Objective: To determine if dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is beneficial in severe systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).
Methods: A double-blinded, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trial in 21 patients with severe and active SLE, manifestated primarily by nephritis, serositis or hematological abnormalities. In addition to conventional treatment with corticosteroids +/- immunosuppressives, patients received DHEA 200 mg/d vs. placebo for 6 months, followed by a 6-month open label period. The primary outcome was a prospectively defined responder analysis, based on a quantitatively specified improvement of the principal severe lupus manifestation at 6 months.
Results: Nineteen patients were available for evaluation at 6 months. Baseline imbalance between the groups was noted, with the DHEA group having greater disease activity at baseline (P<0.05 by physician's global assessment). Eleven patients were responders: 7/9 patients on DHEA vs. 4/10 patients on placebo (P<0.10). Of the secondary outcomes, mean improvement in SLE disease activity index (SLE-DAI) score was greater in the DHEA group (-10.3+/-3.1 vs. -3.9+/-1.4. P<0.07). Bone mineral density at the lumbo-sacral spine showed significant reduction in the placebo group, but was maintained in the DHEA group.
Conclusion: DHEA therapy, when added to conventional treatment for severe SLE, may at most have a small added benefit with respect to lupus outcomes, but baseline imbalances in the study population limit the generalizability of the results. DHEA appears to have a protective effect with respect to corticosteroid-induced osteopenia in such patients.