The management of refractory advanced chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) continues to pose a considerable challenge to the clinician. CLL patients who are refractory or become resistant to fludarabine containing regimens currently have a poor prognosis. High dose methylprednisolone (HDMP) has been shown to be an effective therapeutic option in patients who are resistant to fludarabine particularly those with bulky lymphadenopathy or refractory cytopenias who are unsuitable for alemtuzumab therapy. We have used HDMP in combination with the anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody, Rituximab, to treat 14 patients with advanced refractory CLL. Eight of fourteen patients were male. The median age was 62.5 years (range 30–71). Twelve patients had bulky lymphadenopathy with nodal masses greater than 5 centimetres in diameter. Nine patients had Binet stage C and the remainder were stage B. Autoimmune manifestations were present in five of the patients, and in one of them fludarabine therapy was contraindicated due to active autoimmune haemolysis. FISH analysis was performed to detect 17p, 11q and 13q deletions and showed 11q23 deletions in five patients. The overall response rate was 93% with a median progression free survival (PFS) of seven months. Two patients achieved a CR, another a nodular PR and 10 patients had a PR. Responses were seen in all 4 patients who had not responded to alemtuzumab as a single agent. Only one patient failed to respond. The median survival was 20 months. All five patients with 11q23 deletions responded, and the mean progression free survival in this subgroup was 10.5 months. These results compare extremely favourably with our own previous study (Thornton et al, 1998) that used HDMP alone in the management of advanced/refractory CLL where only 43% of patients responded and no patients achieved a CR. We have demonstrated that the combination of HDMP with rituximab is more effective than HDMP alone (p<0.01) in advanced refractory CLL. Although HDMP in combination with rituximab causes little or no myelosuppression, 6/14 patients (43%) developed opportunistic fungal or viral infections and this included fungal mould infections, fungal yeast infections and opportunistic viral infections. Three patients died of pulmonary fungal infections, although 2 of these patients had been retreated with alternative regimens. While the immunosuppressive effects of high dose steroids are well recognised, it appears that the addition of rituximab has made these patients more prone to opportunistic infections. In summary, HDMP in combination with rituximab is an effective rescue regime in purine analogue refractory CLL particularly in patients with bulky lymphadenopathy who are unsuitable for alemtuzumab, and in patients with 11q23 deletions.

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Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.