Venous leg ulcers (VLUs) are a common type of complex wound that have a negative impact on people's lives and incur high costs for health services and society. It has been suggested that prolonged high levels of protease activity in the later stages of the healing of chronic wounds may be associated with delayed healing. Protease modulating treatments have been developed which seek to modulate protease activity and thereby promote healing in chronic wounds.
To determine whether protease activity is an independent prognostic factor for the healing of venous leg ulcers.
In February 2018, we searched the following databases: Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), Ovid MEDLINE, Ovid Embase and CINAHL.
We included prospective and retrospective longitudinal studies with any follow-up period that recruited people with VLUs and investigated whether protease activity in wound fluid was associated with future healing of VLUs. We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) analysed as cohort studies, provided interventions were taken into account in the analysis, and case-control studies if there were no available cohort studies. We also included prediction model studies provided they reported separately associations of individual prognostic factors (protease activity) with healing. Studies of any type of protease or combination of proteases were eligible, including proteases from bacteria, and the prognostic factor could be examined as a continuous or categorical variable; any cut-off point was permitted. The primary outcomes were time to healing (survival analysis) and the proportion of people with ulcers completely healed; the secondary outcome was change in ulcer size/rate of wound closure. We extracted unadjusted (simple) and adjusted (multivariable) associations between the prognostic factor and healing.
Two review authors independently assessed studies for inclusion at each stage, and undertook data extraction, assessment of risk of bias and GRADE assessment. We collected association statistics where available. No study reported adjusted analyses: instead we collected unadjusted results or calculated association measures from raw data. We calculated risk ratios when both outcome and prognostic factor were dichotomous variables. When the prognostic factor was reported as continuous data and healing outcomes were dichotomous, we either performed regression analysis or analysed the impact of healing on protease levels, analysing as the standardised mean difference. When both prognostic factor and outcome were continuous data, we reported correlation coefficients or calculated them from individual participant data.We displayed all results on forest plots to give an overall visual representation. We planned to conduct meta-analyses where this was appropriate, otherwise we summarised narratively.
We included 19 studies comprising 21 cohorts involving 646 participants. Only 11 studies (13 cohorts, 522 participants) had data available for analysis. Of these, five were prospective cohort studies, four were RCTs and two had a type of case-control design. Follow-up time ranged from four to 36 weeks. Studies covered 10 different matrix metalloproteases (MMPs) and two serine proteases (human neutrophil elastase and urokinase-type plasminogen activators). Two studies recorded complete healing as an outcome; other studies recorded partial healing measures. There was clinical and methodological heterogeneity across studies; for example, in the definition of healing, the type of protease and its measurement, the distribution of active and bound protease species, the types of treatment and the reporting of results. Therefore, meta-analysis was not performed. No study had conducted multivariable analyses and all included evidence was of very low certainty because of the lack of adjustment for confounders, the high risk of bias for all studies except one, imprecision around the measures of association and inconsistency in the direction of association. Collectively the research indicated complete uncertainty as to the association between protease activity and VLU healing.
This review identified very low validity evidence regarding any association between protease activity and VLU healing and there is complete uncertainty regarding the relationship. The review offers information for both future research and systematic review methodology.