Protamine (heparin)-induced thrombocytopenia: a review of the serological and clinical features associated with anti-protamine/heparin antibodies
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Protamine is widely used in medicine as a rapidly-acting antidote to heparin, particularly for reversing heparin anticoagulation after cardiac surgery. Protamine is also used as a stabilizing additive to certain preparations of insulin. Recent reports demonstrate that protamine and heparin form multimolecular complexes that result in high rates of immunization in post-cardiac surgery patients, particularly of immunoglobulin G (IgG) class antibodies; a subset of these anti-protamine/heparin IgG antibodies activates platelets through their FcγIIA (IgG) receptors. Although the clinical consequences of anti-protamine/heparin antibodies that are newly generated after cardiac surgery are unknown, there is evidence that platelet-activating anti-protamine/heparin antibodies already present at the time of cardiac surgery might occasionally explain more severe thrombocytopenia with delayed platelet count recovery, as well as thromboembolic complications, in the post-cardiac surgery setting. Triggers for such antibodies remain poorly-defined, but could include preoperative administration of heparin to diabetic patients receiving protamine-insulin as well as recent previous cardiac surgery. Anti-protamine/heparin antibodies have several features in common with anti-platelet factor 4 (PF4) PF4/heparin antibodies implicated in heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (HIT), including immunization by heparin-containing multimolecular complexes, predominant IgG class, pathological platelet-activating properties, relatively rapid IgG formation without IgM precedence, and antibody transience. Despite these similarities, the risk of anti-protamine/heparin antibody-mediated complications seems to affect the early post-cardiac surgery period, whereas HIT usually occurs at least 5 days following cardiac surgery. Clinicians need to become aware of this recently recognized immunohematological disorder, and research is needed to identify triggers of immunization, improve detection of pathological antibodies and identify patients at risk of this complication.
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