Objectives: B-cell depletion by rituximab (RTX) is an effective treatment for anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic autoantibody (ANCA)-associated vasculitis (AAV). However, peripheral B cell phenotypes and the selection criteria for RTX therapy in AAV remain unclear.
Methods: Phenotypic characterization of circulating B cells was performed by 8-color flow cytometric analysis in 54 newly diagnosed AAV patients (20 granulomatosis with polyangiitis and 34 microscopic polyangiitis). Patients were considered eligible to receive intravenous cyclophosphamide pulse (IV-CY) or RTX. All patients also received high-dose glucocorticoids (GC). We assessed circulating B cell phenotypes and evaluated the efficacy after 6 months of treatment.
Results: There were no significant differences in the rate of clinical improvement, relapses, or serious adverse events between patients receiving RTX and IV-CY. The proportion of effector or class-switched memory B cells increased in 24 out of 54 patients (44%). The proportions of peripheral T and B cell phenotypes did not correlate with BVAS at baseline. However, among peripheral B cells, the proportion of class-switched memory B cells negatively correlated with the rate of improvement in BVAS at 6 months after treatment initiation (r = -0.28, p = 0.04). Patients with excessive B cell differentiation were defined as those in whom the proportion of class-switched memory B cells or IgD-CD- B cells among all B cells was >2 SDs higher than the mean in the HCs. The rate of Birmingham Vasculitis Activity Score (BVAS) remission in patients with excessive B cell differentiation was significantly lower than that in patients without. In patients with excessive B cell differentiation, the survival rate, the rate of BVAS remission, and dose reduction of GC were significantly improved in the RTX group compared to those in the IV-CY group after 6 months of treatment.
Conclusions: The presence of excessive B cell differentiation was associated with treatment resistance. However, in patients with circulating B cell abnormality, RTX was effective and increased survival compared to IV-CY. The results suggest that multi-color flow cytometry may be useful to determine the selection criteria for RTX therapy in AAV patients.