Warfarin is a synthetic derivative of coumarin, a chemical found naturally in many plants, notably woodruff (Galium odoratum, Rubiaceae), and at lower levels in licorice, lavender, and various other species. Warfarin and related coumarins decrease blood coagulation by inhibiting vitamin K epoxide reductase, an enzyme that recycles oxidated vitamin K to its reduced form after it has participated in the carboxylation of several blood coagulation proteins, mainly prothrombin and factor VII. For this reason, drugs in this class are also referred to as vitamin K antagonists.
The identity of the anticoagulant substance in moldy sweet clover remained a mystery until 1940 when Karl Paul Link and his lab of chemists working at the University of Wisconsin set out to isolate and characterize the hemorrhagic agent from the spoiled hay. It ended up taking 5 years for Link's student Harold A. Campbell to recover 6 mg of crystalline anticoagulant. Next, Link's student Mark A. Stahmann took over the project and initiated a large scale extraction, isolating 1.8 g of recrystallized anticoagulant in about 4 months. This was enough material for Stahmann and Charles F. Huebner to check their results against Campbell's and to thoroughly characterize the compound. Through degradation experiments they established that the anticoagulant was 3,3'-methylenebis-(4-hydroxycoumarin), which they later named dicumarol. They confirmed their results by synthesizing dicumarol and proving that it was identical to the naturally occurring product. Over the next few years, numerous similar chemicals were found to have the same anticoagulant properties. The first of these to be widely commercialized was dicoumarol, patented in 1941. Link continued working on developing more potent coumarin-based anticoagulants for use as rodent poisons, resulting in warfarin in 1948. (The name warfarin stems from the acronym WARF, for Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation + the ending -arin indicating its link with coumarin.) Warfarin was first registered for use as a rodenticide in the US in 1948, and was immediately popular; although it was developed by Link, the WARF financially supported the research and was granted the patent.
After an incident in 1951, where an army inductee unsuccessfully attempted suicide with warfarin and recovered fully, studies began in the use of warfarin as a therapeutic anticoagulant. It was found to be generally superior to dicoumarol, and in 1954 was approved for medical use in humans. A famous early recipient of warfarin was US president Dwight Eisenhower, who was prescribed the drug after having a heart attack in 1955.
A 2003 theory posits that warfarin was used by a conspiracy of Lavrenty Beria, Nikita Khrushchev and others to poison Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Warfarin is tasteless and colorless, and produces symptoms similar to those that Stalin exhibited.
Dosing of warfarin is complicated by the fact that it is known to interact with many commonly-used medications and even with chemicals that may be present in certain foods. These interactions may enhance or reduce warfarin's anticoagulation effect. In order to optimize the therapeutic effect without risking dangerous side effects such as bleeding, close monitoring of the degree of anticoagulation is required by blood testing (INR). During the initial stage of treatment, checking may be required daily; intervals between tests can be lengthened if the patient manages stable therapeutic INR levels on an unchanged warfarin dose.
When initiating warfarin therapy ("warfarinization"), the doctor will decide how strong the anticoagulant therapy needs to be. The target INR level will vary from case to case depending on the clinical indicators, but tends to be 2–3 in most conditions. In particular, target INR may be 2.5–3.5 (or even 3.0–4.5) in patients with one or more mechanical heart valves.
In some countries, other coumarins are used instead of warfarin, such as acenocoumarol and phenprocoumon. These have a shorter (acenocoumarol) or longer (phenprocoumon) half-life, and are not completely interchangeable with warfarin. The oral anticoagulant ximelagatran (trade name Exanta) was expected to replace warfarin to a large degree when introduced; however, reports of hepatotoxicity (liver damage) prompted its manufacturer to withdraw it from further development. Other drugs offering the efficacy of warfarin without a need for monitoring, such as dabigatran and rivaroxaban, are under development.
The risks of bleeding is increased when warfarin is combined with antiplatelet drugs such as clopidogrel, aspirin, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The risk may also be increased in elderly patients and in patients on hemodialysis.
A 2006 retrospective study of 14,564 Medicare recipients showed that warfarin use for more than one year was linked with a 60% increased risk of osteoporosis-related fracture in men; there was no association in women. The mechanism was thought to be either reduced intake of vitamin K, which is necessary for bone health, or interaction by warfarin with carboxylation of certain bone proteins.
Warfarin is slower-acting than the common anticoagulant heparin, though it has a number of advantages. Heparin must be given by injection, whereas warfarin is available orally. Warfarin has a long half-life and need only be given once a day. Heparin can also cause a prothrombotic condition, heparin-induced thrombocytopenia (an antibody-mediated decrease in platelet levels), which increases the risk for thrombosis. Warfarin's long half life, on the other hand, means it often takes several days to reach therapeutic effect. Furthermore, if given initially without additional anticoagulant cover, it can increase thrombosis risk. For these main reasons, hospitalised patients are usually given heparin first, and are then moved on to warfarin.
The precursors of these factors require carboxylation of their glutamic acid residues to allow the coagulation factors to bind to phospholipid surfaces inside blood vessels, on the vascular endothelium. The enzyme that carries out the carboxylation of glutamic acid is gamma-glutamyl carboxylase. The carboxylation reaction will proceed only if the carboxylase enzyme is able to convert a reduced form of vitamin K (vitamin K hydroquinone) to vitamin K epoxide at the same time. The vitamin K epoxide is in turn recycled back to vitamin K and vitamin K hydroquinone by another enzyme, the vitamin K epoxide reductase (VKOR). Warfarin inhibits epoxide reductase (specifically the VKORC1 subunit), thereby diminishing available vitamin K and vitamin K hydroquinone in the tissues, which inhibits the carboxylation activity of the glutamyl carboxylase. When this occurs, the coagulation factors are no longer carboxylated at certain glutamic acid residues, and are incapable of binding to the endothelial surface of blood vessels, and are thus biologically inactive. As the body stores of previously-produced active factors degrade (over several days) and are replaced by inactive factors, the anticoagulation effect becomes apparent. The coagulation factors are produced, but have decreased functionality due to undercarboxylation; they are collectively referred to as PIVKAs (proteins induced [by] vitamin K absence/antagonism), and individual coagulation factors as PIVKA-number (e.g. PIVKA-II). The end result of warfarin use, therefore, is to diminish blood clotting in the patient.
The initial effect of warfarin administration is to briefly promote clot formation. This is because the level of protein S is also dependent on vitamin K activity. Reduced levels of protein S lead to a reduction in activity of protein C (for which it is the co-factor) and therefore reduced degradation of factor Va and factor VIIIa. This then causes the hemostasis system to be temporarily biased towards thrombus formation, leading to a prothrombotic state. This is one of the benefits of co-administering heparin, an anticoagulant that acts upon antithrombin and helps reduce the risk of thrombosis, which is common practice in settings where warfarin is loaded rapidly.
Details on reversing warfarin are provided in clinical practice guidelines from the American College of Chest Physicians. For patients with an international normalized ratio (INR) between 4.5 and 10.0, 1 mg of oral vitamin K is effective.
VKORC1 polymorphisms also explain why African Americans are relatively resistant to warfarin (higher proportion of group B haplotypes), while Asian Americans are more sensitive (higher proportion of group A haplotypes). VKORC1 polymorphisms lead to a more rapid achievement of a therapeutic INR, but also a shorter time to reach an INR over 4, which is associated with bleeding.
A meta-analysis of mainly Caucasian patients found:
The international guidelines study stated: "The consensus agrees that patient self-testing and patient self-management are effective methods of monitoring oral anticoagulation therapy, providing outcomes at least as good as, and possibly better than, those achieved with an anticoagulation clinic. All patients must be appropriately selected and trained. Currently-available self-testing/self-management devices give INR results that are comparable with those obtained in laboratory testing."
Many commonly-used antibiotics, such as metronidazole or the macrolides, will greatly increase the effect of warfarin by reducing the metabolism of warfarin in the body. Other broad-spectrum antibiotics can reduce the amount of the normal bacterial flora in the bowel, which make significant quantities of vitamin K, thus potentiating the effect of warfarin. In addition, food that contains large quantities of vitamin K will reduce the warfarin effect. Thyroid activity also appears to influence warfarin dosing requirements; hypothyroidism (decreased thyroid function) makes people less responsive to warfarin treatment, while hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) boosts the anticoagulant effect. Several mechanisms have been proposed for this effect, including changes in the rate of breakdown of clotting factors and changes in the metabolism of warfarin.
Excessive use of alcohol is also known to affect the metabolism of warfarin and can elevate the INR. Patients are often cautioned against the excessive use of alcohol while taking warfarin.
Warfarin also interacts with many herbs, including—but not limited to—the following:
Between 2003 and 2004, the UK Committee on Safety of Medicines received several reports of increased INR and risk of hemorrhage in people taking warfarin and cranberry juice. Data establishing a causal relationship is still lacking, and a 2006 review found no cases of this interaction reported to the FDA; nevertheless, several authors have recommended that both doctors and patients be made aware of its possibility. The mechanism behind the interaction is still unclear.
The use of warfarin as a rat poison is now declining because many rat populations have developed resistance to it, and poisons of considerably greater potency are now available. Other coumarins used as rodenticides include coumatetralyl and brodifacoum, which is sometimes referred to as "super-warfarin", because it is more potent, longer-acting, and effective even in rat and mouse populations that are resistant to warfarin. Unlike warfarin, which is readily excreted, newer anticoagulant poisons also accumulate in the liver and kidneys after ingestion.
WARFARIN Study Launched at Overlake Hospital Medical Center to Assess Impact of Genetic Testing in Reducing Hospitalizations and Deaths Caused by Warfarin.
Mar 16, 2011; Iverson Genetic Diagnostics, Inc. announced that the warfarin Study (warfarin Adverse Event Reduction for Adults...
WARFARIN Study at Colorado Heart & Vascular to Assess Impact of Genetic Testing in Reducing Hospitalizations and Deaths Caused by Warfarin.
Aug 12, 2011; Iverson Genetic Diagnostics, Inc. announced that the warfarin Study (warfarin Adverse Event Reduction for Adults...