In relapsing MS, blood NfL has emerged as a promising biomarker of disease activity and worsening. The ability of serum NfL (sNfL) to detect relapse-independent disability progression is less well established.
We investigated whether patients followed in the Swiss Multiple Sclerosis Cohort (SMSC) without any relapses during follow-up, had higher sNfL levels when experiencing confirmed disability progression independent of relapses (PIRA) as compared to stable patients. Secondly, we explored whether baseline (BL) sNfL could predict PIRA.
BL and 6- or 12-monthly follow-up sNfL were measured by Simoa NF-light® assay in 4608 samples from 806 relapse-free MS patients and 8865 serum samples from 4133 healthy controls (median age 45 yrs). Age-dependent sNfL z-scores (sNfLz) were modeled in healthy controls using a generalised additive model for location scale and shape to reflect the deviation of a patient sNfL value from the mean value of same age healthy controls. PIRA was defined as an EDSS increase of ≥1.5 steps if baseline EDSS 0, ≥1.0 if 1.0-5.5, or ≥0.5 if >5.5, confirmed after ≥6 months. We used mixed effects models to investigate the association between PIRA, clinical parameters, disease modifying treatment, and log(sNfL) as dependent variable at each sampling. The predictive value of BL sNfLz was investigated by uni- and multivariable Cox proportional hazards models.
806 (4608 samples) of 1399 patients in the SMSC did not experience relapses during a median follow-up of 4.7 years (57.6%; BL: 715 RRMS, 43 SPMS, 48 PPMS; median age 42 yrs; samples/patient: 5; EDSS 2.0). PIRA occurred in 153/806 (19.0%). In a multivariable model, sNfL was positively associated with age (1.7%/year [95%CI 1.5;2.0], p<0.001) and EDSS at BL (7.6%/step, [5.8;9.6], p<0.001), whereas it was decreased when sampled during monoclonal antibody therapy (-10.8%, [-14.7;-6.6], p<0.001) or oral MS treatments (-10.4%, [-14.1;-6.5%], p<0.001) as compared to untreated timepoints. Importantly, patients experiencing PIRA had 11.6% higher sNfL levels, compared with stable patients (4.5;19.2, p=0.001). The hazard of future PIRA increased by 23.5% (8.3;40.8, p=0.002) per 1 standard deviation higher BL sNfLz. This finding was confirmed after adjusting for age, EDSS score and treatment at BL (27.8%, [11.5;46.5], p<0.001; sNfLz > 2: 2.5-fold risk [95%CI 1.7-3.9], p<0.001 for PIRA event vs. sNfLz < 2).
Our data support the value of sNfL to capture and predict neuro-axonal injury leading to disability progression independent from relapses.