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Keywords:

  • autoimmune disease;
  • immunosuppression;
  • lupus erythematosus;
  • lymphopenia;
  • methotrexate;
  • systemic treatment

Summary

Background  The therapy of cutaneous lupus erythematosus (CLE) is often challenging, especially in patients resistant to topical treatment and established first-line systemic drugs such as antimalarials. Systemic corticosteroids are effective, but their use is limited due to well-known side-effects, especially in long-term treatment. In recent years several other immunosuppressive agents have been successfully applied in CLE. However, there are no large studies or explicit guidelines on the use of these drugs in CLE.

Objectives  To perform a retrospective investigation of the efficacy of low-dose methotrexate (MTX) in the treatment of CLE.

Methods  One hundred and thirty-nine patients with CLE were seen at our department between 2001 and 2003, of whom 43 patients required low-dose MTX. All had histologically confirmed CLE lesions. Clinical data including disease activity, additional treatment, laboratory parameters and side-effects were recorded carefully at the time of presentation. Statistical analyses were performed by paired nonparametric Wilcoxon test and Student's t-test using SPSS 11 software.

Results  MTX led to a highly significant (P < 0·01) decline in disease activity. An improvement of the cutaneous lesions was recorded in nearly all patients treated with MTX (42 of 43; 98%). Severe side-effects necessitating discontinuation of MTX treatment were recorded in seven patients (16%), which quickly resolved when MTX was discontinued. Life-threatening complications were not observed. Intravenous application was tolerated better than oral administration. Interestingly, we observed a significant increase in circulating lymphocyte numbers in patients with lymphopenia (< 1·0 × 109 cells L−1) prior to MTX treatment.

Conclusions  Our study supports earlier findings reporting the efficacy of low-dose MTX in CLE lesions, particularly in recalcitrant clinical courses. MTX treatment appears to be safe if patients are carefully selected and monitored, with particular attention to side-effects and contraindications.