Think of Pediatric Morphea as a Systemic, Chronic Disease, Expert Advises

Doug Brunk

July 19, 2022

INDIANAPOLIS – In the opinion of Elena Pope, MD, MSc, it's time to think of morphea in children as a systemic, chronic condition with associated extracutaneous manifestations and the potential for relapse.

"There is no correlation between the extent and activity of skin lesions and the presence, severity, and activity of extracutaneous manifestations," Pope, professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto and division head of pediatric dermatology at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, said during the annual meeting of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology. "Treatment needs to be tailored to the extent of cutaneous manifestations, and I think we need to be aware of and address the impact on patients' quality of life," she added. There is also a need for more research "on targeted and better-tolerated therapies to put a stop to the progression of disease."

Congenital morphea is a form of localized scleroderma that presents at birth but can be confused with port wine stain. Results from a multicenter retrospective review of 25 cases conducted by Pope and colleagues found that the median age at diagnosis was 2.9 years and 76% had linear-type lesions. In addition, 48% had extracutaneous involvement (all of these patients had linear morphea), most commonly of the central nervous system.

"It's important to realize these lesions may become active over time," Pope said. "In my experience, there are two different courses. Either you have innocuous lesions when the patients are born and they may become active around 3-4 years of age, or you have early intrauterine involvement, with lesions inactive at birth but with potential for significant damage in utero."

She cautioned against treating a suspected port wine stain lesion with laser until congenital morphea is ruled out. "I'm aware of at least one lawsuit of a child where someone used a laser in a child who had progression with significant sclerosis," she said. "The parents assumed it was the use of the laser that led to the progression, not the actual disease."

Extracutaneous manifestations are common in morphea patients. A multicenter study of 750 patients with juvenile scleroderma found that 22% had extracutaneous manifestations. Almost half of patients (47%) had arthritis, but 17% had neurologic findings such as seizures and headaches, 9% had vascular manifestations, and 8% had uveitis. Subsequent studies found that neurological disease affects between 11% and 19% of cases, especially in those involving the head and neck.

"There is a wide range of manifestations from headache and neuropsychiatric changes to brain atrophy, seizures, and CNS cavernoma," Pope said. "There also can be orthodental involvement such as malocclusion. It's important to do a brain MRI, eye exam for uveitis, and don't forget the orthodental assessment."

She recalled a 10-year-old boy who presented to the Hospital for Sick Children with tissue loss on the forehead and eyebrow and eyelashes. He had no other congenital morphea symptoms and the MRI was normal, but the eye exam revealed uveitis. "It's important to remember that uveitis is asymptomatic, so unless you look for it, you're not going to find it," she said.

According to unpublished data in 42 congenital morphea patients with lesions limited to the head and neck, who underwent MRI imaging at the Hospital for Sick Children, 57% had CNS changes that were ipsilateral in 68% of cases. "White matter changes were the most common, and to our surprise, there were patients who had progressive CNS disease, including CNS vasculitis, new lesions, and enhancement of prior stable lesions," Pope said.

She recalled the case of an 8-year-old boy who presented to the hospital with intractable seizures. Upon completion of the MRI, one of the radiologists noted that the imaging showed subtle thinning of the forehead, and he was referred to Pope and colleagues for assessment. In the span of 4 years, despite aggressive treatment, the boy's CNS disease progressed. "There was more enhancement, more tissue loss, his seizures are very hard to control, and he has many neurodevelopmental changes," she recalled. "What I learned from this case is that skin activity does not correlate with imaging. Don't assume that just because the skin is burnt out that the CNS will be the same. Also, the extent of skin disease does not predict involvement or progression of the CNS."

Linear lesions on the lower extremities are a harbinger of orthopedic complications, which can occur in about half of patients. Joint contractures in this subset of patients are seen in about 81% of cases, while other sequelae can include arthritis, limb atrophy, leg-leg discrepancy, and angular deformity. "About 14% of patients require intervention," Pope said. "In terms of working those patients up, you need to do an MRI and assess the extent of muscle and fascial involvement. Early physiotherapy and an orthopedic evaluation are also recommended."

As for possible markers of morphea, antinuclear antibody is positive in 22%-68% of cases and correlates with disease severity, extracutaneous manifestations, and disease flare-up. Antihistone antibodies (AHA) are positive in about 47% of cases, "and that tends to correlate with the extent of skin and muscle involvement," Pope said. "Anti–double-stranded DNA correlates with extent of disease, but the only known biomarker to date that correlates with disease activity is CXCL9/10. This has been documented in the skin as well as in the blood. So, this marker may help us determine if the patient needs to be treated or not."


For treatment of active localized disease, topical medications are helpful in some cases. Options include topical steroids, calcipotriol with or without betamethasone, imiquimod, and tacrolimus. "In my experience the combination of calcipotriol with betamethasone is best," she said. "It really shuts down the activity fairly soon, and you can scale down to calcipotriol alone. I don't find imiquimod very helpful for active lesions, although it has a role for inactive lesions."

For patients with linear or generalized/mixed disease, "the combination of methotrexate and corticosteroids or methotrexate alone is probably the way to go," Pope said. "The addition of steroids really depends on where the lesion is and how worried you are about other problems."

According to the best available literature, 88% of patients should respond to treatment with methotrexate (MTX) and/or steroids within 3-6 months, and 74% within 3 months. "If they don't, you have to wonder if the patient's taking the medication, or you need to think about other alternative treatments," she said. "Complete remission is possible in most of the patients, and the longer you treat the more you will see that. On average, most of us treat patients for about 3 years, but there are treatment failures as well. This can occur in up to 16% of patients."

As for second-line treatment agents for congenital morphea, clinicians often turn to mycophenolate mofetil (MMF). Results from a retrospective longitudinal study of juvenile localized scleroderma patients found that after a mean of 9 years 91% of patients on MMF and 100% of patients on MTX had inactive disease. "There were no differences in relapse rates, although MMF seems to have a more sustained long-term effect and overall is better tolerated," said Pope, who was not involved with the study. "However, it's more immunosuppressive than MTX, which is important, especially in the era of COVID-19. You also need to think about the potential for more hematological suppression with MMF use." If standard therapy fails, there is anecdotal data supporting the use of abatacept (which suppresses the T-cell activity in affected patients), tofacitinib (which inhibits transforming growth factor–beta), or dupilumab (which inhibits interleukin-4).

Pope emphasized the effect congenital morphea has on quality of life. Remarks from patients with facial morphea and their parents who participated in a focus group on the topic organized by the Hospital for Sick Children included, "You just want to stay inside because you are afraid of what people will say," "They laugh at her. They make fun of her, and it's terrible," and "MTX makes me feel weird. I would throw up, feel dizzy."

"You have to take that into consideration, because we cannot make the treatment worse than the disease," Pope said. "There are many domains where patients could be affected, including skin symptoms, physical functioning, body image and social support, side effects of medication, and presence of extracutaneous manifestations. Predictors of poor quality of life include female sex and involvement of hands and feet."

Pope disclosed that she has received grants/research support from AbbVie, Centocor, and Amgen. She has also received consulting fees from AbbVie, Sanofi, Novartis, Boehringer-Ingelheim, Phoenix, Amryt Pharma, and Timber Pharmaceuticals.

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