Background: Polycythemia vera (PV) is characterized by erythrocytosis, thrombocytosis, and/or leukocytosis and a broad range of disease-related symptoms. In high-risk patients, the most common first-line treatment is hydroxyurea (HU). The open-label RESPONSE trial demonstrated that ruxolitinib (RUX), a JAK1/JAK2 inhibitor, provided superior efficacy compared with best available therapy in patients with PV who were resistant to or intolerant of HU according to modified European LeukemiaNet (ELN) criteria. This study (RELIEF) was conducted in patients receiving a stable dose of HU and who were generally well controlled but reporting disease-associated symptoms, comparing the change in PV-related symptom burden in patients continuing their HU therapy with those switching to RUX treatment.

Methods: RELIEF was a randomized, multicenter, double-blind, double-dummy, phase 3b study of patients with PV aged ≥18 years on a stable dose of HU monotherapy and reporting PV-related symptoms. Patients were required to be receiving HU for ≥12 weeks prior to enrollment and on the same dose level for the last 4 weeks, and have a score ≥8 on the Myeloproliferative Neoplasm Symptom Assessment Form (MPN-SAF) cytokine total symptom score (TSS-C). The TSS-C comprised symptoms of itching, tiredness, muscle ache, night sweats, and sweats while awake; each symptom was rated on a scale of 0=absent to 10=worst imaginable, with a maximum TSS-C score of 50. Patients also had to meet one of the following: ≤1 phlebotomy in the previous 6 months or no palpable splenomegaly. Those eligible were randomized 1:1 to receive RUX 10 mg BID and HU-placebo, or HU at the same dose/schedule and RUX-placebo. Dose adjustments were permitted for safety and efficacy. After Week 16, patients could receive open-label RUX until Week 48. The primary endpoint was the proportion of patients with a ≥50% reduction in TSS-C at Week 16; secondary endpoints included proportion of patients with a ≥50% reduction in individual TSS-C symptoms and safety.

Results: Overall, 54 and 56 patients were randomized to RUX and HU, respectively; 87.0% and 89.3% remained on treatment through Week 16. At baseline, the median age (range) was 64 (36-87) in the RUX group and 66 (19-85) in the HU group; 44% and 61% were men. The majority of patients in the RUX and HU groups did not have baseline platelet counts or WBC above ELN thresholds: platelets >400 and ≤600 x 109/L (RUX 31.5%, HU 28.6%), >600 x 109/L (3.7%, 8.9%); WBC >10 and ≤15 x 109/L (16.7%, 16.1%), >15 x 109/L (11.1%, 14.3%). In the RUX and HU groups, the mean TSS-C at screening (22.4, 23.1) was higher than that at baseline (16.7, 18.0); the ratio of screening to baseline TSS-C was 1.7 and 1.6. The proportion of patients achieving a ≥50% reduction from baseline in TSS-C at Week 16 (primary endpoint) was 43.4% in the RUX group and 29.6% in the HU group (P=0.139; OR, 1.82; 95% CI, 0.82-4.04). The proportions of patients in the RUX vs HU groups achieving a ≥50% reduction in scores for itching and tiredness at Week 16 were 40.0% vs 26.4% and 54.2% vs 32.0%, respectively. Median percentage changes in individual TSS-C symptoms are shown in Table 1. Additional analyses found no correlation between individual changes in HU dose from baseline to Weeks 13-16 and percentage change in TSS-C in the HU arm (r2=0.030). Even patients maintaining the same HU dose from prior to study entry through Week 16 reported symptom improvement: 12/35 (34.3%) with no dose change, 4/12 (33.3%) with a dose increase, and 0/9 (0%) with a dose decrease had a ≥50% reduction in TSS-C. The most common nonhematologic adverse events in the RUX arm on randomized treatment were fatigue (20.4% RUX vs 10.7% HU), headache (16.7% vs 5.4%), and dizziness (13.0% vs 8.9%). The most common adverse events on HU were diarrhea (9.3% RUX vs 19.6% HU) and constipation (7.4% vs 12.5%); most events were grade 1 or 2. Grade 3 or 4 anemia or thrombocytopenia (lab values) were not reported in the RUX group; two patients in the RUX group had grade 3 or 4 neutropenia.

Conclusion: In generally well controlled PV patients receiving a stable dose of HU, there was a positive trend in symptom improvement for patients switched to RUX therapy versus those continuing on HU therapy, although this was not statistically significant. The 34% response rate among patients who continued to receive a stable HU dose suggests a placebo effect that led to an underpowered study. Further analyses are required to better interpret these findings.


Off Label Use: Ruxolitinib is a JAK1/JAK2 inhibitor approved for the treatment of patients with intermediate or high-risk myelofibrosis, including primary myelofibrosis, post polycythemia vera myelofibrosis, and post-essential thrombocythemia myelofibrosis. Vannucchi:Novartis Pharmaceuticals: Honoraria, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Research Funding. Yacoub:Alexion Pharmaceutical: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Seattle Genetics: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Sanofi Aventis: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees. Koschmieder:Novartis Pharmaceuticals: Consultancy, Honoraria, Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees, Research Funding. Byrne:Novartis Pharmaceuticals: Honoraria. Verstovsek:Incyte Corporation: Research Funding. Hunter:Incyte Corporation: Employment, Equity Ownership. Jones:Incyte Corporation: Employment, Equity Ownership. He:Incyte Corporation: Employment, Equity Ownership. Morozov:Novartis Pharmaceuticals: Employment, Equity Ownership.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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