Conference Coverage

No infection increase seen with biologics in older psoriasis patients



– Psoriasis patients aged 65 years and older are at more than twice the risk of serious bacterial and opportunistic infections, compared with younger patients, but that risk is not further elevated by being on biologic agents, Joseph F. Merola, MD, reported at the annual congress of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology.

Dr. Joseph F. Merola, a dermatologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston

Dr. Joseph F. Merola

He presented a large, propensity score–matched comparative safety study, which demonstrated that the infection risk of older psoriasis patients on biologics was not significantly different from that of similar patients on nonbiologic systemic medications or phototherapy. The study implications, he said, are clear: When moderate to severe psoriasis warrants consideration of highly effective biologic therapies, that therapeutic option shouldn’t be taken off the table on the basis of a mistaken belief that biologics pose a greater infection risk just because the affected patient is over age 65 years.

“We really think that older patients should be offered treatments at the same level of disease control as all the rest of our psoriasis patients, in the context of shared decision making,” said Dr. Merola, a dermatologist and rheumatologist who is the director of the Center for Skin and Related Musculoskeletal Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston.

The study utilized longitudinal claims data from a very large U.S. database covering the years 2003-2017. Among the 185 million covered lives were 1.1 million individuals with psoriasis, including 150,000 aged 65 years or older. After excluding older psoriasis patients with comorbid cancer or autoimmune disease, the investigators were left with 11,218 older psoriasis patients initiating systemic therapy for the first time and therefore eligible for propensity score matching using a highly accurate proprietary platform. The final study population consisted of 2,795 older psoriasis patients newly initiating biologic therapy, 2,795 others newly initiating nonbiologic systemic agents, and 2,529 seniors starting phototherapy. The matching was based upon factors including age, sex, prior infections, comorbid psoriatic arthritis, diabetes, and obesity.

The primary study endpoint was the rate of serious bacterial or opportunistic infections requiring hospitalization during the first 6 months of treatment. The bottom line: The rates were closely similar across all three groups, with the most common serious infections being pneumonia and cellulitis.

In contrast, among a population of 115,047 senior psoriasis patients who never used systemic therapy, the risk of serious infection was 12.2 events per 1,000 patients over 6 months, compared with 5.3 events in 120,174 matched controls without psoriasis. That translates to a 2.24-fold increased risk.

One audience member commented that a limitation of the study was that all biologics were lumped together. He would expect that the tumor necrosis factor inhibitors, for example, would be associated with a significantly higher serious infection risk than biologics with other targets.

Dr. Merola conceded the point, adding that the investigators are trying to reanalyze the data in a more granular way to address that shortcoming. Other study limitations included an inability to access the specific doses of systemic treatments used or to stratify patients by disease severity.

Another audience member noted that dermatologists often reassure surgeons that there’s no increased risk of infection associated with psoriasis when in fact there is increased risk in older psoriasis patients, according to these new data.

“We’re not trying to send a message to surgeons to withhold a knee transplant because of a psoriasis plaque over the knee,” Dr. Merola replied. “I think we’ve all been there; we’ve all fought that battle.” Based on the data, he said, he would advise that “our patients who need to be on systemics should remain appropriately on systemics as we see fit.”

The study was entirely funded by Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Merola reported serving as a consultant to and/or recipient of research grants from nearly two dozen pharmaceutical companies.

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