Objectives: To assess the clinical and basic serological consequences of B-cell depletion with rituximab in the treatment of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) who have failed conventional immunosuppression.
Methods: An open study of 24 patients with severe SLE followed for a minimum of 3 months is reported. In the majority of patients (19 out of 24), 6 months follow-up data are described. Disease activity in these patients was assessed every 1-2 months using the British Isles Lupus Assessment Group (BILAG) system and estimates of anti-double-stranded DNA antibodies and serum C3 levels. During the follow-up period, significant side-effects were sought and the reduction in oral prednisolone was recorded. It was our general practice to stop concomitant immunosuppression (e.g. azathioprine, mycophenolate) when B-cell depletion was given (in most cases in the form of two 1 g intravenous infusions of rituximab 2 weeks apart accompanied by two 750 mg intravenous cyclophosphamide infusions and two methylprednisolone infusions of 250 mg each).
Results: Twenty-two patients were female and two male. At the time of B-cell depletion, the mean age was 28.9 yr (range 17-49) and the mean disease duration was 7.9 yr (range 1-18). The global BILAG score (P < 0.00001), serum C3 (P < 0.0005) and double-stranded DNA binding (P < 0.002) all improved from the time of B-cell depletion to 6 months after this treatment. Only one patient failed to achieve B-lymphocyte depletion in the peripheral blood. The period of B-lymphocyte depletion ranged from 3 to 8 months except for one patient who remains depleted at more than 4 yr. Analysis of the regular BILAG assessments showed that improvements occurred in each of the eight organs or systems. The mean daily prednisolone dose fell from 13.8 mg (s.d. 11.3) to 10 mg (s.d. 3.1).
Conclusion: In this open study of patients who had failed conventional immunosuppressive therapy, considerable utility in the use of B-cell depletion has been demonstrated. Our data provide strong support for the performance of a full double-blind control trial.