New Drug Reduces Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Patients with moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may soon have a new treatment option.

Abbvie has announced positive results from a Phase 3 clinical study of its investigational drug upadacitinib and said it would file for FDA approval later this year.

Patients taking daily doses of upadacitinib for 14 weeks showed significant improvements in physical function, quality of life, pain and morning joint stiffness when compared with patients taking methotrexate, a standard first line treatment for RA.

Patients using upadacitinib reported reductions in pain and morning stiffness and better physical function as early as two weeks after starting treatment.

The results were announced at the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) in Chicago.

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"Upadacitinib as a monotherapy showed significant improvements in rheumatoid arthritis patients' ability to perform daily activities and overall health-related quality of life," said Marek Honczarenko, MD, vice president of global immunology development at AbbVie. "These results show that the improvements in clinical symptoms are accompanied by improvement in outcomes important to patients. These results reinforce upadacitinib's therapeutic potential across diverse rheumatoid arthritis patient populations and its use as a monotherapy treatment option."

Upadacitinib belongs to a class of medication known as JAK inhibitors, which block enzymes that cause inflammation.  The drug is also being investigated as a treatment for psoriatic arthritis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, ankylosing spondylitis and atopic dermatitis.

RA is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own defenses attack joint tissues, causing swelling, inflammation and bone erosion. Because RA is incurable, treatments focus on suppressing the immune system to reduce inflammation and slow progression of the disease.

Many RA patients do not respond to or cannot tolerate methotrexate, a drug that was first used in chemotherapy because of its ability to stop the growth and spread of tumors. Because it also acts as an immune system inhibitor, low doses of methotrexate became a first line therapy for rheumatoid arthritis in the 1950’s.

Until the late 1990s, one in three RA patients were permanently disabled within five years of disease onset. There has been significant improvement in RA treatment for many patients who receive biologic disease modifying drugs such as Enbrel and Humira. The cost of biologic drugs can be as much as $25,000 a year and many patients can’t afford them or have insurers unwilling to pay for them.

Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug Linked to Overdoses

Pat Anson, Editor

A drug that’s long been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases has been linked to dozens of deaths in the U.S. and Australia, mainly because patients have taken it daily rather than the recommended weekly dose, according to a new study published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

Methotrexate was originally developed and is still used for chemotherapy because of its ability to stop the growth and spread of tumors. Because it is also effective as an immune system inhibitor, low doses of methotrexate became a front line therapy for rheumatoid arthritis in the 1950’s. It is also used to treat psoriasis, lupus, sarcoidosis, and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s.

Researchers say methotrexate is safe when taken once or twice a week, but the drug is so potent that accidental daily dosing can be lethal.

“The unusual dosing schedule of low dose methotrexate is associated with a risk that it will be prescribed, dispensed or administered daily instead of weekly,” said lead author Rose Cairns, PhD, of the NSW Poisons Information Centre in Australia.

“Used appropriately, methotrexate is considered safe and efficacious; accidental daily dosing, however, can potentially be lethal. Higher or more frequent doses can result in gastro-intestinal mucosal ulceration, hepatotoxicity, myelosuppression, sepsis and death.”

In a review of medication errors in Australia from 2004 to 2014, researchers linked methotrexate to 22 deaths, including seven cases in which erroneous daily dosing was documented. One patient took methotrexate for 10 consecutive days. Reasons for the errors included patient misunderstanding and incorrect packaging of the drug by pharmacists.

A similar study of medication errors in the U.S. over a 4 year period identified over 100 methotrexate dosing errors that resulted in 25 deaths. Over a third (37%) of the errors were attributed to the prescriber, 20% to the patient, 19% to pharmacists, and 18% to administration by a health care professional.

The researchers also found a “worrying increase” in the number of medication errors just in the past year.

“It is difficult to explain this increase, but the risk of methotrexate medication error may be increasing as the population ages. Older people may be at increased risk because of a range of problems that includes confusion, memory difficulties, and age-related decline in visual acuity,” said Cairns.

Cairns and her colleagues say more needs to be done by drug makers and health professionals to reduce the risk of methotrexate overdosing, such as clearer labeling, smaller sized packages, and distinctly colored tablets.

"Methotrexate use is likely to continue increasing as Australia's population ages, so that additional measures are needed to prevent these errors," the authors concluded.