Immunosuppression by hydroxychloroquine: mechanistic proof in in vitro experiments but limited systemic activity in a randomized placebo-controlled clinical pharmacology study.

In 't Veld AE, Grievink HW, van der Plas JL, Eveleens Maarse BC, van Kraaij SJW, Woutman TD, Schoonakker M, Klarenbeek NB, de Kam ML, Kamerling IMC, Jansen MAA, Moerland M

Based on its wide range of immunosuppressive properties, hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) is used for the treatment of several autoimmune diseases. Limited literature is available on the relationship between HCQ concentration and its immunosuppressive effect. To gain insight in this relationship, we performed in vitro experiments in human PBMCs and explored the effect of HCQ on T and B cell proliferation and Toll-like receptor (TLR)3/TLR7/TLR9/RIG-I-induced cytokine production. In a placebo-controlled clinical study, these same endpoints were evaluated in healthy volunteers that were treated with a cumulative dose of 2400 mg HCQ over 5 days. In vitro, HCQ inhibited TLR responses with ICs > 100 ng/mL and reaching 100% inhibition. In the clinical study, maximal HCQ plasma concentrations ranged from 75 to 200 ng/mL. No ex vivo HCQ effects were found on RIG-I-mediated cytokine release, but there was significant suppression of TLR7 responses and mild suppression of TLR3 and TLR9 responses. Moreover, HCQ treatment did not affect B cell and T cell proliferation. These investigations show that HCQ has clear immunosuppressive effects on human PBMCs, but the effective concentrations exceed the circulating HCQ concentrations under conventional clinical use. Of note, based on HCQ's physicochemical properties, tissue drug concentrations may be higher, potentially resulting in significant local immunosuppression. This trial is registered in the International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) under study number NL8726.