Dawn of New Lupus Nephritis Treatment After AURORA Trial

Marcia Frellick

March 27, 2020

For patients with lupus nephritis, kidney response improves when voclosporin (Aurinia Pharmaceuticals) is added to mycophenolate and low-dose corticosteroids, results from the phase 3 AURORA trial show.

The calcineurin inhibitor is the first novel agent to demonstrate effectiveness in the treatment of people with lupus nephritis, a disease that can lead to irreversible kidney damage, kidney failure, and even death.

"We believe that voclosporin — as an add-on therapy — will help more patients achieve remission," said Keisha Gibson, MD, MPH, chief of pediatric nephrology at the UNC Kidney Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who led the study and presented the findings during a virtual session at the National Kidney Foundation 2020 Spring Clinical Meetings.

The burden that lupus places on patients and the health system is high, she reported. Patients with lupus and uncontrolled kidney disease frequently have complications that require hospitalization, can suffer complete or partial loss of income, and can become temporarily disabled. And up to 50% of lupus patients will develop lupus nephritis.

"When we are lucky and see early treatment responses in our patients, we know that their long-term outcomes, measured by proteinuria reduction, are quite good," said Gibson. "Unfortunately, in 10% to 30% of patients, despite standard-of-care therapies, we see progression to end-stage kidney disease within 15 years of diagnosis. This confers a huge cost to overall health and quality of life, and is an excess burden to the healthcare system."

"It is clear that one of the biggest risk factors for these patients who have kidney disease that is progressing to kidney failure is an inability to control the inflammation and chronic damage from uncontrolled disease," she told Medscape Medical News.

"While there have certainly been a few advances in the care of patients with lupus disease, I believe that this therapy may help move the needle, specifically for patients with kidney involvement from their lupus disease," she added.

Renal Response Much Higher With Voclosporin

The typical standard of care for patients with active lupus and kidney disease is either a combination of cyclophosphamide plus steroids or a combination of mycophenolate mofetil plus steroids.

The global, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial compared the effectiveness and safety of twice-daily oral voclosporin 23.7 mg with placebo. All 357 study participants also received mycophenolate 2 g daily and rapidly tapered low-dose oral corticosteroids.

At 1 year, the renal response rate was higher in the voclosporin group than in the placebo group (40.8% vs 22.5%; odds ratio, 2.65; P < .001).

"AURORA patients achieved low levels of protein twice as quickly as patients on standard of care," the researchers write in their abstract. Median time to the achievement of a urine protein to creatinine ratio below 0.5 mg/mg was significantly and clinically better with voclosporin than with placebo (169 vs 372 days; log rank < .001).

And voclosporin was well tolerated. The percentage of serious adverse events was similar in the voclosporin and placebo groups (20.8% vs 21.3%), with infection being the most common serious event (10.1% vs 11.2%).

In the voclosporin group, there were no significant differences between baseline and 1 year estimated glomerular filtration rates (eGFR), blood pressure, lipid levels, or sugar levels.

And there were fewer deaths in the voclosporin group than in the placebo group (1 vs 5).

Benefits were seen in all subgroups, including age, sex, race, biopsy class, geographic region of origin, and mycophenolate exposure at screening, Gibson reported.

Promise of a New Treatment

The promise of a new treatment is exciting for the field, said Joseph Vassalotti, MD, chief medical officer of the National Kidney Foundation.

However, it's important to note that "this study is applicable only to patients with lupus nephritis with preserved kidney function," he added.

An "eGFR less than 45 mL/min per 1.73 m² was implied as an exclusion criteria, so I would say it certainly doesn't apply to patients with impaired kidney function," he said, pointing out that this will be clearer when the final data are published.

The study cohort was heterogeneous; 86% of participants had class 3 or 4 biopsy findings and 14% had class 5, so the superiority of voclosporin is convincing, he said.

"We look forward to full publication and more details," he told Medscape Medical News. "They do have an extension study, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out."

Voclosporin was granted Fast Track designation by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2016, and these positive phase 3 results mean that a New Drug Application will likely be filed in the next few months. If approved, the drug could be on the market by 2021, according to a press release from Aurinia.

Nephrologists are familiar with calcineurin inhibitors, so it will be interesting to see, given the success of this trial, if voclosporin has a potential role in other kidney diseases, "such as minimal change disease," said Vassalotti.

He added that there are concerns, unrelated to the AURORA trial, about the supply of hydroxychloroquine, which is also used for the treatment of lupus nephritis. "An overarching concern is that the supply will be limited now that the drug is being studied and used as prophylaxis after exposure to SARS-C0V-2 and as a treatment for COVID-19, creating challenges for patients with lupus nephritis trying to obtain their needed medication," he said.

The limited evidence related to hydroxychloroquine was reviewed last week in a Medscape commentary by Perry Wilson, MD.

National Kidney Foundation (NKF) 2020 Spring Clinical Meetings: Abstract 407. Presented March 26, 2020.

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