Objective: To determine the value of the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) and plasma interleukin-6 (IL-6) as biologic markers for monitoring disease activity in giant cell arteritis (GCA).
Methods: Twenty-five patients with biopsy-proven GCA were enrolled into a prospective treatment study. Therapy was initiated with prednisone, 60 mg/day, followed by a predetermined tapering schedule. Patients were monitored monthly for clinical signs of active vasculitis and laboratory parameters indicative of inflammation, including elevated ESR (>30 mm/hour) and elevated plasma IL-6 concentrations (>6.1 pg/ml).
Results: Upon initiation of corticosteroid treatment, clinical signs of GCA disappeared in all patients; however, 60% of the patients developed symptoms of recurrent disease, on 1 or more occasions, while the prednisone dosage was being reduced. These 31 disease flares diagnosed over 550 days were associated with symptoms of systemic inflammation but did not result in vascular complications. The ESR was elevated in 76% of the patients prior to initiation of treatment (median 65 mm/hour) and normalized by day 28 of therapy (median 6 mm/hour). The median ESR remained in the normal range during the followup period. Plasma IL-6 levels, which were abnormal in 92% of untreated patients (median 16 pg/ml), were partially responsive to the initial high doses of corticosteroids by day 28 (median 6 pg/ml), but levels did not completely normalize with continued therapy. Elevation of the ESR was seen during only 58% of all disease flares, but 89% of disease recurrences were associated with increased plasma IL-6 levels (P = 0.03).
Conclusion: Plasma IL-6 is more sensitive than ESR for indicating disease activity in untreated and treated GCA patients. Standard corticosteroid regimens only partially suppress vascular inflammation. Smoldering disease activity may expose GCA patients to the risk of progressive vascular disease (e.g., formation of aortic aneurysms) and chronic systemic complications such as IL-6-mediated osteopenia.