Conference Coverage

Rituximab more effective than other MS treatments?


From ECTRIMS 2021

Rituximab reduces relapses and MRI activity in patients with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) more effectively than dimethyl fumarate, natalizumab, and injectable drugs, according to new research.

The risk for a first relapse was 6 times higher in patients receiving interferon beta or glatiramer acetate, compared with those receiving rituximab. But the level of disability at 3 years was only marginally different between the drugs studied.

The small differences in Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS) score are surprising, said investigator Peter Alping, a clinical assistant and doctoral student in the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, as he presented the data. “It could be that we have too-short follow-up, so that EDSS doesn’t have time to diverge between therapies.”

He presented the findings at the annual meeting of the European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ECTRIMS).


Direct comparisons of disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) for MS can help neurologists choose the most appropriate treatment for a given patient. To compare the effectiveness of the most common initial DMTs administered in Sweden, the researchers examined data from the COMBAT-MS study.

They identified all patients who initiated an injectable therapy (interferon beta or glatiramer acetate), dimethyl fumarate, natalizumab, or rituximab as a first treatment between Jan. 1, 2011, and Dec. 14, 2020. Eligible participants had prospectively recorded outcome data in the Swedish MS Register. Follow-up for a participant continued even if the participant stopped receiving therapy.

The investigators replaced missing data using multiple imputation. They adjusted for potential confounders using stabilized inverse probability of treatment weighting with baseline variables. These variables included age, sex, disease duration, geographical region, EDSS score, and relapses.

Rituximab reduced relapses

The researchers included 1,938 first-ever treatment episodes in their analysis. Of this group, 858 were associated with injectables, 339 with dimethyl fumarate, 269 with natalizumab, and 472 with rituximab.

Participants’ baseline characteristics differed by the DMT that they used. Patients who initiated natalizumab were the youngest, had the shortest disease duration, and had the most previous relapses.

For each outcome, the investigators compared all other therapies with rituximab. After they adjusted the data, they found that the hazard ratio for first relapse was 6.0 for injectables, 2.9 for dimethyl fumarate, and 1.8 for natalizumab.

In the adjusted model, the MRI lesion rate ratio for injectables, compared with rituximab, was 4.5. The rate ratio was 4.8 for dimethyl fumarate and 1.9 for natalizumab.

But differences in EDSS score at 3 years from treatment initiation were small. EDSS score in patients who received injectables was 0.24 points higher, compared with those receiving rituximab. EDSS score was 0.05 points higher in patients receiving dimethyl fumarate and 0.01 points lower in patients receiving natalizumab.

The risk for treatment discontinuation, however, differed significantly between therapies. The HR for treatment discontinuation was 32.7 for injectables, 20.3 for dimethyl fumarate, and 16.3 for natalizumab, compared with rituximab.

Among patients receiving dimethyl fumarate and injectables, the main reasons for discontinuing therapy were inadequate effect and adverse events. The main reason for discontinuation among patients receiving natalizumab was categorized as “other reason,” which mostly reflected John Cunningham virus positivity and concern for developing progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy.


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