Objectives To examine how rituximab may result in the inhibition of joint destruction in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients.
Methods Twenty-eight patients with active RA were treated with rituximab. Radiographs of hands and feet before and 1 year after therapy were assessed using the Sharp–van der Heijde score (SHS). Expression of bone destruction markers was evaluated by immunohistochemistry and immunofluorescence of synovial biopsies obtained before and 16 weeks after the initiation of treatment. Serum levels of osteoprotegerin, receptor activator of nuclear factor κB ligand (RANKL), osteocalcin and cross-linked N-telopeptides of type I collagen (NTx) were measured by ELISA before and 16 weeks post-treatment.
Results After 1 year, the mean (SD) change in total SHS was 1.4 (10.0). Sixteen weeks after treatment there was a decrease of 99% in receptor activator of nuclear factor κB-positive osteoclast precursors (p=0.02) and a decrease of 37% (p=0.016) in RANKL expression in the synovium and a trend towards reduced synovial osteoprotegerin expression (25%, p=0.07). In serum, both osteoprotegerin (20%, p=0.001) and RANKL (40%, p<0.0001) levels were significantly reduced 16 weeks after treatment, but the osteoprotegerin/RANKL ratio increased (157%, p=0.006). A trend was found towards an increase of osteocalcin levels (p=0.053), while NTx concentrations did not change.
Conclusions Rituximab treatment is associated with a decrease in synovial osteoclast precursors and RANKL expression and an increase in the osteoprotegerin/RANKL ratio in serum. These observations may partly explain the protective effect of rituximab on the progression of joint destruction in RA.
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Funding This research was funded by the Dutch Arthritis Association.
Competing interests PPT has served as a consultant to Genentech and Roche.
Patient consent Obtained.
Ethics approval The study was performed according to the Declaration of Helsinki and approved by the Medical Ethics Committee of the Academic Medical Center/University of Amsterdam.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.