Objective

To assess functional changes in lymphocyte repertoire and subsequent clinical implications during delayed-release dimethyl fumarate (DMF) treatment in patients with multiple sclerosis.

Methods

Using peripheral blood from several clinical trials of DMF, immune cell subsets were quantified using flow cytometry. For some patients, lymphocyte counts were assessed after DMF discontinuation. Incidence of adverse events, including serious and opportunistic infections, was assessed.

Results

In DMF-treated patients, absolute lymphocyte counts (ALCs) demonstrated a pattern of decline followed by stabilization, which also was reflected in the global reduction in numbers of circulating functional lymphocyte subsets. The relative frequencies of circulating memory T- and B-cell populations declined and naive cells increased. No increased incidence of serious infection or malignancy was observed for patients treated with DMF, even when stratified by ALC or T-cell subset frequencies. For patients who discontinued DMF due to lymphopenia, ALCs increased after DMF discontinuation; recovery time varied by ALC level at discontinuation. T-cell subsets closely correlated with ALCs in both longitudinal and cross-sectional analyses.

Conclusions

DMF shifted the immunophenotype of circulating lymphocyte subsets. ALCs were closely correlated with CD4+ and CD8+ T-cell counts, indicating that lymphocyte subset monitoring is not required for safety vigilance. No increased risk of serious infection was observed in patients with low T-cell subset counts. Monitoring ALC remains the most effective way of identifying patients at risk of subsequently developing prolonged moderate to severe lymphopenia, a risk factor for progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy in DMF-treated patients.

Trial registration numbers

EUDRA CT 2015-001973-42, NCT00168701, NCT00420212, NCT00451451, and NCT00835770.

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