Conference Coverage

NB-UVB phototherapy plays a key role in psoriasis treatment, expert says



– In 2012, about 50% of patients receiving phototherapy at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston were being treated for psoriasis. A decade later, that proportion has dropped to 20%.

Several factors have contributed to this trend, namely, the development of biologics, the COVID-19 pandemic, “and the rise of home phototherapy options,” Elizabeth A. Buzney, MD, codirector of the phototherapy center at Brigham and Women’s department of dermatology, said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology. In her clinical opinion, phototherapy plays an essential role in the treatment of psoriasis.

Dr. Elizabeth A. Buzney co-director of the phototherapy center at Brigham and Women's Department of Dermatology.

Dr. Elizabeth A. Buzney

“It is medically and financially responsible to review the option of phototherapy with every psoriasis patient,” Dr. Buzney said. “Many patients are not medical or financial candidates for biologic/apremilast therapy, or just would prefer nonsystemic therapy.”

While the newer biologics have surpassed narrowband UVB (NB-UVB) phototherapy in terms of efficacy and rapid onset of action, she continued, NB-UVB performs on par with older biologics. In one meta-analysis, the proportion of patients achieving Psoriasis Area and Severity Index (PASI) 75 with NB-UVB therapy was 70% after 20-40 sessions, just below the efficacy of newer biologics – but better than ustekinumab and adalimumab.

“Phototherapy is not so far out of range as you might think it is,” she said, noting that other studies of NB-UVB therapy show PASI 75 responses of 62% and PASI 90 responses of 40%.

Phototherapy can also be an appealing option because biologics aren’t the best option for all patients with psoriasis. They are expensive for the health care system and potentially for patients, require initial and potentially continued lab testing and monitoring, and require injections, “which some patients don’t like,” said Dr. Buzney, who is also vice-chair of clinical affairs at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital department of dermatology. “There’s an infrequent risk of serious infection and there is risk in patients with HIV, TB, and hepatitis that you have to address. There is also concern for the impact of biologics on patients with a recent cancer.”

On the other hand, few contraindications to NB-UVB exist. According to joint American Academy of Dermatology-National Psoriasis Foundation guidelines on the management and treatment of psoriasis with phototherapy, published in 2019, NB-UVB therapy is only contraindicated in patients with xeroderma pigmentosa and other photosensitive disorders. Concurrent use of cyclosporine and NB-UVB treatment is also contraindicated because of the calculated increase in risk of skin cancer, extrapolated from data on risk with cyclosporine and PUVA (psoralen and ultraviolet A therapy).

The guidelines state that NB-UVB can be used with caution in lupus patients with no history of photosensitivity and who are SS-A negative, as well as patients with a history of melanoma or multiple nonmelanoma skin cancers, a history of recurrent oral herpes simplex virus infection, a history of arsenic intake, prior exposure to ionizing radiation, and those taking photosensitizing medications (since NB-UVB lamps emit “negligible” UVA).

It’s also safe to use during pregnancy and in children. “It’s safe and effective for the right patient,” Dr. Buzney said, discussing how phototherapy can be modified to accommodate children. “You can consider a slower dose-increased regimen. Will children keep the eye protection on? That’s a tricky one. How are you going to manage their anxiety during treatment and involve their family?”

Subgroups of patients who demonstrate a better response to NB-UVB treatment include those with guttate psoriasis, compared with plaque psoriasis, nonsmokers, those with a lower BMI, those with a higher baseline PASI, and those who demonstrate a faster trajectory of clinical response over the first 2-3 weeks of treatment.

Why would one not use phototherapy for psoriasis? “Cost and convenience,” Dr. Buzney said. “There is lost time/revenue to commute to treatment, which may involve multiple times per week. Coming to a public space when COVID-19 is still lingering is another concern, as are the out-of-pocket costs for copays and parking.”

For these reasons, she considers home phototherapy as a transformative option for many patients. Home phototherapy booths provide a safe and effective way to use NB-UVB phototherapy while minimizing copays and commuting costs. The one-time price tag of home NB-UVB booths runs between $5,000 and $7,000, but that is “much less expensive than the biologics,” which can cost $40,000-$50,000 per year, she said.

A small cross-sectional study of office- versus home-based NB-UVB in patients with vitiligo found a cost savings for home-based NB-UVB after 3 months.

One of the challenges with home phototherapy is the lack of long-term studies on patient use. In a small study Dr. Buzney conducted of 30 patients who were prescribed home phototherapy in the last 5 years, 65% practiced (or had practiced) conservative dosing, 83% had continued care with a dermatologist, 19% reported sunburns (5 mild and 1 severe), and 50% had discontinued the therapy at the time of survey because of a perceived lack of efficacy and inconvenience. But 30% of those who had stopped had done so within one month of getting their home booth.

“This tells me that we have to educate our patients better about what expectations should be and make sure they understand how to use their booths,” she said. “Home phototherapy has changed my practice, but not everyone is a candidate for it. Some patients are not dependable. Others are unable to understand instructions.”

Cost to purchase a NB-UVB booth is also an issue, she noted. “Typically, a percentage of cost is covered by insurance, but it’s problematic to purchase a booth if patients don’t know it’s going to work for them or not. Then you have college students who don’t have the space in their apartment or dorm room for a booth.”

Dr. Buzney reported having no relevant financial conflicts.

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