We live in divided times. Paul Marik’s study on using vitamin C in sepsis was perhaps the most polarizing publication in recent memory (aside from perhaps the Mueller report). It was lauded by some, yet derided just as strongly by others. Unfortunately, the kerfuffle surrounding this study overshadowed the larger picture of vitamin C in critical illness (which is supported by a reasonable body of basic science evidence and some small clinical studies).
Currently, numerous RCTs are underway evaluating the role of vitamin C in septic shock. CITRIS-ALI is the first major RCT to reach press, with others chasing closely at its heels. It’s tempting to simply wait a couple years until all the studies come out, the carnage subsides, and some consensus emerges from the rubble. However, our critically ill patients can’t wait that long – so we are forced to parse each new study for bits of truth that could help our patients now.
A bit of background will help explain the design of this study (and, frankly, add some dramatic irony). For years, mortality was a preferred endpoint in studies of ARDS. This led to numerous “negative” studies, for two reasons:
Eventually, the NIH got tired of funding studies which used mortality as a primary endpoint. Consequently, they designed a specific grant to study a therapy for ARDS which included the following stipulations:
And thus, CITRIS-ALI was born. This is pure speculation, but my guess is that the CRP and thrombomodulin endpoints were added primarily to obtain the NIH grant (they’re unusual primary endpoints to choose in a multi-center clinical trial).
This NIH grant may have created another wrinkle in the story. Fowler's research team had previously performed a pilot study involving IV vitamin C in patients with severe sepsis.1 However, this grant was focused on ARDS, so research objectives were shifted slightly towards use of vitamin C for ARDS due to sepsis. This design change between the pilot study and the multi-center RCT is subtle, but potentially problematic.
This was a multi-center, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial of IV vitamin C among patients with ARDS due to sepsis. Key inclusion criteria were as follows:
Patients were randomized to placebo versus IV vitamin C 50 mg/kg IV every six hours for up to four days (e.g. 3.5 grams IV q6hr for the prototypical 70-kg patient). This is a bit more than twice the dose used in Paul Marik’s trial and in most ongoing studies of vitamin C (which are using a fixed dose of 1.5 grams IV every six hours). The rationale for using this higher dose is a pilot study by Fowler’s group which suggested greater benefit from higher doses of IV vitamin C.1
The co-primary endpoints were:
These primary endpoints were based on a pilot study of severe sepsis wherein IV vitamin C was provided earlier in the disease course (within <48 hours of ICU admission).1 They were applied to this study, even though IV vitamin C was potentially administered later on in the disease course (within <48 hours of ARDS onset).
Secondary endpoints included the following:
Patients were well matched at baseline. Most patients had pneumonia as the source of sepsis and ARDS. Patients were fairly ill (~70% of patients were on vasopressors, the average PaO2/FiO2 ratio was ~200, and about a quarter of patients had acute kidney injury). 65% of patients were on corticosteroid upon study entry.
There was no difference at all in any of the primary endpoints (change in SOFA score, CRP levels, or thrombomodulin levels). So based on the primary endpoints, this is a solidly “negative” study.
But it’s not that simple. Patients in the Vitamin C group had a lower mortality. This difference is most striking during the first 96 hours while on IV vitamin C (during which mortality was ~23% in the placebo group vs. ~4% in the vitamin C group):
Patients in the Vitamin C group also experienced more ICU-free days (median of 11 vs 0, p=0.03) and more hospital-free days (median of 22 vs 0, p=0.04). These differences are largely driven by differences in mortality (patients in the control group with zero hospital-free days and zero ICU-free days mostly represent those who died):
There was no evidence of harm from IV vitamin C. In particular, patients in the Vitamin C group didn’t have increased risk of kidney injury (based on the kidney component of the SOFA score).
Now we get to the crux of the paper. During the first four days:
These trends are running in opposite directions! The vitamin C group had a much lower mortality, but their SOFA scores improved less. That just doesn't make any sense.
How can we reconcile these stark differences?
The answer may be survivorship bias (a form of selection bias which results from focusing on survivors, while overlooking those who died). Increased mortality in the control group selectively removes the sickest patients. This will paradoxically make the control group look better on average!
In fairness, the study did use the the change in SOFA score over 96 hours as their primary endpoint (△SOFA). Using the △SOFA will tend to reduce survivorship bias, because each patient is compared to their own baseline. However, △SOFA still remains susceptible to survivorship bias, because the sickest patients will generally recover slowest (so eliminating the sickest patients will still tend to improve the average △SOFA).
One way to conceptualize is as two teams which are running a race against each other. The distance covered by each person within 96 hours is analogous to their △SOFA. The control group has a much higher mortality, thereby eliminating their sickest patients (who will be least competitive in this race). This will tend to improve the average performance among the control group – even though fewer patients remain in the race.
Thus, it’s possible that vitamin C may be a victim of its own success. By keeping patients alive, Vitamin C retained the sickest patients within its sample. These extremely ill patients tend to recover very slowly – so they have a low △SOFA, preventing Vitamin C from demonstrating efficacy.
Overall, this suggests that the unexpectedly large mortality difference may compromise the validity of the primary endpoint (△SOFA). The ability of a secondary endpoint to stage a statistical coup d’état which invalidates the primary endpoint is controversial, to say the least. Some statisticians will doubtless comment below that such a coup is impossible, but as a rebel I’d like to believe that it is.
This is the key question. Strong arguments can be made on both sides of this debate, as follows:
Reasons the mortality difference isn’t meaningful:
Reasons why the mortality difference is meaningful:
Currently this debate defies any definitive answer.
Opinion on this trial will doubtless be sharply divided along partisan lines. Vitamin C skeptics will view this as a negative trial (which it technically is). Vitamin C enthusiasts will view this as a positive trial (based on evidence of safety and mortality benefit). Ultimately, the study probably won’t sway many hearts or minds.
I view this study as moderately positive. Vitamin C was given very late in the illness course (up to 48 hours after meeting diagnostic criteria for ARDS). This is far beyond the “golden hour” or even the “golden days” of resuscitation. The possibility that Vitamin C could have any impact when provided this late is impressive. On the whole, evidence of some benefits (especially mortality) combined with lack of harm moves the needle towards the administration of vitamin C.
This study obviously isn’t definitive. We eagerly await upcoming RCTs to clarify the topic further. In the interim, Vitamin C seems to be a reasonable therapy which is safe and potentially beneficial.