Conference Coverage

Oral difelikefalin quells severe chronic kidney disease–associated itch



Oral difelikefalin significantly reduced the intense itching associated with stage 3-5 chronic kidney disease, with or without hemodialysis, in a first-of-its-kind randomized clinical trial, Gil Yosipovitch, MD, said at the virtual annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Dr. Gil Yosipovitch of the University of Miami, dermatologist

Dr. Gil Yosipovitch

“Difelikefalin at 1.0 mg was associated with clinically meaningful improvements in pruritus. The improvement in itch was significant by week 2. And nearly 40% of patients achieved a complete response, which was more than two-and-one-half times more than with placebo,” noted Dr. Yosipovitch, professor of dermatology and director of the Miami Itch Center at the University of Miami.

Pruritus associated with chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a common, underrecognized, and distressing condition that causes markedly impaired quality of life. It occurs in patients across all stages of CKD, not just in those on hemodialysis, as is widely but mistakenly believed. And at present there is no approved drug in any country for treatment of CKD-associated itch.

Difelikefalin, a novel selective agonist of peripheral kappa opioid receptors, is designed to have very limited CNS penetration. The drug, which is renally excreted, doesn’t bind to mu or delta opioid receptors. Its antipruritic effect arises from activation of kappa opioid receptors on peripheral sensory neurons and immune cells, the dermatologist explained.

Dr. Yosipovitch presented the results of a phase 2, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, 12-week trial in which 240 patients with severe chronic pruritus and stage 3-5 CKD were assigned to once-daily oral difelikefalin at 0.25 mg, 0.5 mg, or 1.0 mg, or placebo. More than 80% of participants were not on dialysis. Indeed, this was the first-ever clinical trial targeting itch in patients across such a broad spectrum of CKD stages.

The primary study endpoint was change from baseline to week 12 in the weekly mean score on the 24-hour Worst Itching Intensity Numerical Rating Scale. The average baseline score was 7, considered severe pruritus on the 0-10 scale. Patients randomized to difelikefalin at 1.0 mg/day had a mean 4.4-point decrease, a significantly greater improvement than the 3.3-point reduction in placebo-treated controls.

“More than a 4-point decrease is considered a very meaningful itch reduction,” Dr. Yosipovitch noted.

The mean reductions in itch score in patients on 0.25 mg and 0.5 mg/day of difelikefalin were 4.0 and 3.8 points, respectively, which fell short of statistical significance versus placebo.

A key prespecified secondary endpoint was the proportion of subjects with at least a 3-point improvement in itch score over 12 weeks. This was achieved in 72% of patients on the top dose of difelikefalin, compared with 58% of controls, a significant difference. A 4-point or larger decrease in itch score occurred in 65% of patients on 1.0 mg/day of the kappa opioid recent agonist, versus 50% of controls, also a significant difference.

A complete response, defined as an itch score of 0 or 1 at least 80% of the time, was significantly more common in all three active treatment groups than in controls, with rates of 33%, 31.6%, and 38.6% at difelikefalin 0.25, 0.5, and 1.0 mg, compared with 4.4% among those on placebo.

Falls occurred in 1.5% of patients on difelikefalin. “The therapy does seem to increase the risk of dizziness, falls, fatigue, and GI complaints,” according to the investigator.

Still, most of these adverse events were mild or moderate in severity. Only about 1% of participants discontinued treatment for such reasons.

Earlier this year, a positive phase 3 trial of an intravenous formulation of difelikefalin for pruritus was reported in CKD patients on hemodialysis (N Engl J Med. 2020 Jan 16;382[3]:222-32).

In an interview, Dr. Yosipovitch said that this new phase 2 oral dose-finding study wasn’t powered to detect differences in treatment efficacy between the dialysis and nondialysis groups. However, the proportion of patients with at least a 3-point improvement in itch at week 12 was similar in the two groups.

“The oral formulation would of course be more convenient and would be preferred for patients not undergoing hemodialysis,” he said. “I would expect that the IV formulation would be the preferred route of administration for a patient undergoing hemodialysis. An IV formulation would be very convenient for such patients because it’s administered at the dialysis clinic at the end of the hemodialysis session.”

The oral difelikefalin phase 3 program is scheduled to start later in 2020.

CKD-associated itch poses a therapeutic challenge because it has so many contributory factors. These include CKD-induced peripheral neuropathy, functional and structural neuropathic changes in the brain, cutaneous mast cell activation, an imbalance between mu opioid receptor overexpression and kappa opioid receptor downregulation, secondary parathyroidism, and systemic accumulation of aluminum, beta 2 microglobulin, and other dialysis-related substances, the dermatologist observed.

Dr. Yosipovitch reported receiving research grants from a half-dozen pharmaceutical companies. He also serves as a consultant to numerous companies, including Cara Therapeutics, which sponsored the phase 2 trial.

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