Systemic lupus erythematosus remains a treatment challenge, but a variety of drugs in the pipeline are set to target type I interferons, cytokines, and B cells, according to Richard Furie, MD, chief of the division of rheumatology at Northwell Health and professor of medicine at Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.

Dr. Richard A. Furie of Northwell Health in New York Sara Freeman/MDedge News

Dr. Richard A. Furie

In general, when treating patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), “we just don’t see satisfactory response rates,” Dr. Furie said in an online presentation at the annual Perspectives in Rheumatic Diseases held by Global Academy for Medical Education.

“I think the greatest unmet need is in lupus nephritis,” he said. The data show that not even one-third of patients are adequately responding to standard of care treatment. “We need to do better in lupus nephritis but also for those patients with moderate-severe manifestations outside the kidney.”

Patients with SLE have elevated levels of interferon-alpha, Dr. Furie noted. Data from recent studies show that interferon inhibitors can reduce clinical activity in SLE patients, he said.

“About two-thirds to three-quarters of lupus patients have evidence of interferon pathway activation,” he said. There are three types of interferons, and five subtypes of type I interferon, and all five subtypes of type I interferon bind to the same receptor, which is an important strategy for drug development.

In particular, recent phase 2 and 3 trials have focused on targeting type I interferons with anifrolumab, which blocks all five subtypes.

Dr. Furie cited “very robust results” from a phase 2 study. Results of two phase 3 trials of anifrolumab led to a split decision, but the totality of the data collected across the phase 2 and 3 studies points to a drug that is effective for patients with SLE. The two phase 3 studies were published in Lancet Rheumatology and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Furie also identified recent studies of baricitinib (Olumiant), which has the ability to target several different cytokines. A phase 2 study in 2018 showed a significant difference in SLE Responder Index between lupus patients who received 4 mg of baricitinib or placebo, and a phase 3 study is underway, he said.

For lupus nephritis, Dr. Furie cited the BLISS-LN trial, a 104-week, randomized trial of patients with active lupus nephritis. The group of patients who received belimumab (Benlysta), a monoclonal antibody that targets B-cell activating factor, in addition to standard therapy had significant improvements in renal responses, compared with standard therapy alone (43.0% vs. 32.3%). The outcome measure was Primary Efficacy Renal Response, defined as urinary protein/creatinine ratio <0.7, eGFR ≥60 mL/min per 1.73 m2, confirmation on consecutive visits, and required tapering of background glucocorticoids.

Although belimumab was approved for SLE in 2011, the BLISS-LN study focused on SLE patients with active kidney disease. “Neutralizing B-cell activating factor and down-regulating autoreactive B-cell function in kidneys represented a compelling therapeutic approach to lupus nephritis,” he explained.

Voclosporin, distinct from cyclosporine, has also been studied in lupus nephritis, Dr. Furie said. Voclosporin offers several benefits over cyclosporine, including greater potency and a lower drug and metabolite load, as well as a more consistent pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic relationship, he said. In the phase 3 AURORA study, presented at this year’s EULAR congress, 40% of patients with lupus nephritis met the primary endpoint of a renal response at 52 weeks, compared with 22.5% of placebo patients.

Looking ahead to the treatment of SLE in 2021, “I feel very strongly that voclosporin will be approved for lupus nephritis,” he said. He also predicted that the use of belimumab will be officially extended for lupus nephritis and that anifrolumab will receive an approval for SLE patients.

In addition, the future may witness the increased use of biomarkers and development of more individualized therapy. These breakthroughs will yield better outcomes for all lupus patients, he said.

Dr. Furie disclosed relationships with GlaxoSmithKline, Genentech/Roche, Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, AstraZeneca/MedImmune, and Eli Lilly. Global Academy for Medical Education and this news organization are owned by the same parent company.