Introduction: Interferon-beta-1a (Rebif) is an established treatment for relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) and haematological changes are commonly reported in clinical trials of this agent. The combined clinical trial and postmarketing safety database for subcutaneous interferon-beta-1a (Rebif) allows a comprehensive, retrospective assessment of both common and infrequent haematological effects associated with interferon-beta therapy.
Methods: Haematological laboratory abnormalities were analysed from six randomised, controlled clinical trials of subcutaneous interferon-beta-1a in MS, five of which were placebo-controlled. Treatment data were collected from 2482 patients for up to 6 months, 1178 patients for up to 2 years and 786 patients for up to 6 years. Total interferon-beta-1a doses ranged from 22 microg once weekly to 44 microg three times weekly. Postmarketing surveillance data were also analysed.
Results: Treatment with interferon-beta-1a led to asymptomatic dose-related reductions in all cell lineages under investigation, predominantly white blood cells. The greatest differences between interferon-beta-1a therapy and placebo were seen for total leucocyte and neutrophil counts. At least two-thirds of patients affected by cytopenia experienced the onset of cytopenia within the first 6 months of therapy. The majority of events were mild and generally resolved within 3--4 months, while continuing therapy. Dose reductions were uncommon and only a small proportion (6 of 727; 0.8%) of patients stopped treatment over 2 years because of haematological abnormalities when receiving the highest dose of interferon-beta-1a, 44 microg three times weekly. Postmarketing safety reports were similarly related to asymptomatic cytopenias, although one case of potentially related autoimmune haemolytic anaemia was reported.
Conclusion: Although haematological abnormalities are common and dose-related in patients with MS receiving interferon-beta-1a, the events are mainly mild and transient, with little impact on adherence to therapy. Haematological events are rarely of clinical significance and do not adversely affect the benefit-to-risk ratio that favours high-dose interferon-beta-1a therapy.