Objective: Autoreactive B cells play a key role in tissue injury in systemic autoimmune disease, and therefore a treatment resulting in B cell depletion could have benefit. This open-label study was undertaken to evaluate the efficacy of the anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody rituximab in the treatment of lupus nephritis.
Methods: Lupus patients with active proliferative nephritis (4 with focal disease and 6 with diffuse disease) received rituximab (4 weekly infusions of 375 mg/m(2)) combined with oral prednisolone. Clinical, laboratory, and immunologic responses, including peripheral lymphocyte subsets measured by flow cytometry, were prospectively assessed at monthly intervals for 12 months. Complete remission of nephritis was defined as normal serum creatinine and albumin levels, inactive urine sediment, and 24-hour urinary protein <500 mg. Partial remission was defined as >50% improvement in all renal parameters that were abnormal at baseline.
Results: B cell depletion lasted from 1 month to 7 months and was well tolerated. Partial remission was achieved in 8 of 10 patients within a median of 2 months (range 1-4 months); in 5 of them, complete remission was subsequently established (at a median of 3 months from baseline), and it was sustained at 12 months in 4. As early as 1 month from baseline, the expression of the costimulatory molecule CD40 ligand on CD4+ T cells was decreased by 4-fold, and it was almost blocked when partial remission was clinically evident. The expression of T cell activation markers CD69 and HLA-DR was significantly decreased at time points when partial remission was observed, and was further decreased during complete remission. In contrast, in patients who did not exhibit a response or when relapse was detected in patients in whom an initial remission had been achieved, such decreases were not prominent. Serum concentrations of double-stranded DNA autoantibodies were decreased in all patients, regardless of clinical outcome.
Conclusion: Following B cell depletion, clinical remission of lupus nephritis is associated with a decrease in T helper cell activation, suggesting an additional role for B cells, independent of autoantibody production, in promoting disease. A controlled trial to confirm these promising clinical results is warranted.