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29 June 2021

Why specialist knowledge is key to the future of stroke treatment

Thrombectomy procedures can significantly improve stroke patient outcomes, but their success hinges on speed of delivery and access to expertise.

Thrombectomy is a relatively new procedure for treating blood clots in stroke patients. The clot is physically removed rather than broken up by drugs, with research showing this technique can reduce the severity of disability caused by a stroke.

Here, Oliver Spooner, mechanical thrombectomy lead for stroke medicine, Levansri Makalanda, clinical lead for interventional neuroradiology, Paul Bhogal, research lead for interventional neuroradiology, and Sageet Amlani, network lead for stroke medicine – all of whom work at The Royal London Hospital, which is part of the Barts NHS Trust – discuss the main challenges in the procedure’s roll-out.

Why is thrombectomy so important and what sets it apart from other stroke procedures?

Oliver Spooner: The research that has allowed us to deliver this treatment on a large scale is about six years old. Prior to this, the main treatment for patients presenting with strokes was intravenous thrombolytic therapy, in which a clot-busting drug is injected with the aim of opening the blocked artery in the brain.

This treatment, however, is unlikely to work on very large clots that block big arteries supplying the brain with blood and oxygen – these are the blockages that cause the biggest brain tissue damage and the highest levels of disability. Mechanical thrombectomy has revolutionised treatment in these cases.

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Often our patients have a large area of their brain saved by this treatment, which massively reduces – or in some cases reverses – the disability caused by stroke. With stroke being the largest cause of complex disability in the UK, it is of utmost importance that healthcare systems provide this treatment to patients who need it and deliver it as effectively as possible.

Levansri Makalanda: It has long been suspected that physically removing the blockage from the artery is superior to drug therapy, but the trial results from five years ago exceeded all expectations. The power of this treatment to reduce disability surpasses almost every other intervention in medicine. It is more potent than some chemotherapy treatments and five times as effective as similar treatments for heart attacks.

The impact it has on patients, families and the whole socio-economic landscape is undeniable. I have treated patients in their twenties who would have otherwise had a disabling stroke but have been able to return to work thanks to this new intervention.

The main issue is that patients need to be treated as soon as possible and by highly specialised teams. This evidence was found by trained interventionists in neuroscience centres. They found that even a 15-minute delay might affect how successful the outcome will be, as 1.5 to two million brain cells die every minute until blood flow is restored.

Read more: How thrombectomy can make the difference for stroke survivors

Is thrombectomy possible in every hospital, and is it always desirable? How can we ensure it is efficiently rolled out across the UK?

Paul Bhogal: Delivering an efficient, world-class thrombectomy service is complex and needs experts from a wide range of specialties working together to deliver the best outcomes for patients. These experts are based in advanced neuro centres, called comprehensive stroke centres, and include stroke physicians, interventional neuroradiologists, diagnostic neuroradiologists, neuroanaesthetists, and neurosurgeons. 

In addition to specialist staff, dedicated operating rooms and access to advanced imaging are needed. Most specialists and infrastructure are already located in these advanced neuro centres, but the numbers need to be increased to develop a sustainable service. Studies have already shown that high-volume centres have the best outcomes for stroke patients. High-volume centres have been shown to improve patient outcomes within a wide variety of conditions from trauma to liver disease and cancer, and stroke is no different.

The key to success is all about getting the right patient to the right hospital with the right team as quickly as possible. Paramedics being able to quickly and accurately identify stroke patients and direct them to comprehensive stroke centres is the most efficient way to deliver a world-class service.

This has already been shown in other countries around the world. A team performing ten procedures per week will be far better than a team doing one per week, and building lots of low-volume centres could lead to poor outcomes and be a costly mistake. 

Sageet Amlani: There is a great deal of evidence that by centralising services and having a high volume of patients in centres of excellence, patient care is improved. The London stroke model of having eight hyperacute stroke centres was initially controversial. However, this has led to stroke mortality being cut by half and a significant reduction in hospital stay for stroke survivors. A similar argument can be made for thrombectomy.

Are there enough thrombectomy specialists in the UK, and how can we increase the talent pipeline? 

LM: This has been the main issue with the roll-out of the UK’s thrombectomy service. When the trials were published in 2016, only 80 interventional neuroradiologists in the UK had the skill set and training to do this highly specialised procedure. That number has increased by about 40 per cent, but there are still not enough staff nationwide to run a 24/7 service. There have been suggestions that cardiologists and other radiologists could be trained to help, but this could potentially reduce quality. Would you want a heart surgeon operating on your brain?

In future, I think the UK will require networks of neurointerventionists covering large areas. These networks would create the high volume and expertise necessary for this delicate procedure. The quick transfer of patients to the appropriate centre will become paramount.

Whenever a new service starts, there is always a lag before it is fully staffed. Globally, however, there are plenty of experienced neurointerventionists, who could be recruited to maintain the world-class care for which the NHS is renowned. We have been fortunate enough to attract and recruit senior neurointerventionists from abroad.

SA: The Royal London has successfully recruited internationally, which is part of the solution. However, by ensuring a robust service with high patient numbers, we would be able to train the next generation of interventionists. 

Read more: How AI is speeding up stroke care

What are the main challenges of running a 24/7 service such as the one at The Royal London Hospital? How can the right infrastructure make widespread thrombectomy a reality?

PB: When talking about infrastructure, it is essential to consider pre-hospital infrastructure and in-hospital infrastructure. Pre-hospital infrastructure means identifying patients with acute strokes as quickly as possible. We can lead the world by developing innovative technologies such as “helmet tech” to identify strokes in the ambulance rather than when they arrive at their local hospital.

Similarly, the rise of remote healthcare means a stroke doctor can make an early assessment in the ambulance. This would mean stroke patients could be immediately directed to the comprehensive stroke centres and receive mechanical thrombectomy quickly. 

Advanced imaging techniques – including specialised CT scans called perfusion CT scans, MRI machines and the biplane angiography machines on which procedures are performed – are essential. Units such as ours need a second biplane machine to allow us to perform thrombectomy and other life-saving procedures, such as treating ruptured brain aneurysms. Placing these machines, which cost several million pounds each, in centres that don’t treat the full spectrum of emergency neurological conditions starves those that do of a precious resource.

The Royal London team has established a multi-county network and uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help detect clots in the brain faster than ever before, meaning that treatment decisions can be made within minutes. The Royal London network is one of the largest AI-assisted stroke networks in the UK and beyond, and we are pushing to deliver the best care here. We expanded our service to cover a wider region during the last wave of Covid-19, and although it proved very challenging, we thought it essential as the virus can cause strokes.

OS: It’s been a very exciting time here at Royal London recently. We have had to think beyond our own internal infrastructure to wider health services and populations. One of the main challenges is that the success of this treatment is so time-dependent.

Millions of neurons are lost within a few minutes – any time delay can result in increased stroke symptoms for the patient and potential loss of independence. Utilising new image transfer methods and AI in imaging interpretation has allowed us to cut the diagnosis time of large arterial occlusion and facilitate faster thrombectomies.

Creating a network outside of your own NHS organisation has its challenges. When the hard work pays off, the reward is a network of new colleagues spanning many NHS trusts and surrounding counties, delivering vital treatment to those who may not have been able to receive it otherwise.