Aim and methods: We performed a quantitative retrospective analysis of serum thyrotropin receptor antibody (TRAb) concentrations measured by a second-generation radioreceptor assay in 58 patients with Graves' disease (GD) at the onset of the disease, at the end of 18 month methimazole (MMI) treatment, and after MMI withdrawal in order to evaluate the correlation between the presence of these antibodies and the relapse of hyperthyroidism. Sixty healthy subjects were enrolled as a control group. Results: Before MMI treatment the best cutoff TRAb value for identifying patients with GD was 1.45 UI/L (specificity, 100%; sensitivity, 98.3%). At the end of MMI treatment, serum TRAb concentrations were significantly lower (p <0.001) than those measured at baseline, but they were still significantly higher (p <0.001) than those found in the control subjects. At the end of MMI treatment, 44 patients (75.9%) had positive TRAb values (>1.45 UI/L). After MMI withdrawal (median, 15 months), 34 patients (58.6%) became hyperthyroid, 4 patients (6.9%) became hypothyroid, and 20 patients (34.5%) remained euthyroid. There was a significant correlation between serum TRAb concentrations at the end of MMI treatment and the percentage of patients who became hyperthyroid (r: 0.56; p <0.001) and the time of appearance of hyperthyroidism (r: -0.38; p = 0.03). All 4 patients with TRAb values below 0.9 UI/L at the end of MMI treatment remained euthyroid throughout the follow-up period. Among the 27 patients who had serum TRAb values higher than 4.4 UI/L, 23 developed hyperthyroidism and 4 hypothyroidism. The TRAb values between 0.9 and 4.4 UI/L did not discriminate between the 27 patients (46.6%) who remained euthyroid from those who had relapse of hyperthyroidism. Thus a different TRAb end of treatment cutoff was calculated to identify patients who became again hyperthyroid. This TRAb cutoff value was 3.85 UI/L (sensitivity, 85.3%; specificity, 96.5%). All but 1 patient who had serum TRAb values above 3.85 UI/L became hyperthyroid after MMI was withdrawn (positive predictive value, 96.7%). In these patients, relapse of hyperthyroidism was independent of the changes in serum TRAb concentrations (r: 0.27; p = 0.15) and occurred after a median period of 8 weeks (range, 4-48). Hyperthyroidism also developed in 5 of 24 patients who had serum TRAb concentrations lower than 3.85 UI/L at the end of MMI treatment. In these 5 patients the relapse of hyperthyroidism occurred after a median period of 56 weeks (range, 24-120) and was always accompanied by an increase in serum TRAb concentrations. Conclusions: TRAb persist in the blood of most patients with GD after 18 months of MMI treatment. Both the frequency and the time of appearance of hyperthyroidism are closely correlated with serum TRAb concentrations at the end of MMI treatment. Our data would suggest that TRAb maintain stimulating activity after a full course of MMI treatment in the large majority of patients with GD. However, it is likely that the potency of these antibodies and/or the thyroid response to them change during treatment, as suggested by the different values measured in euthyroid control subjects and in euthyroid patients after MMI treatment.
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