SAN FRANCISCO – Long-term maintenance therapy with hydroxychloroquine initiated after patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) have discontinued immunosuppressant medication during remission greatly reduces their likelihood of disease flare, Margherita Zen, MD, reported at an international congress on systemic lupus erythematosus.
Dr. Zen, a rheumatologist at the University of Padova in Padua, Italy, presented a retrospective study of 319 SLE patients actively followed in the Padova Lupus Cohort. All of them were treated at some point with one or more immunosuppressants, most commonly mycophenolate, azathioprine, or methotrexate. Fifty-six percent of them never discontinued immunosuppressant therapy during long-term follow-up. Of the 139 patients who did, three-quarters of them were in remission at the time of discontinuation, while the remainder discontinued immunosuppressant medication because of intolerance or poor adherence.
The research question of greatest interest to Dr. Zen and her coinvestigators was whether withdrawal of immunosuppressant medication in lupus patients who have responded well and are in remission is a sound strategy or one fraught with an unacceptably high risk of flare.
“The benefits of drug tapering and discontinuation have been proven for glucocorticoids, but there is not enough evidence available for discontinuation of immunosuppressants,” she said.
The good news: 75% of patients who discontinued immunosuppressant therapy while in remission never experienced a flare during a mean 7.6 years of follow-up after discontinuation. And the median time to flare in those who did was 4.75 years. In contrast, more than two-thirds of patients who discontinued immunosuppressants while not in remission experienced an SLE flare, and the mean time to this event was a mere 8 months. In a Cox regression analysis, patients who discontinued their immunosuppressant medication because of intolerance or poor adherence were 6.9-fold more likely to flare during follow-up than were those who quit immunosuppressants while in remission.
Patients who’d been on methotrexate were significantly more likely to flare after discontinuing the drug than were those who’d been on other immunosuppressant medications. However, flare risk post immunosuppressants was unaffected by whether the medication was given for treatment of lupus nephritis, arthritis, neuropsychiatric involvement, vasculitis, hematologic manifestations of the disease, or skin involvement.
In a multivariate logistic regression analysis, by far the strongest independent protective factor against the occurrence of flare after immunosuppressant discontinuation was maintenance therapy with hydroxychloroquine; it was associated with a 76% reduction in flare risk. Put another way, patients not on maintenance antimalarial therapy after immunosuppressant discontinuation were at an adjusted 5.3-fold increased risk of flare. Combining hydroxychloroquine with low-dose prednisone didn’t provide any added benefit beyond the antimalarial alone in terms of protection against flares.
The other protective factor was duration of remission at the time of immunosuppressant discontinuation: the longer, the better. Patients who experienced a lupus flare had been in remission for an average of 28 months when they stopped taking their immunosuppressant medication. Those who remained flare free throughout follow-up had been in remission for an average of 46 months at discontinuation.
Reassuringly, median damage accrual as assessed by thewas similar in patients regardless of whether or not they discontinued immunosuppressant therapy.
Dr. Zen reported having no financial conflicts regarding this study, conducted free of commercial support.