Background: Patients with newly diagnosed, advanced-stage, follicular B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas (NHL) commonly receive rituximab as initial therapy. While antibody dependent cytotoxicity (ADCC) is felt to be the predominant mechanism of action for rituximab, the immunologic effects of rituximab are largely unknown. We have previously shown that genetic polymorphisms in IL-8, IL-2, IL-12 and IL-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1RN) have prognostic significance in follicular lymphoma. The goal of this study was to measure changes in the abovementioned and other serum cytokine levels in patients receiving single agent rituximab as initial therapy for follicular NHL and to identify cytokines that are associated with an increased risk of disease relapse.

Methods: Patients with untreated follicular grade 1 NHL, and measurable stage III/IV disease were treated with rituximab 375 mg/m2 intravenous weekly for 4 doses and were then followed for response and time to progression (TTP); no maintenance therapy was provided. Thirty-seven patients were enrolled in this clinical trial between July 1999 and May 2001. As previously reported, the overall response rate in the 36 eligible patients was 72%, with 36% complete remissions. Now, with a median follow up of 5.1 years, the median TTP is 2.2 years (95% CI, 1.2–3.3 years) and the 5-year overall survival is 77% (95% CI: 64–92%). We measured the serum levels of a variety of inflammatory cytokines by ELISA at baseline and 1 month after completing treatment. Serum specimens were available in 30 patients. Thirty two cytokines or receptors including IL-1β, IL-1RN, IL-2, IL-2R, IL-4, IL-5, IL-6, IL-7, IL-8, IL-10, IL-12 p40/p70, IL-13, IL-15, IL-17, TNF-α, IFN-α, IFN-γ, GM-CSF, MIP-1α, MIP-1β, IP-10, MIG, Eotaxin, RANTES, MCP-1, VEGF, GCSF, EGF, FGF-basic, HGF, BLyS and APRIL were analyzed.

Results: A significant increase was seen in the serum levels of BLyS (p=0.0001) after rituximab therapy, while IL-12 (p=0.0002), IL-1RN (p=0.0001), IL-2R (p=0.0001), IL-1β (p=0.02), IL-7 (p=0.02), IL-10 (p=0.02), and MIG (p=0.05) all significantly decreased. All other cytokines/receptors remained unchanged. Higher pretreatment serum levels of IL-2R (p=0.008) and IL-12 (p=0.001) correlated with a shorter TTP. Furthermore, elevated serum IL-2R levels pretreatment correlated with a lack of response to rituximab (p=0.03). Differences in overall survival could not be determined due to the fact that only 8 patients enrolled in the study have died. Because serum IL-2R levels correlated with response and TTP, we measured the cell surface expression of IL-2R in the tumor by flow cytometry. IL-2R was detected on a subpopulation of CD4+ T-cells in all specimens tested (n=14), and on malignant B-cells in 5 cases (36%).

Conclusions: Pretreatment serum levels of IL-2R and IL-12 are important prognostic factors for response to therapy or TTP in follicular lymphoma patients treated with rituximab. Furthermore, serum levels of BLyS, IL-1RN, IL-7, IL-10, IL-1β and MIG also change after rituximab treatment. Targeting these cytokines may therefore provide additional clinical benefit to patients treated with rituximab.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.