Objective: Pulmonary hypertension may complicate surgical correction of congenital heart defects, resulting in increased morbidity and mortality. We have previously shown that plasma levels of the nitric oxide precursors citrulline and arginine drop precipitously after congenital cardiac surgery and that oral citrulline supplementation may be protective against the development of pulmonary hypertension. In this study, we assessed the safety and pharmacokinetic profile of intravenous citrulline as a potential therapy for postoperative pulmonary hypertension.
Methods: The initial phase of this investigation was a dose-escalation study of intravenously administered citrulline in infants and children undergoing one of five congenital cardiac surgical procedures (phase 1). The primary safety outcome was a 20% drop in mean arterial blood pressure from the baseline pressure recorded after admission to the intensive care unit. Based on our previous work, the target circulating plasma citrulline trough was 80 to 100 micromol/L. Each patient was given two separate doses of citrulline: the first in the operating room immediately after initiation of cardiopulmonary bypass and the second 4 hours later in the pediatric intensive care unit. Stepwise dose escalations included 50 mg/kg, 100 mg/kg, and 150 mg/kg. After model-dependent pharmacokinetic analysis, we enrolled an additional 9 patients (phase 2) in an optimized dosing protocol that replaced the postoperative dose with a continuous infusion of citrulline at 9 mg/(kg.h) for 48 hours postoperatively.
Results: The initial stepwise escalation protocol (phase 1) revealed that an intravenous citrulline dose of 150 mg/kg given after initiation of cardiopulmonary bypass yielded a trough level of in the target range of approximately 80 to 100 micromol/L 4 hours later. The postoperative dose revealed that the clearance of intravenously administered citrulline was 0.6 L/(h.kg), with a volume of distribution of 0.9 L/kg and estimated half-life of 60 minutes. Because of the short half-life, we altered the protocol to replace the postoperative dose with a continuous infusion of 9 mg/(kg.h). An additional 9 patients were studied with this continuous infusion protocol (phase 2). Mean plasma citrulline levels were maintained at approximately 125 mumol/L, with a calculated clearance of 0.52 L/(h.kg). None of the 17 patients studied had a 20% drop in mean arterial blood pressure from baseline.
Conclusions: In this first report of the use of intravenous citrulline in humans, we found citrulline to be both safe and well tolerated in infants and young children undergoing congenital cardiac surgery. Because of the rapid clearance, the optimal dosing regimen was identified as an initial bolus of 150 mg/kg given at the initiation of cardiopulmonary bypass, followed 4 hours later by a postoperative infusion of 9 mg/(kg.h) continued up to 48 hours. Using this regimen, plasma arginine, citrulline, and nitric oxide metabolite levels were well maintained. Intravenous citrulline needs to be studied further as a potential therapy for postoperative pulmonary hypertension.