Purpose: Thalidomide is effective for the treatment of severe cutaneous lupus. Our aim was to study the safety and efficacy of different doses of thalidomide in this condition.
Methods: We studied patients with severe cutaneous lupus that was unresponsive to antimalarials, prednisolone, methotrexate, azathioprine, and cyclosporin A. Starting doses of 100 mg daily (n = 16 patients), 50 mg daily (n = 17), or 50 mg on alternate days (n = 15) were compared. The response to thalidomide was categorized as complete remission, partial remission, or no visible improvement. All patients received a baseline electromyogram (EMG) followed by repeat EMG every 3 to 6 months, or sooner if neuropathic symptoms developed.
Results: Forty-eight patients (46 female; mean [+/- SD] age, 44 +/- 12 years; range, 22 to 71 years) with discoid lupus (n = 18), subacute cutaneous lupus (n = 6), or systemic lupus erythematosus with skin involvement (n = 24) were included. The response rate was 81%, including 29 patients (60%) in complete remission and 10 (21%) in partial remission. Nine patients (19%) failed to respond. Thirteen patients (27%) developed peripheral neuropathy, which was EMG-proven in 11, including 4 patients in the 50-mg alternate-day group. Other side effects included drowsiness, constipation or abdominal pain, and amenorrhea. The relapse rate after stopping thalidomide was 67% (26/39). There was no association between a positive response to the drug and either starting doses or cumulative dose. Similarly, no association was found between peripheral neuropathy and the starting or cumulative dose.
Conclusion: Thalidomide is effective for the treatment of severe cutaneous lupus. There were no clear dose-dependent effects. However, the high incidence of neurotoxicity, even at low doses, suggests that it may be most useful as a remission-inducing drug.