Friday 3 May 2019

Rituximab for Patients With Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: a fail

"B-cell depletion using several infusions of rituximab over 12 months was not associated with clinical improvement in patients with ME/CFS [Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome]."

That was the conclusion reached in the paper by Øystein Fluge and colleagues [1]. Their findings based on the use of rituximab, "a drug that is often used to treat inflammatory diseases (for example, rheumatoid arthritis) and lymphoma" were not entirely unexpected (see here) as a familiar theme of small scale results [2] being 'positive' but not translating into gains during more methodologically-sound study was rehashed.

The Fluge paper also has an accompanying easy-read summary of the results [3] which really aids my job. The long-and-short of it was that over 150 patients diagnosed with ME/CFS were enrolled into the study. Most had been ill with ME/CFS for several years. They were randomly assigned to receive either rituximab or saline (control) over the course of 1 year. Said timing and dosage of rituximab started with "2 infusions of rituximab, 500 mg/m2 of body surface area, 2 weeks apart, followed by 4 maintenance infusions with a fixed dose of 500 mg at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months." Participants completed various 'self-reported' questionnaires about their fatigue and functioning over a 2-year period alongside some more objective measurement of physical activity. Results were collated, and well, there was very little difference between rituximab and saline use noted when comparisons were made. What was notable in the published findings were the quite high rates of side-effects observed: "Twenty patients (26.0%) in the rituximab group and 14 (18.9%) in the placebo group had serious adverse events" and over a third of those adverse events were considered 'possibly or probably related to' rituximab use.

What's more to say? Well, the discrepancy between these latest findings and other previous results suggests a couple of potentially important processes *might* be at work. First, the placebo response seems to be quite prominent in this patient group. I say that on the basis that the calculated placebo response among those receiving saline ranged between 25-50% across the various centres that recruited participants for this study. Other commentators (see here) have similarly mentioned how the placebo response seems to be typically quite high in ME/CFS, and how that might have also been on show in other studies too (see here). This could have lots and lots of implications for various intervention trials relevant to ME/CFS. Second, one has to consider that similar to various other labels that include some significant heterogeneity 'under them', there may be responders and non-responders [4] to consider in relation to the use of something like rituximab [5]. Third, and also quite important is to mention that although negative, these results don't invalidate the idea that immune function seems to have something of an important relationship with quite a few cases of ME/CFS (see here for example).

Having said all that, it is difficult to talk about further research on rituximab with ME/CFS in mind on the basis of the Fluge negative results. Not least because, like all medicines, there is a risk-benefit balance to be struck with such a preparation and failures using gold-standard experimental methodologies cannot be easily brushed under the scientific carpet...


[1] Fluge Ø. et al. B-Lymphocyte Depletion in Patients With Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2019. April 2.

[2] Fluge Ø. & Mella O. Clinical impact of B-cell depletion with the anti-CD20 antibody rituximab in chronic fatigue syndrome: a preliminary case series. BMC Neurol. 2009 Jul 1;9:28.

[3] Patient Summary: Rituximab for Patients With Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2019. April 2.

[4] Rekeland IG. et al. Rituximab Serum Concentrations and Anti-Rituximab Antibodies During B-Cell Depletion Therapy for Myalgic Encephalopathy/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Clin Ther. 2018 Nov 28. pii: S0149-2918(18)30514-9.

[5] Morris MC. et al. Leveraging Prior Knowledge of Endocrine Immune Regulation in the Therapeutically Relevant Phenotyping of Women With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Clin Ther. 2019 Mar 28. pii: S0149-2918(19)30112-2.


1 comment:

  1. I am grateful that we had good honest researchers who reported what happened rather than what they wanted to happen. there's not been enough of that in research into me/cfs in the past.

    Research is all about starting with a bunch of ideas, pursuing them until they are dead ends, then concentrating on the ones that aren't. So for me, Rituximab isn't a failure. It's a step towards refining which ideas may have legs...

    Also the side effects were frightening me. I am selfish i want a cure that doesn't hurt to take!


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