A recently discovered inflammatory disease known as VEXAS syndrome is more common, variable, and dangerous than previously understood, according to results of a retrospective observational study of a large health care system database. The findings, published in JAMA, found that it struck 1 in 4,269 men over the age of 50 in a largely White population and caused a wide variety of symptoms.
“The disease is quite severe,” study lead author David Beck, MD, PhD, of the department of medicine at NYU Langone Health, said in an interview. Patients with the condition “have a variety of clinical symptoms affecting different parts of the body and are being managed by different medical specialties.”
Dr. Beck and colleagues first described VEXAS (vacuoles, E1-ubiquitin-activating enzyme, X-linked, autoinflammatory, somatic) syndrome in 2020. They linked it to mutations in the UBA1 (ubiquitin-like modifier activating enzyme 1) gene. The enzyme initiates a process that identifies misfolded proteins as targets for degradation.
“VEXAS syndrome is characterized by anemia and inflammation in the skin, lungs, cartilage, and joints,” Dr. Beck said. “These symptoms are frequently mistaken for other rheumatic or hematologic diseases. However, this syndrome has a different cause, is treated differently, requires additional monitoring, and can be far more severe.”
According to him, hundreds of people have been diagnosed with the disease in the short time since it was defined. The disease is believed to be fatal in some cases. A previous report found that the median survival was 9 years among patients with a certain variant; that was significantly less than patients with two other variants.
For the new study, researchers searched for UBA1 variants in genetic data from 163,096 subjects (mean age, 52.8 years; 94% White, 61% women) who took part in the Geisinger MyCode Community Health Initiative. The 1996-2022 data comes from patients at 10 Pennsylvania hospitals.
Eleven people (9 males, 2 females) had likely UBA1 variants, and all had anemia. The cases accounted for 1 in 13,591 unrelated people (95% confidence interval, 1:7,775-1:23,758), 1 in 4,269 men older than 50 years (95% CI, 1:2,319-1:7,859), and 1 in 26,238 women older than 50 years (95% CI, 1:7,196-1:147,669).
Other common findings included macrocytosis (91%), skin problems (73%), and pulmonary disease (91%). Ten patients (91%) required transfusions.
Five of the 11 subjects didn’t meet the previously defined criteria for VEXAS syndrome. None had been diagnosed with the condition, which is not surprising considering that it hadn’t been discovered and described until recently.
Just over half of the patients – 55% – had a clinical diagnosis that was previously linked to VEXAS syndrome. “This means that slightly less than half of the patients with VEXAS syndrome had no clear associated clinical diagnosis,” Dr. Beck said. “The lack of associated clinical diagnoses may be due to the variety of nonspecific clinical characteristics that span different subspecialities in VEXAS syndrome. VEXAS syndrome represents an example of a multisystem disease where patients and their symptoms may get lost in the shuffle.”
In the future, “professionals should look out for patients with unexplained inflammation – and some combination of hematologic, rheumatologic, pulmonary, and dermatologic clinical manifestations – that either don’t carry a clinical diagnosis or don’t respond to first-line therapies,” Dr. Beck said. “These patients will also frequently be anemic, have low platelet counts, elevated markers of inflammation in the blood, and be dependent on corticosteroids.”
Diagnosis can be made via genetic testing, but the study authors note that it “is not routinely offered on standard workup for myeloid neoplasms or immune dysregulation diagnostic panels.”
As for treatment, Dr. Beck said the disease “can be partially controlled by multiple different anticytokine therapies or biologics. However, in most cases, patients still need additional steroids and/or disease-modifying antirheumatic agents [DMARDs]. In addition, bone marrow transplantation has shown signs of being a highly effective therapy.”
The study authors say more research is needed to understand the disease’s prevalence in more diverse populations.
In an interview, Matthew J. Koster, MD, a rheumatologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who’s studied the disease but didn’t take part in this research project, said the findings are valid and “highly important.
“The findings of this study highlight what many academic and quaternary referral centers were wondering: Is VEXAS really more common than we think, with patients hiding in plain sight? The answer is yes,” he said. “Currently, there are less than 400 cases reported in the literature of VEXAS, but large centers are diagnosing this condition with some frequency. For example, at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, we diagnose on average one new patient with VEXAS every 7-14 days and have diagnosed 60 in the past 18 months. A national collaborative group in France has diagnosed approximately 250 patients over that same time frame when pooling patients nationwide.”
The prevalence is high enough, he said, that “clinicians should consider that some of the patients with diseases that are not responding to treatment may in fact have VEXAS rather than ‘refractory’ relapsing polychondritis or ‘recalcitrant’ rheumatoid arthritis, etc.”
The National Institute of Health funded the study. Dr. Beck, the other authors, and Dr. Koster report no disclosures.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.