Purpose of review: To discuss the clinical effects and the immunologic consequences of transient B-cell depletion using the anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody rituximab in systemic lupus erythematosus.
Recent findings: A total of 100 rituximab-treated patients with severe disease, refractory to major immunosuppressive treatment, have been reported so far. Within a median follow-up period of 12 months rituximab was well tolerated, which is compatible with the experience accumulated from its use in more than 500 000 lymphoma patients. About 80% of patients achieved marked and rapid reductions in global disease activity. Because of the clinical heterogeneity, dosing differences, and concomitant treatments, including cyclophosphamide in 35% of patients, a proper evaluation of the clinical efficacy or rituximab is difficult. Variable degrees of clinical benefit have been reported for all clinical systemic lupus erythematosus manifestations, including active proliferative nephritis. Whereas 4-weekly infusions of 375 mg/m of rituximab result in complete B-cell depletion lasting most often from 3 to 8 months, a prolonged depletion does not always correlate with a more favorable clinical response. Total immunoglobulin levels and protective antibodies are preserved, but anti-dsDNA antibody titers decrease, often independently of the clinical response.
Summary: The findings reviewed point to a growing optimism for targeting B cells in the treatment of systemic lupus erythematosus; therefore double-blind studies comparing rituximab with existing immunosuppressive therapies are needed. Moreover, careful assessments of the effects of transient B-cell depletion on distinct autoimmune pathogenetic processes will enable optimization of therapeutic single or combined therapeutic schemes.