OBJECTIVES. Familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis is a genetically determined condition that is characterized by unremitting CD8 T lymphocyte and macrophage activation and leads to death in the absence of therapy. On the basis of the immunologic pathophysiology of familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, we propose a therapy with a combination of antithymocyte globulins with corticosteroids, cyclosporin A, and intrathecal injections of methotrexate.

METHODS. We retrospectively analyzed the outcome of antithymocyte globulin–based therapy that was performed in 38 consecutive patients who had familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis and were treated in a single center between 1991 and 2005. Overall, they received 45 courses of antithymocyte globulin (5–10 mg/kg per day for 5 days).

RESULTS. This regimen was associated with infections after 10 of 45 courses of antithymocyte globulin. There were 6 events after 11 antithymocyte globulin courses given as second-line therapy against 4 after 34 antithymocyte globulin courses in patients who were treated primarily with antithymocyte globulin. Antithymocyte globulin administration led to rapid and complete response of familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis in 73% of cases, partial response in 24%, and no response only once. When hematopoietic stem cell transplantation was performed early after complete or partial response induction, it led to a high rate of cure, in 16 of 19 cases. Overall survival was 21 of 38 with 4 toxic deaths.

CONCLUSION. Antithymocyte globulin based immunotherapy of familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis is efficient and carries an acceptable toxicity when used as a first treatment of familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis.

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