Objective: To assess the safety and efficacy of intensive immunosuppression followed by T cell-depleted autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (ASCT) for induction of disease remission in children with refractory progressive juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA).
Methods: Twenty-two patients with progressive refractory JIA were followed up over a median period of 80 months after pretreatment with intensive immunosuppression followed by ASCT in a multicenter, prospective, phase II clinical trial. Hematopoietic stem cells were harvested from the patients' bone marrow, depleted of T cells, and kept frozen until used for ASCT. Pretreatment of patients consisted of a combination of antithymocyte globulin, cyclophosphamide, and low-dose total body irradiation. Patients were followed up for ASCT-related complications, recovery of hematologic and immune system parameters, and disease outcomes.
Results: Reconstitution of hematologic values to normal range was rapid. Recovery of immune system parameters, especially normalization of CD4+, CD45RA+ naive T cells, was delayed, occurring at >/=6 months after ASCT. The prolonged period of immune deficiency resulted in a large number of viral infections and may have contributed to the development of macrophage activation syndrome (MAS), leading to death, in 2 patients. After ASCT, 8 of the 20 evaluable patients reached complete clinical remission of their JIA, 7 were partial responders, and 5 experienced a relapse of their disease (occurring 7 years after ASCT in 1 patient). Later during followup, 2 of the patients whose disease relapsed died from infections that developed after restarting immunosuppressive medication.
Conclusion: Intensive immunosuppression followed by ASCT resulted in sustained complete remission or marked improvement in 15 of 22 patients with progressive refractory JIA. The procedure, however, is associated with significant morbidity and risk of mortality due to prolonged and severe depression of T cell immunity. After fatal complications due to MAS were observed in some patients, the protocol was amended in 1999, to ensure less profound depletion of T cells, better control of systemic disease before transplantation, antiviral prophylaxis after transplantation, and slow tapering of corticosteroids. Following these protocol modifications, no additional ASCT-related deaths were observed among the 11 patients who received the modified treatment.