Introduction. Although rabbit anti-thymocyte globulin (ATG) is largely used for preventing immune-mediated complications in patients given allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) from a matched unrelated donor (MUD), the optimal dosage of this drug in children is still undefined. We conducted an academic open-label, multicenter, randomized trial comparing two different dosages of rATG in children with hematological malignancies transplanted with either bone marrow (BM) or peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) from a MUD selected using high-resolution typing for HLA class I/II (i.e. A, B, C, DRB1) loci. The study aimed at testing whether a higher dose of rATG (30 mg/Kg over 3 days, from day -4 to day -2) was superior to a lower dose (15 mg/Kg over 3 days, from day -4 to day -2) in terms of grade II-IV acute graft-versus-host disease (GvHD) prevention. Secondary end-points included cumulative incidence (CI) of chronic GvHD, non-relapse mortality (NRM), disease recurrence and event-free survival (EFS). The drug was kindly provided by Fresenius/Neovii.

Patients and methods. Inclusion criteria were: diagnosis of acute or chronic leukemia in remission/chronic phase, non-Hodgkin lymphoma or myelodysplasia; age at HSCT 0-19 years; availability of an unrelated donor selected using high-resolution molecular typing of HLA-A, B, C and DRB1 loci, completely matched or with a single allelic disparity at one of the HLA loci or with 2 allelic disparities, or with one antigenic disparity; use of G-CSF-mobilized PBSC or BM-derived hematopoietic stem cells.

From January 2008 to September 2012, 180 patients were enrolled in the study. Eight patients, 5 randomized to the rATG 30 mg/kg group and 3 to the 15 mg/kg group, did not proceed to transplant due to further relapse before HSCT. The remaining 172 patients, 84 belonging to the 30 mg/kg group and 88 belonging to the 15 mg/kg group, were transplanted and included in this analysis; 94 children had acute lymphoblastic and 42 acute myeloid leukemia. The 2 randomization groups were comparable for all demographic and transplant-related variables evaluated (see Table 1). Patients were stratified according to the stem cell source (BM vs. PBSC), degree of HLA compatibility with the donor (unrelated donor perfectly matched or with 1 allelic disparity vs. unrelated donor with 2 allelic disparities or with 1 antigenic disparity) and disease risk group (standard- vs. high-risk, SR and HR). All patients received a fully myeloablative preparative regimen. All patients received cyclosporine-A and short-term methotrexate as post-transplant GvHD prophylaxis. The trial was registered at ClinicalTrials.gov (NCT00934557). Data were analyzed as of January 31st, 2016.

Results. With a median follow-up of 4.5 years (range 3.3-7.6 years), the 100-day CI of grade II-IV acute GvHD in the high and low rATG group was 29% and 36%, respectively (P=NS, Figure 1A); the CI of extensive chronic GvHD in the two groups was 6% and 10%, respectively (P=NS, Figure 1B). The CI of NRM was 19% and 9% in the high and low rATG group, respectively (P=0.09). Children receiving the higher rATG dosage had a greater incidence of viral reactivations as compared to those who received the lower dosage. The difference was statistically significant for EBV reactivation (37% vs. 23%; P = 0.038) and for Adenovirus reactivation (12% vs. 1%; P = 0.004). The overall CI of disease recurrence was 17% and did not differ between high and low dose rATG.

The 5-year EFS for the whole cohort of patients was 69%; it was 61% and 77% for children given high and low dose rATG, respectively (P=0.028, Figure 1C). EFS was 78% and 55% in the SR and HR groups, respectively (P=0.001, Figure 1D). EFS of the 136 children with acute leukemia given either high or low dose rATG was 60% and 77%, respectively (P=0.049). In multivariate analysis on EFS, the following variables were associated with an unfavorable outcome: rATG dose of 30 mg/kg (relative risk 1.90; P=0.026), HLA mismatch > 1 allele (relative risk 2.08; P=0.01) and HR disease (relative risk 2.46; P=0.0015).

Conclusions. Our data indicate that, in children with hematological malignancies transplanted from a MUD selected through high-resolution HLA typing, the use of low dose rATG results into decreased incidence of NRM and better EFS. Low dose rATG is able to spare life-threatening viral infections, without significantly increasing the incidence of acute and chronic GvHD.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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