As the use of biologics for dermatologic conditions has increased, so have questions from patients about their safety during pregnancy and lactation, their effects on fertility, and potential effects on the developing fetus and the child’s development.

“I get asked a lot about fertility,” Vivian Shi, MD, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, said at MedscapeLive’s Women’s and Pediatric Dermatology Seminar. Patients want to know, she said, if they go on a specific drug, whether it will affect their chances of conceiving and what else they need to know about safety.

She told the audience what she tells her patients: The answers are not complete but are evolving at a steady pace.

Vivian Shi, MD, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock

Dr. Vivian Shi

“Putting this talk together was kind of like a scavenger hunt,” said Dr. Shi, who gathered data from pregnancy exposure registries, published research, the Food and Drug Administration, and other sources on biologics. As more studies emerge each year, she said, recommendations will become stronger for considering treatment by certain biological drugs, taking into account effects on fertility, pregnancy, lactation, and the infant.

Among the biologics commonly used in dermatology are:

  • Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors (etanercept, adalimumab, infliximab, certolizumab).
  • Interleukin (IL)–12 and -23 antagonist (ustekinumab).
  • IL-17 antagonists (ixekizumab, secukinumab, brodalumab).
  • IL-23 antagonists (risankizumab, tildrakizumab, guselkumab).
  • IL-4, -13 antagonist (dupilumab) and IL-13 antagonist (tralokinumab).
  • CD20-directed cytolytic antibody (rituximab).

To help with decision-making, Dr. Shi discussed the relatively new FDA labeling regulations as well as pregnancy exposure registries, research studies, and recommendations.

FDA pregnancy risk summaries

Under the previous system of classification of drugs in pregnancy, the FDA rated drugs as A, B, C, D, X. These categories ranged from showing no risks to the fetus to clear risk, but were oversimplistic and confusing, Dr. Shi said. Category C was especially confusing, as a drug with no animal or human data was put in the same category as a drug with adverse fetal effects on animals, she noted.

However, effective June 30, 2015, the FDA replaced pregnancy categories with risk summaries by medication. As of June, 2020, all prescription drugs were to remove pregnancy letter labeling. The risk summaries note human data when they are available and also note when no data are available. This information, Dr. Shi said, originates from many sources, including studies published in the medical literature, postmarketing studies conducted by companies, and pregnancy exposure registries, conducted by some companies and others. The FDA does not endorse any specific registries, but does post a list of such registries. Another helpful resource, she said, is Mother to Baby, a service of the nonprofit Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS).

Known, not known

Citing published literature, Dr. Shi said that TNF inhibitors have the most robust safety data from preconception to after birth. Less is known, she said, about the reproductive safety effects of other biologics used for dermatologic conditions, as they are newer than the anti-TNF medicines.

She reviewed a variety of research studies evaluating the safety of biologics during pregnancy and beyond. Highlights include results from a large registry, the Psoriasis Longitudinal Assessment and Registry (PSOLAR), of 298 pregnancies in about 220 women from 2007 to 2019, looking at 13 different biologics. The overall and live-birth outcomes in the women on biologics for psoriasis were similar to those for the general population and the rate of congenital anomalies was 0.8%, researchers reported in 2021, lower than the generally cited annual figure of U.S. births.

Studies evaluating biologics for nondermatologic conditions suggest safety. A prospective cohort study of women who took adalimumab in pregnancy (for rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s disease) found no increased risk for birth defects. In another study looking at women who were breastfeeding, researchers found no increased risk of infections or delay in developmental milestones in the children of women taking biologics for inflammatory bowel disease, compared with those not on the medications.

A report using data from the World Health Organization concludes that dupilumab appears to be safe during pregnancy, based on an evaluation of 36 pregnancy-related reports among more than 37,000 unique adverse event reports related to dupilumab in a global database.

Recommendations about biologic use from different organizations don’t always mesh, Dr. Shi said, noting that European guidelines tend to be stricter, as some reviews show.

If a mother is exposed to any biologic therapy other than certolizumab during the third trimester, after 27 weeks, Dr. Shi said, “you want to consider avoiding a live vaccine for the first 6 months of the baby’s life.” It turns out, she said, the only recommended live vaccine during that period is the rotavirus vaccine, and she suggests doctors recommend postponing that one until the babies are older if women have been on biologics other than certolizumab.

Her other take-home messages: TNF inhibitors have the most robust safety data from before conception through lactation. Under current guidelines, certolizumab is viewed as the safest to use throughout pregnancy. Dr. Shi’s message to her colleagues fielding the same questions she gets from patients: “There is more data coming out every year. Ultimately, we will have better information to inform our patients.”

At the conference, Lawrence F. Eichenfield, MD, a course director and professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego, encouraged Dr. Shi to write up her presentation as a resource for other dermatologists – which she said is in progress.

Medscape Live and this news organization are owned by the same parent company. Dr. Shi disclosed consulting and investigative and research funding from several pharmaceutical firms, but not directly related to the content of her presentation.