Objective: Rituximab is a monoclonal antibody directed against the CD20 marker of B cells. Because of its ability to deplete B lymphocytes, it has been suggested that the drug could be of benefit in B cell-dependent diseases, including systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The purpose of this study was to investigate the histopathologic and clinical effects of combination treatment with rituximab and cyclophosphamide (CYC) in patients with CYC-resistant proliferative lupus nephritis.
Methods: Seven female patients with proliferative lupus nephritis were treated with rituximab in combination with CYC. Renal biopsies were performed before treatment and during followup. SLE activity was evaluated by the Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Disease Activity Index (SLEDAI) and the British Isles Lupus Assessment Group index. In 6 of the 7 patients, immunostaining of lymphocyte subpopulations in the renal tissue was performed before treatment and during followup.
Results: At 6 months of followup, significant clinical improvement was noted, with a reduction in SLEDAI scores (from a mean of 15 to 3), anti-double-stranded DNA antibody levels (from a mean of 174 IU/ml to 56 IU/ml), and anti-C1q antibody levels (from a mean of 35 units/ml to 22 units/ml). On repeat renal biopsy, improvement in the histopathologic class of nephritis occurred in a majority of patients, and a decrease in the renal activity index was noted (from 6 to 3). A reduction in the number of CD3, CD4, and CD20 cells in the renal interstitium was noted in 50% of the patients on repeat biopsy.
Conclusion: At 6 months of followup, all patients had responded both clinically and histopathologically to combination therapy. For patients with proliferative lupus nephritis who fail to respond to conventional immunosuppressive therapy including CYC, combined treatment with rituximab and CYC may constitute a new treatment option.