Objectives: To correlate the kinetics of B-cell repopulation with relapse after B-cell depletion therapy in SLE patients and address whether variation in relapse rate, B-cell numbers and phenotype are related to anti-dsDNA antibody levels.
Methods: Sixty-one patients with refractory SLE were treated with a standard rituximab regimen. Clinical and serological measures of disease activity and B-cell numbers were assessed. B-cell phenotype was examined in a subgroup of patients by flow cytometry.
Results: Disease relapse was substantially delayed beyond B-cell repopulation, and early relapse was associated with a faster rate of repopulation. At relapse, B-cell numbers were significantly lower than at baseline in patients with high anti-dsDNA antibody levels (> 100 IU/ml) but not in patients with low anti-dsDNA antibody levels. Of the patients with high anti-dsDNA antibodies at baseline, levels fell significantly only in those patients who remained in remission after repopulation. Relapse with high anti-dsDNA antibody levels was associated with an increased percentage of IgD(-)CD27(hi) plasmablasts, whereas relapse with low anti-dsDNA antibody levels was accompanied by an increased percentage of IgD(-)CD27(-) B cells.
Conclusion: Anti-dsDNA antibody levels distinguished two patient groups, which differ in their B-cell number and phenotype at relapse following rituximab, and suggest that different B-cell pathologies exist in SLE. The data imply that B-cell numbers should be kept very low for a sustained period in patients with high dsDNA binding, therefore justifying a more aggressive regimen.