MAUI, HAWAII – One of the most important steps to take when a child has received a biopsy-confirmed diagnosis of localized scleroderma is to sit down with the family and explain the rationale for the aggressive therapies to come, , said at the 2019 Rheumatology Winter Clinical Symposium.
It can be a tough sell at first, especially when a child has only a small red streak on the nose and perhaps a subtle linear lesion on the forehead or scalp. But the family has to come to understand that this is a serious, chronic, progressive fibrotic disease.
“Talk about what a big impact this disease can have on growth of a limb and the normal life of a child because of the cosmetic appearance. Explain that the length of treatment course is based on the long-term outcomes and quality of life. This discussion is usually sufficient” to convince people to give their children “these pretty serious medications,” said Dr. Stevens, professor of pediatrics and head of the division of pediatric rheumatology at the University of Washington, Seattle.
“The treatment goal is to control inflammation and prevent damage in these patients, who we like to catch very early, when it’s a subtle lesion,” she added.
The biggest problem
The biggest contributors to poor quality of life in patients with juvenile localized scleroderma are the extracutaneous manifestations, which occur in up to 50% of cases. Joint pain occurs in roughly 20% of patients, joint contractures due to fibrosis of skin and/or tendons in 30%, and myalgia with or without myositis in 15%. Muscle atrophy due to the deep component of the scleroderma can occur. Moreover, growth problems – especially leg or arm length discrepancies – happen in about 20% of patients in prospective studies. These growth problems may not be obvious until a child enters a growth spurt, at which point there is a limited ability to achieve improvement. That’s why Dr. Stevens recommends that every child with localized scleroderma should get a full joint exam at every visit, with measurement and photos of lesions and recording of all erythematous, violaceous, and waxy-hued areas. And if there are lesions on the head, annual eye exams are warranted.
The prevalence of juvenile localized scleroderma in the United States is about 3 per 100,000, with a mean age of onset of 8.2 years. That makes it 100-fold more common than pediatric systemic sclerosis.
The treatment ladder
There are no Food and Drug Administration–approved medications for localized scleroderma in children. It’s all off label. That being said, there is strong consensus among members of the Childhood Arthritis and Rheumatology Research Alliance that the first-line therapy is methotrexate at 15 mg/m2 or a maximum of 20 mg/week plus intravenous corticosteroids weaned over the course of 3-6 months. This is the treatment regimen with the best supporting evidence of safety and efficacy, including a single Italian randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial () and an accompanying long-term, open-label follow-up study ( ).
All of the other treatments she uses for juvenile localized scleroderma – mycophenolate mofetil (CellCept), abatacept (Orencia), tocilizumab (Actemra), and occasionally others – are backed only by a smattering of small case series. However, given the serious potential trajectory of this disease, that modest evidence base has been sufficient for her to receive insurance coverage approval of these agents.