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Cardiovascular imaging identifies heart transplant graft rejection before symptoms

Early identification could lead to improved treatment and prevent progression to graft failure

Cardiovascular Surgery

Lisbon, Portugal – 7 December 2017: Cardiovascular imaging identifies heart transplant graft rejection before symptoms occur, according to research presented today at EuroEcho-Imaging 2017.1 Early identification could lead to improved treatment and prevent progression to graft failure.

“Despite advances in immunosuppressive therapy, graft rejection is a significant cause of mortality and morbidity after heart transplant,” said lead author Dr Filipa Cordeiro, a cardiology fellow in the Department of Cardiovascular Diseases, University Hospital Leuven, Belgium. “However, symptoms only occur when heart damage is already extensive and there is left ventricular dysfunction.”

Endomyocardial biopsy is the gold standard surveillance test to detect graft rejection. It is performed frequently in the first year after heart transplant, but after that it is only done when there is a clinical suspicion of graft rejection. A non-invasive screening test is needed to detect graft rejection earlier and avoid the possible complications associated with endomyocardial biopsy.

The goal of this study was to investigate whether humoral and cellular graft rejection, which are the two types of graft rejection, are preceded by changes in transthoracic echocardiography measurements – in particular, strain imaging. If this was the case, clinicians could decide early in the occurrence of subclinical rejection to perform endomyocardial biopsy and if necessary to begin treatment.

The researchers reviewed the medical records of 316 consecutive patients who had a heart transplant between 2003 and 2016 in a single centre to identify episodes of severe cellular or humoral graft rejection.2

A total of 17 patients with severe graft rejection were included in the study, including ten with cellular and seven with humoral graft rejection. Each heart transplant patient with severe graft rejection was matched to a control heart transplant patient without graft rejection by transplant age, donor age, and ischaemic time, giving a control group of 17 patients.

Echocardiography measurements from the moment of graft rejection and approximately three, six, and 12 months before were analysed and compared between groups.

The researchers found that at the moment of acute graft rejection, patients with humoral graft rejection had worse values of global longitudinal strain, circumferential strain, and left ventricular ejection fraction compared to controls and to heart transplant patients with cellular graft rejection.

Patients with humoral graft rejection showed normal myocardial strain values on average one year before the rejection episode and then presented with progressive decline of global longitudinal strain and circumferential strain in the months preceding acute graft rejection. This was in contrast to controls and cellular graft rejection patients, who had stable strain values except for the moment of acute graft rejection.

Left ventricular ejection fraction and other conventional echocardiography measurements did not significantly change in the months prior to an acute graft rejection episode and could not differentiate between the three groups.

Dr Cordeiro said: “This study demonstrates a progressive decrease of global longitudinal strain and circumferential strain months before a humoral graft rejection becomes clinically apparent. Such alterations months before a severe graft rejection are not evident with conventional echocardiographic parameters and do not occur in cellular graft rejection.”

The researchers believe the observed differences between the two types of graft rejection are due to differing pathophysiology. Cellular graft rejection is an acute T cell mediated process while humoral graft rejection develops when the recipient develops antibodies against the donor.

Dr Cordeiro said: “Humoral graft rejection is a major limitation to long-term graft survival. Our data suggests that global strain assessment by echocardiography allows early detection of a developing humoral graft rejection. This could trigger maintenance immunosuppressive therapy optimisation, increased surveillance or acute treatment and prevent progression to graft failure.”


Notes to editor

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References and notes

1The abstract ‘Global longitudinal strain decreases months before acute humoral but not before acute cellular rejection episode in heart transplant recipients’ will be presented during the Young Investigator Award session – Clinical Science – The Roelandt’s Young Investigator Award on 7 December at 15:30 to 16:30 in the Agora.

2Severe cellular graft rejection was defined as grade 3R or higher of the International Society of Heart and Lung Transplantation classification in the endomyocardial biopsy that required steroid treatment. Severe humoral graft rejection was defined as those with circulating anti-donor antibodies and positive C4d (a complement fraction) at the endomyocardial biopsy that required treatment with intravenous immunoglobulin and rituximab.


About the European Association of Cardiovascular Imaging (EACVI)

The European Association of Cardiovascular Imaging (EACVI) - a registered branch of the ESC - is the world leading network of Cardiovascular Imaging (CVI) experts, gathering four imaging modalities under one entity (Echocardiography, Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance, Nuclear Cardiology and Cardiac Computed Tomography).

Its aim is to promote excellence in clinical diagnosis, research, technical development, and education in cardiovascular imaging.

The EACVI welcomes almost 10 000 professionals including cardiologists, sonographers, nurses, basic scientists and allied professionals.

About the European Society of Cardiology

The ESC brings together health care professionals from more than 140 countries, working to advance cardiovascular medicine and help people to live longer, healthier lives.


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