Background: The possible immunosuppressive effect of blood transfusion and its influence on survival after surgery for cancer makes it worthwhile to seek methods to avoid transfusion wherever possible. Patients with right-sided colonic cancer are frequently anaemic. Such patients were entered into a study that employed erythropoietin to avoid homologous transfusion.
Methods: In a prospectively randomized double-blind placebo-controlled multicentre trial, patients with moderate anaemia (haemoglobin concentration greater than 8.5 g/dl and less than or equal to 13.5 g/dl) presenting with right-sided colonic cancer and scheduled for hemicolectomy were treated with recombinant human erythropoietin (epoetin beta) 20,000 units/day subcutaneously or placebo for at least 10 days over the operative period.
Results: Perioperative treatment with epoetin beta was well tolerated and there were no significant differences in morbidity and mortality. Following hemicolectomy, median cumulative blood loss in the two groups was similar (epoetin beta 440 ml versus placebo 345 ml). Sixteen (33 per cent) of 48 patients treated with epoetin beta and 15 (28 per cent) of 54 in the placebo group received perioperative blood transfusions (P not significant). The increase in reticulocyte count between baseline and the last preoperative value was more pronounced in the epoetin beta group than in those receiving placebo (P = 0.036).
Conclusion: Despite the perioperative administration of 20,000 units erythropoietin per day for at least 10 days, it was not possible to reduce the intraoperative and postoperative transfusion need. None the less, a positive change in the haematological variables of treated patients was clearly discernible. The negative result may be due to the short treatment interval and to iron deficiency, which was present in the majority of patients. The general change of attitude towards allogeneic blood transfusion is demonstrated by the overall low frequency of blood transfusion in this study.