Warfarin (also known under the brand names Coumadin, Jantoven, Marevan, Lawarin, and Waran) is an anticoagulant. It was initially marketed as a pesticide against rats and mice and is still popular for this purpose, although more potent poisons such as brodifacoum have since been developed. A few years after its introduction, warfarin was found to be effective and relatively safe for preventing thrombosis and embolism (abnormal formation and migration of blood clots) in many disorders. It was approved for use as a medication in the early 1950s and has remained popular ever since; warfarin is the most widely prescribed anticoagulant drug in North America.
Despite its effectiveness, treatment with warfarin has several shortcomings. Many commonly used medications interact with warfarin, as do some foods, and its activity has to be monitored by frequent blood testing for the international normalized ratio (INR) to ensure an adequate yet safe dose is taken.
Warfarin is a synthetic derivative of dicoumarol, a 4-hydroxycoumarin-derived mycotoxin anticoagulant found in spoiled clover-based animal feeds. Dicoumarol, in turn, is derived from coumarin, a chemical found naturally in many plants (not to be confused with Coumadin, a brand name for warfarin). Coumarin itself has no effect on clotting, or upon the action of warfarin. Warfarin and related 4-hydroxycoumarin-containing molecules decrease blood coagulation by inhibiting vitamin K epoxide reductase, an enzyme that recycles oxidized 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 name warfarin stems from its discovery at the University of Wisconsin, incorporating the acronym for the organization which funded the key research (WARF, for Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation) and the ending -arin, indicating its link with coumarin.
Warfarin is prescribed to people with an increased tendency for thrombosis or as secondary prophylaxis (prevention of further episodes) in those individuals that have already formed a blood clot (thrombus). Warfarin treatment can help prevent formation of future blood clots and help reduce the risk of embolism (migration of a thrombus to a spot where it blocks blood supply to a vital organ).
The type of anticoagulation (clot formation inhibition) for which warfarin is best suited, is that in areas of slowly-running blood, such as in veins and the pooled blood behind artificial and natural valves, and pooled in disfunctional cardiac artria. Thus, common clinical indications for warfarin use are atrial fibrillation, the presence of artificial heart valves, deep venous thrombosis, and pulmonary embolism (where the embolized clots first form in veins). Warfarin is also used in antiphospholipid syndrome. It has been used occasionally after heart attacks (myocardial infarction), but is far less effective at preventing new thromboses in coronary arteries. Prevention of clotting in arteries is usually undertaken with antiplatelet drugs, which act by a different mechanism from warfarin (which normally has no effect on platelet function).
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.
PregnancyFurther information: Anticoagulation in pregnancy
Warfarin is contraindicated in pregnancy, as it passes through the placental barrier and may cause bleeding in the fetus; warfarin use during pregnancy is commonly associated with spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, neonatal death, and preterm birth. Coumarins (such as warfarin) are also teratogens, that is, they cause birth defects; the incidence of birth defects in infants exposed to warfarin in utero appears to be around 5%, although higher figures (up to 30%) have been reported in some studies. Depending on when exposure occurs during pregnancy, two distinct combinations of congenital abnormalities can arise.
When warfarin (or another coumarin derivative) is given during the first trimester—particularly between the sixth and ninth weeks of pregnancy—a constellation of birth defects known variously as fetal warfarin syndrome (FWS), warfarin embryopathy, or coumarin embryopathy can occur. FWS is characterized mainly by skeletal abnormalities, which include nasal hypoplasia, a depressed or narrowed nasal bridge, scoliosis, and calcifications in the vertebral column, femur, and heel bone which show a peculiar stippled appearance on X-rays. Limb abnormalities, such as brachydactyly (unusually short fingers and toes) or underdeveloped extremities, can also occur. Common non-skeletal features of FWS include low birth weight and developmental disabilities.
Warfarin administration in the second and third trimesters is much less commonly associated with birth defects, and when they do occur, are considerably different from fetal warfarin syndrome. The most common congenital abnormalities associated with warfarin use in late pregnancy are central nervous system disorders, including spasticity and seizures, and eye defects. Because of such later pregnancy birth defects, anticoagulation with warfarin poses a problem in pregnant women requiring warfarin for vital indications, such as stroke prevention in those with artificial heart valves. Usually, warfarin is avoided in the first trimester, and a low molecular weight heparin such as enoxaparin is substituted. With heparin, risk of maternal hemorrhage and other complications is still increased, but heparins do not cross the placental barrier and therefore do not cause birth defects. Various solutions exist for the time around delivery.