Objectives To evaluate the efficacy and safety of two different targeted approaches—abatacept or tocilizumab—after rituximab therapy in rheumatoid arthritis, and to explain observed difference in efficacy using blood and synovial studies of interleukin 6 (IL-6) and B cells in patients receiving rituximab therapy.
Methods Consecutive series of patients who had discontinued rituximab therapy owing to inefficacy or toxicity were treated with abatacept (n=16) or tocilizumab (n=35). Clinical response and reasons for discontinuation were evaluated. Serial blood and synovial samples were obtained from a group of 57 and 25 rituximab-treated patients, respectively, and were analysed for B cells and IL-6 using flow cytometry, immunohistochemistry and quantitative real-time PCR.
Results In the abatacept group, mean (SEM) Disease Activity Score in 28 joints calculated using the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (DAS28-ESR) reduced from 5.69 (0.42) at baseline to 4.94 (0.44) at 6 months (p=0.12). In the tocilizumab group: mean (SEM) DAS28- ESR reduced from 5.75 (0.21) at baseline to 3.28 (0.26) at 6 months (p<0.001). This was paralleled by a significant swollen joint count reduction in the tocilizumab (5.47 (0.70) to 2.70 (0.61), p=0.033), but not abatacept (6.23 (1.3) to 4.15 (1.2), p=0.26), group. In the synovium, despite complete depletion of B cells in 19/22 patients, IL-6 mRNA expression was not significantly reduced after rituximab. Blood B cell numbers remained low 12 months after rituximab. Serum IL-6 was raised at baseline and significantly higher in rituximab clinical non-responders (p=0.035) than responders. A significant reduction in serum IL-6 was seen in rituximab clinical responders (p=0.005) but not in non-responders (p=0.237).
Conclusion In patients with rheumatoid arthritis for whom rituximab therapy failed despite adequate B cell depletion, IL-6-directed therapy might be a more logical and effective treatment choice than T cell costimulation blockade. Further controlled studies investigating other possible mechanisms are needed to validate these initial findings.