Objective: Rituximab, a chimeric anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody, has been shown to be quite effective in the treatment of immune disorders resulting from autoantibodies. We prospectively studied the long-term effects of rituximab in 10 patients with anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic antibody (ANCA)-positive vasculitis refractory to conventional therapy (n=3) or in second or subsequent relapse (n=7).
Methods: The median age of patients was 53 yrs (range 38-70 yrs). Eight were classified as Wegener's granulomatosis, and two as microscopic polyangiitis. Clinical activity was assessed using the Birmingham Vasculitis Activity Score modification for Wegener's granulomatosis. Treatment consisted of intravenous infusions of rituximab given at the dose of 375 mg/m2 weekly for four consecutive weeks.
Results: All patients experienced a rapid clinical improvement following the administration of rituximab, with nine complete responses and one partial response at 6 months. With a median follow-up of 33.5 months (range 26-45 months), three patients have thus far relapsed. Retreatment with the monoclonal antibody at the same dose and schedule resulted in a new sustained response in all these patients. Rituximab therapy resulted in prolonged B-cell depletion. The ANCA titres decreased significantly in all patients, with eight out of 10 becoming ANCA-negative and three remaining ANCA-negative even after B-cell recovery. Infusion-related side effects were observed in one patient, but were of mild intensity and did not require discontinuation of treatment.
Conclusions: Rituximab is an effective and well-tolerated treatment for patients with ANCA-associated vasculitis and should be strongly considered in severely affected patients who do not respond to standard therapy or in those in whom cytotoxic therapy bears a high risk of morbidity.