Identifying and treating refractory ITP: difficulty in diagnosis and role of combination treatment

Blood. 2020 Feb 13;135(7):472-490. doi: 10.1182/blood.2019003599.


Immune thrombocytopenia (ITP) is the most common acquired thrombocytopenia after chemotherapy-induced thrombocytopenia. Existing guidelines describe the management and treatment of most patients who, overall, do well, even if they present with chronic disease, and they are usually not at a high risk for bleeding; however, a small percentage of patients is refractory and difficult to manage. Patients classified as refractory have a diagnosis that is not really ITP or have disease that is difficult to manage. ITP is a diagnosis of exclusion; no specific tests exist to confirm the diagnosis. Response to treatment is the only affirmative confirmation of diagnosis. However, refractory patients do not respond to front-line or other treatments; thus, no confirmation of diagnosis exists. The first section of this review carefully evaluates the diagnostic considerations in patients with refractory ITP. The second section describes combination treatment for refractory cases of ITP. The reported combinations are divided into the era before thrombopoietin (TPO) and rituximab and the current era. Current therapy appears to have increased effectiveness. However, the definition of refractory, if it includes insufficient response to TPO agents, describes a group with more severe and difficult-to-treat disease. The biology of refractory ITP is largely unexplored and includes oligoclonality, lymphocyte pumps, and other possibilities. Newer treatments, especially rapamycin, fostamatinib, FcRn, and BTK inhibitors, may be useful components of future therapy given their mechanisms of action; however, TPO agents, notwithstanding failure as monotherapy, appear to be critical components. In summary, refractory ITP is a complicated entity in which a precise specific diagnosis is as important as the development of effective combination treatments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Humans
  • Purpura, Thrombocytopenic, Idiopathic / diagnosis*
  • Purpura, Thrombocytopenic, Idiopathic / drug therapy*
  • Thrombocytopenia / complications