Cladribine treatment of multiple sclerosis is associated with depletion of memory B cells.
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BACKGROUND: The mechanism of action of oral cladribine, recently licensed for relapsing multiple sclerosis, is unknown. OBJECTIVE: To determine whether cladribine depletes memory B cells consistent with our recent hypothesis that effective, disease-modifying treatments act by physical/functional depletion of memory B cells. METHODS: A cross-sectional study examined 40 people with multiple sclerosis at the end of the first cycle of alemtuzumab or injectable cladribine. The relative proportions and absolute numbers of peripheral blood B lymphocyte subsets were measured using flow cytometry. Cell-subtype expression of genes involved in cladribine metabolism was examined from data in public repositories. RESULTS: Cladribine markedly depleted class-switched and unswitched memory B cells to levels comparable with alemtuzumab, but without the associated initial lymphopenia. CD3+ T cell depletion was modest. The mRNA expression of metabolism genes varied between lymphocyte subsets. A high ratio of deoxycytidine kinase to group I cytosolic 5' nucleotidase expression was present in B cells and was particularly high in mature, memory and notably germinal centre B cells, but not plasma cells. CONCLUSIONS: Selective B cell cytotoxicity coupled with slow repopulation kinetics results in long-term, memory B cell depletion by cladribine. These may offer a new target, possibly with potential biomarker activity, for future drug development.