Conference Coverage

Dexmedetomidine, propofol similar in ventilated adults with sepsis


Outcomes for mechanically ventilated adults with sepsis receiving light sedation were the same whether they received dexmedetomidine or propofol, according to data from a 13-center randomized, controlled, double-blind study published online Feb. 2 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dexmedetomidine (an alpha2-receptor agonist) and propofol (a gamma-aminobutyric acid [GABA]–receptor agonist) have similar safety profiles.

The findings from the Maximizing the Efficacy of Sedation and Reducing Neurological Dysfunction and Mortality in Septic Patients with Acute Respiratory Failure (MENDS2) trial were published on an accelerated schedule to coincide with the Critical Care Congress sponsored by the Society of Critical Care Medicine.

Lead author Christopher G. Hughes, MD, chief of anesthesiology in critical care medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tenn., told this news organization that previous trials have shown that dexmedetomidine is likely superior to benzodiazepines, especially in improving delirium, coma, and time on a ventilator. Until this trial, dexmedetomidine’s performance in a head-to-head comparison with propofol – the current standard-of-care agent – was not clear.

Researchers discovered that, “despite theoretical advantages of dexmedetomidine, that did not translate into the clinical realm when patients were receiving up-to-date sedation care,” he said.

Guidelines currently recommend either drug when light sedation is needed for adults on ventilators. The drugs are different in the way they affect arousability, immunity, and inflammation, but a comparison of outcomes in adults with sepsis – in terms of days alive without brain dysfunction – had never before been performed in a randomized, controlled trial.

In this trial, 422 patients were randomly assigned to receive either dexmedetomidine (0.15-1.5 mcg/kg of body weight per hour) or propofol (5-50 mcg/kg per minute). Doses were adjusted by bedside nurses (who were unblinded) to achieve specified sedation goals.

The primary outcome was days alive without delirium or coma in the 14 days of intervention. The researchers found no difference between the two groups (adjusted median, 10.7 vs. 10.8 days; odds ratio, 0.96; 95% confidence interval, 0.74-1.26).

There was also little difference in three secondary outcomes: ventilator-free days (adjusted median, 23.7 vs. 24.0 days; OR, 0.98); death at 90 days (38% vs. 39%; hazard ratio, 1.06); or the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status (TICS) Total score measuring global cognition at 6 months (adjusted median score, 40.9 vs. 41.4; OR, 0.94).

Dr. Hughes said the researchers “specifically went with a high-severity-of-illness cohort that would be most likely to see an effect.”

He said the drugs have different adverse-effect profiles, so a clinician can consider those in deciding between the two, but either should be fine at baseline.

The researchers note that at least 20 million patients each year develop sepsis with severe organ dysfunction, and more than 20% receive mechanical ventilation.

Confirmation of current guidelines

Sandra Kane-Gill, PharmD, president-elect of SCCM, stated in an interview that she is impressed with the study design and said the results give definitive confirmation of current guidelines.

“The rigorous study design is different from previous comparative-effectiveness trials on the drugs in this group of patients,” she said.

As to what clinicians think about when choosing one over the other, Dr. Kane-Gill said that with dexmedetomidine, there may be more concern about bradycardia, whereas propofol may be associated with concerns of high triglycerides.

“There may be more comfort with use of propofol,” and dexmedetomidine can be more costly than propofol, she added, so those could be factors in decision-making as well.

Dr. Hughes said this study offers a robust look at cognition after the ICU, which is getting increasing attention.

“We had a much more extensive cognitive battery we performed on patients than in previous studies,” Dr. Hughes said, “and it’s important that we did not find a difference in either the main cognition or the other cognitive scores between the two agents.”

Enrollment was completed before the pandemic, but he said the results are relevant to COVID-19 patients because those who are on ventilators in the ICU are in a sick, septic-shock cohort.

“COVID patients would be the type of patients we enrolled in this study,” he said, “with the high severity of illness and the infection on top of being on a ventilator. We know that sedation regimens have been challenging in COVID patients.”

Dr. Hughes and Dr. Kane-Gill have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

A version of this article first appeared on

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