Objective: To determine the safety and efficacy of B lymphocyte depletion therapy in patients with refractory childhood-onset systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).
Methods: Seven patients (4 of whom were female), ages 7.7-16.1 years (median 14.8 years) with active SLE that was resistant to standard immunosuppressive agents were treated with B cell depletion. During a 2-week period, patients received two 750-mg/m2 intravenous infusions of rituximab, with intravenous cyclophosphamide (if they had not previously received this treatment) and high-dose oral corticosteroids.
Results: Patients were followed up for a median of 1.0 years, and no serious adverse effects were noted. In all patients, the clinical symptoms and signs for which rituximab therapy was initiated were improved. There was significant improvement in the British Isles Lupus Assessment Group global scores, from a median score of 22 (range 14-37) at baseline to a median score of 6 (range 4-11) at followup (P = 0.002). In 2 patients with severe multisystem and life-threatening disease unresponsive to standard therapy (including plasma exchange), renal replacement therapy was successfully withdrawn following B cell depletion therapy. These 2 patients have subsequently shown further significant improvement in renal function and proteinuria.
Conclusion: This open-label study demonstrates that targeted B cell depletion therapy can be a safe and efficacious addition to therapy with standard immunosuppressive agents in patients with refractory childhood SLE. The drugs used for treatment of childhood SLE need to be the most effective, least toxic agents, allowing normal growth and development.