Experimental RA Vaccine Shows Promise

By Pat Anson, Editor

Australian researchers have developed an experimental vaccine for rheumatoid arthritis (RA)  that could prevent the disease from developing in high-risk patients who have a genetic predisposition for RA.

In a small Phase I clinical study, researchers say the "Rheumavax" vaccine was safe and effective in suppressing the immune system response that triggers RA -- a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own defenses attack joint tissues, causing swelling, inflammation and bone erosion. About 1% of adults worldwide suffer from RA.

"Current therapies only treat the symptoms and slow the progression of the disease,” said Professor Ranjeny Thomas of the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute. “We have designed a vaccine-style treatment or ‘immunotherapy’ specifically for individuals carrying high-risk rheumatoid arthritis genes and specific rheumatoid arthritis antibodies, called anti-CCP."

CCP antibodies are present in about 60% to 70% of people with RA and can be detected years before symptoms appear.

The personalized Rheumavax vaccine is made by taking a sample of each patient's blood and extracting an immune system cell called dendritic cells. Those cells are then challenged with a foreign peptide and an immune system modulator to create a vaccine that is then injected back into the patient.

Researchers say Rheumavax "teaches" the patient’s immune system to ignore a naturally occurring peptide that triggers the production of CCP antibodies that cause inflammation. In the study, 18 patients received a single injection of Rheumavax and one month later showed no signs of inflammation or RA disease flares.

“At this stage, the technique would not be ideal for widespread treatment or prevention of rheumatoid arthritis because it’s costly and time-consuming," said Thomas. “However, the promising results of this trial lay the foundations for the development of a more cost-effective, clinically-practical vaccine technology that could deliver similar outcomes for patients." 

"This research is such an exciting advancement for arthritis sufferers.  To know that someday in the future, hopefully the near future, there may be a treatment that actually treats the cause, not just the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, makes me very hopeful," said  Jennifer Martin, a rheumatoid arthritis sufferer and columnist for Pain News Network.  

"I often worry that my son could have inherited this awful illness from me and that one day he will begin to show symptoms.  To think that there may be a treatment that is effective very early on, or even before symptoms arise if they are able to detect the gene is very reassuring."

Professor Thomas says if Rheumavax proves successful treating RA, it could also be applied to other autoimmune diseases, such as Type 1 diabetes.  The study is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine

Until the late 1990s, one in three RA patients were permanently disabled within five years of disease onset. Although there are no cures for RA, in recent years there has been significant improvement in treatment, with disease control now possible for many patients who receive biologic drugs.