We have reported previously the insufficient absolute number or functional defects of regulatory T cells (Tregs) in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), challenging conventional unspecific immunosuppressive therapy. Sirolimus, a mTOR inhibitor, is reported to allow growth of functional Tregs; here, we investigated the efficacy of low-dose sirolimus combined with conventional immunosuppressants (sirolimus immunoregulation therapy) for RA treatment with lower side effects and better tolerance.
In this nonblinded and parallel-group trial, we randomly assigned 62 patients to receive conventional glucocorticoids and immunosuppressants with or without sirolimus at a dosage of 0.5 mg on alternate days for 24 weeks in a 2 : 1 ratio. The demographic features, clinical manifestations, and laboratory indicators including peripheral blood lymphocyte subgroups and CD4+T subsets were compared before and after the treatment.
Finally, 37 patients in the sirolimus group and 18 in the conventional treated group completed the 6-month study. By 24 weeks, the patients with sirolimus experienced significant reduction in disease activity indicators including DAS28, ESR, and the number of tender joints and swollen joints (p < 0.001). Notably, they had a higher level of Tregs as compared with those with conventional therapy alone (p < 0.05), indicating that sirolimus could partly restore the reduced Tregs. Concomitantly, their usage of immunosuppressants for controlling disease activity was decreased as compared with the conventional group with no difference in blood routine, and liver and renal functions both before and after the treatment of sirolimus and between the two groups (p > 0.05).
Low-dose sirolimus immunoregulatory therapy selectively upregulated Tregs and partly replaced the usage of immunosuppressants to control disease activity without overtreatment and evaluable side effect. Further study is required using a large sample of RA patients treated with sirolimus for a longer period. This trial is registered at the Chinese Clinical Trial Registry (http://www.chictr.org.cn/showproj.aspx?proj=17245).