Subcutaneous Nemolizumab Eases Itching for Atopic Dermatitis

Heidi Splete

July 15, 2020

Adding subcutaneous nemolizumab to topical treatments for atopic dermatitis patients significantly improved their itching, compared with a placebo, in a phase 3 study of 215 patients in Japan.

Controlling the pruritus associated with atopic dermatitis (AD) can have a significant impact on patients' quality of life, wrote Kenji Kabashima, MD, PhD, of the department of dermatology at Kyoto University, and coauthors. Frequent scratching can cause not only mechanical skin damage, but also may enhance inflammatory reactions and contribute to sleep problems.

In earlier phase studies, nemolizumab, a humanized monoclonal antibody against interleukin-31 receptor A, showed efficacy in reducing pruritus in patients with AD, but has not been well studied in patients who are also using topical agents, they wrote.

In the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers randomized 143 patients with AD and moderate to severe pruritus to 60 mg of subcutaneous nemolizumab and 72 patients to a placebo every 4 weeks for 16 weeks.

All patients were aged 13 years and older with a confirmed AD diagnosis and a history of inadequate response to or inability to use treatments, including topical glucocorticoids and oral antihistamines. Their average age was 40 years, approximately two-thirds were male, and the average disease duration was approximately 30 years. Topical treatments included a medium potency glucocorticoid in 97% of patients in both groups, and a topical calcineurin inhibitor in 41% of those on nemolizumab, and 40% of those on placebo; almost 90% of the patients in both groups were on oral antihistamines.

At 16 weeks, scores on the visual analog scale for pruritus (the primary outcome) significantly improved from baseline in the nemolizumab group, compared with the placebo group (a mean change of –42.8% and –21.4%, respectively, P < .001).

In addition, more patients in the nemolizumab group, compared with the placebo group (40% vs. 22%) achieved a score of 4 or less on the Dermatology Life Quality Index, with lower scores reflecting less impact of disease on daily life. In addition, more patients in the nemolizumab group, compared with the placebo group (55% vs. 21%) achieved a score of 7 or less on the Insomnia Severity Index.

During the study, 71% of the patients in each group reported adverse events, most were mild or moderate. The most common adverse event was worsening AD, reported by 24% of the nemolizumab patients and 21% of the placebo patients. Reactions related to the injection occurred in 8% of nemolizumab patients and 3% of placebo patients.

Cytokine abnormalities, which included an increased level of thymus and activation regulated chemokine, were reported in 10 (7%) of the patients on nemolizumab, none of which occurred in those on placebo. "Most were not accompanied by a worsening of signs of or the extent of atopic dermatitis," the authors wrote.

Severe adverse events were reported in three patients (2%) in the nemolizumab group, which were Meniere's disease, acute pancreatitis, and AD in one patient each. No severe adverse events were reported in the placebo group. In addition, three patients in the nemolizumab group experienced four treatment-related adverse events that led them to discontinue treatment: AD, Meniere's disease, alopecia, and peripheral edema.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the relatively short treatment period, inclusion only of Japanese patients, inclusion of patients aged as young as 13 years, and the inability to draw conclusions from the secondary endpoints such as quality of life and sleep issues, the researchers noted.

However, the results suggest that "nemolizumab plus topical agents may ameliorate both pruritus and signs of eczema and may lessen the severity of atopic dermatitis by disrupting the itch-scratch cycle," they added.

"Novel therapies [for AD] are needed, as there are still patients who need better disease control despite current therapies, and AD is a heterogeneous disease that may need different treatment approaches," Eric Simpson, MD, professor of dermatology at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, said in an interview.

Dr. Simpson, who was not an investigator in this study, said that he was somewhat surprised that the itch reduction was lower in the current study, compared with previous studies by the same group. Also surprising was the increase in cytokine abnormalities in the nemolizumab group, which "needs further study."

Overall, the data "provide support that blockade of the IL-31 receptor improves itch in AD and appears to have some effect on inflammation," Dr. Simpson said.

One challenge to the clinical use of nemolizumab will be identifying "where this type of drug fits into the treatment paradigm," and determining whether specific patients whose disease is driven more by this neuroimmune pathway could benefit more than with the traditional IL-4 or IL-13 blockade, he said.

The study was supported by Maruho. Dr. Kabashima disclosed consulting fees from Maruho and two coauthors were Maruho employees. Dr. Simpson had no financial conflicts relevant to this study, but he reported receiving research grants and other financial relationships with manufacturers of AD therapies.

SOURCE: Kabashima K et al. N Engl J Med. 2020 Jul 9. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1917006.

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