
and valdecoxib (74). Pharmacoepidemiology
alone did not clearly discriminate between a hazard peculiar to
rofecoxib and a mechanism-based effect.
The situation was clarified by the emergence of information from
4 published (and 1 still unpublished; ref. 75) placebo-controlled tri-
als. The pattern of the clinical information was consistent with the
proposed mechanism. For reasons discussed above, a prothrombotic
clinical substrate would favor the rapid emergence of adverse cardio-
vascular events in a relatively small study. An example of such a set-
ting is coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG), which is character-
ized by intense hemostatic activation (76). Two placebo-controlled
studies of valdecoxib (77, 78), anteceded by its intravenous prodrug
parecoxib, were performed in patients undergoing CABG. Despite
their small study sizes (462 and 1636 patients, respectively) and
short duration (10 and 14 days of treatment, respectively), pooled
analysis of the 2 quite similar studies suggests that parecoxib/valde-
coxib elevate the combined incidence of myocardial infarction and
stroke by 3-fold in this population (79). Although the patients were
prescribed aspirin, the timing of its administration relative to the
incidence of the vascular events is unclear. CABG is also a setting
of apparent “aspirin resistance” (80). These studies are compatible
with the rapid emergence of a cardiovascular hazard based on sup-
pression of COX-2–derived PGI2 in a population with preexisting,
intense hemostatic activation. Similarly, one would anticipate that a
less pronounced prothrombotic substrate, such as the patients with
RA in the 9-month VIGOR trial, might reveal a hazard more gradu-
ally. The rapidity with which a cardiovascular risk might become
manifest would reflect in part the intensity of a genetic or environ-
mental predisposition to thrombosis (Figure 4).
Discordant dose-response relationships for inhibition of platelet COX-1
(A) and vascular COX-2 (B). Derived from data reported in ref. 28.
Clinical implications of differences in the dose-response relationships for COX-1 and COX-2 of
low-dose aspirin (A), a selective inhibitor of COX-2 (B), and a tNSAID (C). The area between
the dose-response curves would correspond to benefit (A) and hazard (B and C) and to the
size of these effects.
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APPROVe (72) and Adenoma Prevention with Celecoxib (APC),
2 studies in patients with colonic adenomata, presumed initially
to be at low risk of cardiovascular events, revealed the gradual
emergence of a cardiovascular risk attributable respectively to
rofecoxib (72) and celecoxib (81) after dosing for more than 1 year
(Figure 4). Supportive of this being a true drug-related effect, the
hazard in patients taking celecoxib 200 mg/bid and 400 mg/bid
appeared to be dose related (81).
Several comparative studies of COX-2 inhibitors and tNSAIDs
failed to detect a discriminant incidence of cardiovascular events.
However, in each case, these studies were substantially underpowered
to exclude this possibility. These include the Therapeutic Arthritis
Research and Gastrointestinal Event Trial (TARGET) (82), which
comprised two 1-year long, comparator studies of lumiracoxib, 1
with ibuprofen, 1 with naproxen. While cardiovascular events tended
to be higher in the lumiracoxib group, the study included patients
mostly at low risk, and the power of the comparisons was under-
mined (83). Furthermore, TARGET was not designed to establish
noninferiority of cardiovascular risk among the treatment groups;
thus, it had no predefined upper confidence interval for relative risk
(84) and used an intention-to-treat analysis. While it has been sug-
gested that the pharmacokinetics of lumiracoxib favor a transient
exposure in the vascular compartment with prolonged availability
in the joint space (85), 400 mg/d of lumiracoxib exceeds consider-
ably the dose necessary to inhibit COX-2 at the time of peak drug
action. Given at this dose, it has a prolonged systemic pharmacody-
namic half-life, depressing PGIM excretion to a similar extent and
for a similar duration as rofecoxib (ref. 86 and P. Patrignani, personal
communication).?Unpublished studies also substantially underpow-
ered to exclude a cardiovascular hazard include the prematurely and
unconventionally terminated Alzheimer’s Disease Anti-inflammato-
ry Prevention (ADAPT) study of celecoxib, naproxen, and placebo in
Alzheimer disease and the multinational, placebo-controlled evalu-
ation of celecoxib (400 mg/d) in chemoprevention of colonic adeno-
In summary, while the number of cardiovascular events in all of the
relevant individual RCTs addressing this issue is small, the currently
available clinical evidence is remarkably compatible with a unitary
mechanism for which there is comprehensive biological plausibil-
ity, attained in vivo. The clinically concordant evidence includes the
following: (a) the easiest detection of a signal in epidemiological
studies for a long-lived compound with a high degree of selectivity
for COX-2, rofecoxib, given at a high dose (50 mg/d); (b) the rapid
emergence of a signal in 2 relatively small RCTs of valdecoxib in a
setting of intense hemostatic activation and likely aspirin resistance;
(c) the intermediate time to detection of a hazard in RA patients in
the VIGOR study in whom hemostatic activation and risk of throm-
bosis is considerably less than in those individuals that have under-
gone CABG but exceeds that in patients without arthritis; (d) the
similarity of the overview analyses of etoricoxib versus naproxen
to what was observed in VIGOR (67) and evidence in trials to date
(87) consistent with a cardiovascular hazard from this drug; (e) the
delayed emergence of a hazard in 2 RCTs of prolonged treatment
with rofecoxib and celecoxib, which is compatible with risk trans-
formation in patients initially at low risk of cardiovascular disease;
and (f) the evidence of hazard involving 3 structurally distinct selec-
tive COX-2 inhibitors — belying the notion that this is an off-target
effect of rofecoxib. Finally, the issue of a mitigating effect of low-dose
aspirin has not been addressed in the RCTs. This seems biologically
plausible, as COX-1 knockdown in mice, which genetically mimics
the impact of low-dose aspirin (88), attenuates the prothrombotic
and hypertensive effect of COX-2 inhibition (Y. Cheng, personal
communication). However, aspirin use was only prespecified in one
of the RCTs in humans: TARGET. As mentioned, this was under-
powered to address the cardiovascular question. However, the avail-
able evidence is compatible with risk attenuation; the relative risk of
myocardial infarction was reduced from 2.37 in nonusers to 1.36 in
those patients taking aspirin when lumiracoxib was compared with
naproxen (83). However, this might also reflect a differential capacity
of naproxen versus lumiracoxib to interact with and undermine the
antiplatelet effect of low-dose aspirin (see below).
Cardiovascular risk and the tNSAIDs
Given the worldwide withdrawal of rofecoxib, the withdrawal of
valdecoxib from the US, Australian, and European markets, and
the substantial decline in the number of prescriptions for cele-
coxib, the safety of tNSAIDs has attracted substantial attention.
Unfortunately, we do not have placebo-controlled RCTs address-
ing the cardiovascular safety of tNSAIDs, only observational stud-
ies, information from basic and human pharmacology, and the
previously discussed tNSAID comparator RCTs. Aside from its rel-
evance to clinical decision making, variability among the tNSAID
comparators may be relevant to the heterogeneity of outcome
among RCTs of COX-2–selective drugs.
A discussion of this information must be tempered by the
reminder that all of these drugs, including those designed to be
selective for COX-2, are NSAIDs and that the degree of selectivity
among NSAIDs is best viewed as a continuous variable, given the
substantial interindividual differences in response to drug admin-
istration (59). Thus, while valdecoxib is more selective for COX-2
than celecoxib in vitro, each individual will have idiosyncratic fac-
tors that modulate his or her dose-response relationship; there
may well be some patients in whom celecoxib is the more selective
inhibitor in vivo. It became fashionable after the VIGOR study to
compare naproxen with “nonnaproxen” tNSAIDs. This approach
should be abandoned, given the likely heterogeneity among the
latter group with respect to cardiovascular risk.
Several tNSAIDs resemble, even in vitro, the selectivity profile of
celecoxib (Figure 5A). These include diclofenac, the most commonly
consumed tNSAID worldwide, and meloxicam, a marked beneficiary
of the recent shift in NSAID prescriptions since the withdrawal of
rofecoxib and valdecoxib in the US. Besides this pattern of selectivity,
additional data substantiate the likelihood that diclofenac resembles
Duration of use of tNSAIDs and individual tNSAIDs among current
users (use within a month) and risk of myocardial infarction. Redrawn
with permission from BMC Medicine (106). CI, confidence interval;
nonuse, reference group with relative risk of 1.00.
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? The?Journal?of?Clinical?Investigation http://www.jci.org Volume 116 Number 1 January 2006
celecoxib in practice. Neither cardiovascular nor GI outcomes dif-
fered between high-dose diclofenac and celecoxib in the CLASS study,
and this pattern was sustained in the post hoc analysis in nonusers
of aspirin. Secondly, NSAIDs that inhibit COX-1, such as ibuprofen,
may interact pharmacodynamically to undermine the cardioprotec-
tive effects of low-dose aspirin (89). This interaction does not occur
with drugs selective for COX-2, as it is not extant in platelets. Diclofe-
nac, just like rofecoxib and celecoxib, but unlike ibuprofen or naprox-
en, does not subserve this interaction (89–91). Interestingly, a small
epidemiological study of survivors of myocardial infarction suggest-
ed that concurrent ibuprofen but not diclofenac undermined the
efficacy of aspirin in preventing a second myocardial infarction (92).
It is unknown whether differences in the degree of selectivity attained
on average by diclofenac versus purpose built COX-2 inhibitors will
translate into differences in clinical outcomes. However, the Multi-
national Etoricoxib and Diclofenac Arthritis Long-term (MEDAL)
study program (93, 94) consists of 3 randomized, double-blind trials
in osteoarthritis and RA patients comparing etoricoxib to diclofenac
(150 mg/d). Roughly 35,000 patients will be randomized, and the
primary analysis is a noninferiority comparison of confirmed car-
diovascular events, defined as an upper bound of the 95% confidence
interval less than 1.30 (93, 94). The MEDAL program incorporates
2 smaller studies, the Etoricoxib versus Diclofenac Sodium Gastro-
intestinal Evaluation (EDGE) trials, designed primarily to evaluate
GI outcomes respectively in patients with osteoarthritis (EDGE)
and RA (EDGE 2). Etoricoxib was used at 90 mg/d in both EDGE
studies but at 60 mg/d in the later stages of the MEDAL program.
Interestingly, while GI and cardiovascular outcomes did not differ
between the treatment groups in EDGE, discontinuations due to GI
intolerance were more common with diclofenac while discontinua-
tions due to hypertension were more common on etoricoxib (93, 94).
Assimilation of the information from these comparator trials may
begin to define the functional implications of progressive selectiv-
ity for COX-2 among the NSAIDs (Figure 5B). Less information is
available concerning the other tNSAIDs with selectivity similar to
diclofenac. Overview analyses suggest that serious GI toxicity is dose
related with meloxicam, and at 15 mg/d this was similar to diclof-
enac. However, this impression was based largely on studies of fewer
than 60 days duration (95), and there have been no adequately sized
RCTs to address the GI toxicity of this compound (96). Similarly, we
have no outcome data on cardiovascular events caused by meloxi-
cam. Even less information is available with respect to nimesulide
(97) and nabumetone (98).
A second group of tNSAIDs includes ibuprofen, flubiprofen, and
indomethacin. These drugs favor somewhat inhibition of COX-1
over COX-2 in vitro and inhibit both enzymes reversibly during the
dosing interval. Pharmacodynamic studies have raised the possibil-
ity that such drugs interact with and undermine the cardioprotec-
tive effect of aspirin (89). While observational studies support (92,
99, 100) and fail to support (101, 102) this hypothesis, the issue has
not been addressed in an adequately powered RCT. Provocatively,
concurrent high-dose ibuprofen appeared to undermine the ben-
efit of aspirin in the TARGET trial (82); however, the number of
events was too small to address the issue with confidence.
Most observational studies of tNSAID use last less than 1 year and
most (102) but not all (103, 104) are consistent with no increased
risk of cardiovascular events on ibuprofen. However, it is theoreti-
cally possible that a cardiovascular hazard from ibuprofen, albeit
Suggested consideration for preferred treatment options (level of evidence)A
COX inhibitors with proven cardioprotective efficacy
COX inhibitors with potential cardioprotective efficacy, variable among individuals
COX inhibitors with the potential to offset the cardioprotective effect of low-dose aspirin
COX -2 inhibitors with proven gastroprotective efficacy
Treatment options for chronic treatment of patients with low cardiovascular and low GI risk
Treatment options for chronic treatment of patients with low cardiovascular and high GI risk
Treatment options for chronic treatment of patients with high cardiovascular and low GI risk
Treatment options for chronic treatment of patients with high cardiovascular and high GI risk
Low-dose aspirin (1a)
Rofecoxib (withdrawn) (1b)
Lumiracoxib (FDA approval pending) (1b)
Naproxen (2b, 2a)
Ibuprofen (2b, 2a)
Naproxen + proton pump inhibitor (2b, 2a)
Ibuprofen + proton pump inhibitor (2b, 2a)
Diclofenac + proton pump inhibitor (2b, 2a)
Possibly celecoxib (although GI advantage
vs. tNSAID not proven) (3, 2)
Naproxen + Clopidogrel (to avoid potential
interaction with low-dose aspirin; however, the GI
toxicity of this combination is likely to be at least
that of tNSAID + low-dose aspirin and may
warrant addition of a proton pump inhibitor) (5)
Ibuprofen + clopidogrel (see comment above) (5)
Naproxen + proton pump inhibitor + clopidogrel (5)
Ibuprofen + proton pump inhibitor + clopidogrel (5)
AThe levels of evidence are based on the scoring system of the Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (http://www.cebm.net/levels_of_evidence.asp):
1a, systematic reviews (with homogeneity) of RCTs; 1b, individual RCTs (with narrow confidence interval); 1c, all or none RCTs; 2a, systematic reviews
(with homogeneity) of cohort studies; 2b, individual cohort study or low-quality RCTs; 2c, outcomes research, ecological studies; 3a, systematic review (with
homogeneity) of case-control studies; 3b, individual case-control study; 4, case series (and poor quality cohort and case-control studies); 5, expert opinion
based on physiology, bench research, or first principles.
science in medicine
12?The?Journal?of?Clinical?Investigation http://www.jci.org Volume 116 Number 1 January 2006
considerably less pronounced than for selective inhibitors of COX-2,
may exist. First, this may derive from discordant rates of offset of
inhibition of the 2 COX enzymes in vivo. This has never been docu-
mented, but should inhibition of COX-1 wane faster than that of
COX-2, the drug would be selective for the latter enzyme for some
portion of the dosing interval. A second possibility pertains even if
the inhibition time profiles of the 2 enzymes are dynamically aligned
during the dosing interval. We had previously shown a highly non-
linear relationship in humans between the degree of inhibition of
platelet COX-1 and platelet TxA2–dependent function (105); one
must inhibit the capacity of the enzyme by greater than 95% before
impacting on platelet activation in vivo (Figure 6A). Studies in mice,
which reveal that deletion of the IP has a gene dose–dependent effect
on thrombosis and vascular function (Y. Cheng, personal commu-
nication), are consistent with a more linear relationship between
inhibition of COX-2 and the functional consequences of sup-
pressing COX-2–derived PGI2 formation (Figure 6B). Discordance
between these 2 curves might result in a “window of hazard,” despite
dynamic alignment of enzyme inhibition during the dosing interval
(Figure 7A). Should such a window exist, it would be a smaller aper-
ture than that for the risk from sustained selective inhibition of
COX-2 throughout the dosing interval or, indeed, for the sustained
benefit from inhibiting platelet COX-1 by low-dose aspirin (Figure 7,
B and C). Thus, one would have to conduct much larger and/or
longer trials to detect a hazard from ibuprofen than was necessary
to detect a cardiovascular hazard from the coxibs or a benefit from
low-dose aspirin. Interestingly, a recent epidemiological analysis of
long-term use of NSAIDs suggests heterogeneity of effect consistent
with their pharmacology (106). There is an apparent time-dependent
emergence of a hazard with diclofenac; the data are also consistent
with the possibility of a small hazard from ibuprofen only emerging
upon prolonged dosing, if at all, while naproxen (see below) seems
neutral or somewhat protective (Figure 8).
Naproxen has attracted particular attention because of the out-
come of the VIGOR trial (62) and evidence of a prolonged phar-
macokinetic half-life, at least in some individuals (64, 107). It is
assumed that drugs that act like ibuprofen do not afford cardio-
protection because they act reversibly and only sustain inhibition
of platelet COX-1 in the functionally relevant zone transiently in
the dosing interval (89). Epidemiological analyses of naproxen
have suggested that it might have a dilute aspirin effect (103) con-
sistent with an extended half-life and sustained platelet inhibition
in some but not all individuals (64, 107). Indeed, this benefit of
naproxen might be further undermined by irregular compliance
outside the rigors of an RCT. We do not have evidence from car-
diovascular outcome studies for naproxen and can only speculate
as to how it may have contributed to the result reported in the
VIGOR study. Recently, naproxen was shown to interact with aspi-
rin in a manner similar to ibuprofen (91).
Aside from their putative effects on thrombosis, the potential of
all NSAIDs, including those selective for COX-2, to raise blood pres-
sure is well recognized. This may reflect diverse effects on salt and
water handling and vascular reactivity, which have been discussed in
detail elsewhere (108). The propensity of COX-2 deletion to elevate
blood pressure is dependent on genetic background in mice (109),
and it seems likely that genetic modifiers condition the existence and
magnitude of this sporadic response to NSAID intake in humans.
Despite the suggestion from experiments in mice (110) that hyper-
tension might result most commonly from inhibition of COX-2
and the selectivity with which that is achieved, this has never been
addressed directly by studies in humans, although an overview analy-
sis consistent with that hypothesis has been published recently (111).
Hypertension, reported as a serious adverse event, related to dose
with rofecoxib and celecoxib and was more common with the more
selective and longer-lived drug. Other factors, such as a documented
COX-independent effect on vascular function (112) and drug poten-
cy, may explain perceived frequency of hypertension in patients tak-
ing indomethacin. Given COX inhibition by acetaminophen, reports
of hypertension on this drug (113) are unsurprising. The commonest
daily dose, 1000 mg, results in approximately 50% inhibition of both
COX-1 and COX-2 (89), and an observational study suggests that
higher doses, which may attain complete inhibition, result in a GI
adverse event profile as in the tNSAIDs (114). It is unknown whether
other aspects of acetaminophen action may modulate the impact of
COX inhibition on cardiovascular function.
In summary, we lack information from placebo-controlled RCTs
on the cardiovascular effects of the tNSAIDs. Thus, while a small
but absolute risk of cardiovascular events is established for rofe-
coxib, valdecoxib, and celecoxib, we have no evidence of compara-
ble quality for the tNSAIDs. Presently, it seems plausible to think
of them in several clusters: (a) drugs such as diclofenac and meloxi-
cam that are likely to resemble celecoxib with a small, but absolute
risk; (b) drugs such as ibuprofen which, in themselves, may be neu-
tral but may undermine the effectiveness of aspirin; (c) naproxen,
which may afford protection in some individuals but which may
also interact with aspirin; and finally, (d) a heterogeneous group of
drugs such as indomethacin and acetaminophen, which may pos-
sess off-target cardiovascular effects that compound their profile.
Clearly, the assumptions that underlie this classification can only
be tested by RCTs. In the interim, however, it may afford a reason-
able basis for therapeutic decision making (Table 1).
Some lessons learned and outstanding questions
An ambivalent legacy surrounds the aggressive strategy, heavily reli-
ant upon direct-to-consumer marketing, that rendered the selective
COX-2 inhibitors “blockbuster drugs.” Ironically, the rationale for
their development supported a niche concept — patients who had GI
intolerance for tNSAIDs. After the drug withdrawals, it has been esti-
mated that less than 5% of the patients previously taking coxibs had
been at high risk of serious GI adverse effects from tNSAIDs (115).
An interdisciplinary approach to drug surveillance. The questions
raised by mechanistic studies in humans performed before the
first selective inhibitors of COX-2 were approved failed to prompt
further studies to address the hypothetical mechanism of a car-
diovascular hazard by the manufacturers. When such proof of
concept did emerge, the data failed to inform substantially the
interpretation of the pharmacoepidemiology. However, these
different silos of information, mechanistic studies in humans,
proof-of-principal studies in mice, and observational studies,
finally afforded a powerful context within which to interpret the
RCTs. In the future, we need to develop a more integrated, trans-
lational approach to information on drug safety, continuously
refining our perception, perhaps exploiting formal Bayesian deci-
sion-making strategies as applied commonly in other fields. Post-
marketing surveillance or pharmacovigilance might be strength-
ened considerably by the integration of large-scale databases
from third-party payers, provisional periods of drug approval,
and access to individual data from industry-sponsored clinical
trials for independent analysis. However, such developments
must be integrated within a surveillance system that prompts
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?The?Journal?of?Clinical?Investigation http://www.jci.org Volume 116 Number 1 January 2006
rapid performance of mechanistic studies to address hypotheses
of concern, even when they emerge after drug approval.
An individualized approach to defining efficacy and risk. Even though
the development strategy of the coxibs largely bypassed their com-
parative efficacy with tNSAIDs, it is often claimed that these drugs
work uniquely in some patients; however, the evidence is strictly
anecdotal. It is possible to design studies to determine if there is
variability between individuals in the efficacy of NSAIDs and, if so,
to provide an explanation. The pharmacological response to admin-
istration of distinct selective COX-2 inhibitors is strikingly variable
among individuals, in part due to genetic sources of variance (59);
factors such as body mass, age, and sex may also be of relevance.?Sim-
ilarly, we can easily reduce risk by avoiding these drugs in patients
with a high-to-moderate risk of cardiovascular disease. It would also
be judicious to exclude from therapy with a selective COX-2 inhibi-
tor patients with recognized prothrombotic environmental expo-
sure (e.g., anovulants) or genetic (e.g., factor V Leiden) variants (116).
However, given the biological plausibility of the time course of the
results of the APPROVe and APC studies, we need to address seri-
ously the possibility that prolonged treatment with coxib-like drugs
may predispose gradually to an emerging hazard in those previously
at low risk of cardiovascular disease. Does extended therapy with
COX-2 inhibitors result in accumulation of atherosclerotic plaque
burden in humans? If so, does some combination of biomarkers of
drug exposure, mechanism-based risk transformation, and athero-
genesis combine with physiological responses (such as the rise in
blood pressure) and genetic variants to predict the small number of
the individuals treated who progress to clinical events? Such infor-
mation would then enhance the design of RCTs so that they might
provide information of value to individual therapeutic decisions in
the future. Simplistic approaches to trial design (117) are likely to be
inconclusive. TARGET was announced as a trial in patients at high
cardiovascular risk that would provide a definitive answer to the
cardiovascular question (118). In fact, too few patients at high risk
were recruited for the trial to be powered to exclude a cardiovascular
risk from lumiracoxib (82). However, given present evidence, perfor-
mance of an RCT involving a selective COX-2 inhibitor in high-risk
cardiovascular patients (117) is, at the least, ethically questionable.
A regulatory approach that synthesizes available information in a manner
most pertinent to clinical decision making. Both the FDA and the Euro-
pean Medicines Agency (EMEA) (http://www.emea.eu.int/) conclud-
ed that rofecoxib, valdecoxib, and celecoxib conveyed a small but
absolute hazard of myocardial infarction and stroke. Rofecoxib and
valdecoxib have been withdrawn from the market in the US, Europe,
and other jurisdictions. Both agencies agreed that more informa-
tion was desirable concerning tNSAIDs but reacted in a distinct, but
important way. The FDA applied a “black box” warning to celecoxib,
which remained on the market, but also to the tNSAIDs (119). The
EMEA, in contrast, imposed restrictions on celecoxib (and on etori-
coxib, which is on the market in some European countries) but con-
cluded that there was no evidence to prompt a change in their advice
about tNSAIDs (120). Adding a “black box” to the label of tNSAIDs
is likely to mitigate the competitive damage to celecoxib and to
diminish the hazard of litigation for all the relevant manufactur-
ers by signaling risk to the consumer. However, an indiscriminate
approach to warning about all remaining NSAIDs does not reflect
the varied quality of the available evidence and is as practically valu-
able to patients and their doctors as the prior absence of explicit
warning about the cardiovascular safety of any of these drugs.
Just as low-dose aspirin is effective in the secondary prevention of
myocardial infarction and stroke and causes a small but definite risk
of serious GI adverse effects (121), so selective inhibitors of COX-2
relieve pain and inflammation and convey a small but definite risk
of myocardial infarction and stroke. While the preferential inhibi-
tion of COX-1 is sufficient to explain both the cardiovascular efficacy
and adverse GI events observed with low-dose aspirin, so inhibition
of COX-2 is sufficient to explain the antinflammatory efficacy and
cardiovascular adverse events observed with the coxibs. Despite
this, a plethora of additional actions of aspirin have been claimed
to explain its action over the past 2 decades (122). The majority of
these observations have been made in vitro and/or are of uncertain
relevance to aspirin action at therapeutically tolerated doses in vivo.
Similarly, a variety of alternative explanations for the cardiovascular
effects of COX-2 inhibitors, again based largely on conjecture, in
vitro data, and/or drug concentrations unlikely ever to be attained
therapeutically have begun to emerge. Given the experience of aspi-
rin, it might be wise to use the razor of William of Occam, the most
celebrated proponent of the medieval principle of parsimony, to
“shave off” unnecessary concepts, variables, and constructs. One
should always choose the simplest explanation of a phenomenon,
one that requires the fewest leaps of logic (123).
The authors are supported by grants from the NIH (MO
1RR00040, HL 54500, HL 62250, and HL70128) and the Ameri-
can Heart Association (National Scientist Development grant
0430148N to T. Grosser; Pennsylvania-Delaware Affiliate post-
doctoral fellowship to S. Fries). Garret FitzGerald is the Elmer
Bobst Professor of Pharmacology.
Note: References S1–S7 are available online with this article;
Address correspondence to: G.A. FitzGerald, School of Medicine,
Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, 153 John-
son Pavilion, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsyl-
vania 19104, USA. Phone: (215) 898-1184; Fax: (215) 573-9135;
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