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Abstract

Objective

Safer and more effective therapies are needed for the treatment of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). B lymphocytes have been shown to play fundamental pathogenic roles in SLE, and therefore, elimination of B cells with the use of rituximab may represent a new therapy for SLE.

Methods

A phase I/II dose-escalation trial of rituximab added to ongoing therapy in SLE was conducted. Rituximab was administered as a single infusion of 100 mg/m2 (low dose), a single infusion of 375 mg/m2 (intermediate dose), or as 4 infusions (1 week apart) of 375 mg/m2 (high dose). CD19+ lymphocytes were measured to determine the effectiveness of B cell depletion. The Systemic Lupus Activity Measure (SLAM) score was used as the primary outcome for clinical efficacy.

Results

Rituximab was well tolerated in this patient population, with most experiencing no significant adverse effects. Only 3 serious adverse events, which were thought to be unrelated to rituximab administration, were noted. A majority of patients (11 of 17) had profound B cell depletion (to <5 CD19+ B cells/μl). In these patients, the SLAM score was significantly improved at 2 and 3 months compared with baseline (P = 0.0016 and P = 0.0022, respectively, by paired t-test). This improvement persisted for 12 months, despite the absence of a significant change in anti–double-stranded DNA antibody and complement levels. Six patients developed human antichimeric antibodies (HACAs) at a level ≥100 ng/ml. These HACA titers were associated with African American ancestry, higher baseline SLAM scores, reduced B cell depletion, and lower levels of rituximab at 2 months after initial infusion.

Conclusion

Rituximab therapy appears to be safe for the treatment of SLE and holds significant therapeutic promise, at least for the majority of patients experiencing profound B cell depletion. Based on these results, controlled trials of rituximab appear to be warranted.