New drug may ease pain, swelling of rheumatoid arthritis
July 16, 1997
Web posted at: 7:53 p.m. EDT (2353 GMT)
BOSTON (CNN) -- More than 2 million Americans who suffer from
the crippling effects of rheumatoid arthritis could benefit
from a new drug that appears to significantly reduce their
symptoms, say study results published in Thursday's issue of
the New England Journal of Medicine.
A genetically engineered protein in the drug, known by the
brand name Enbrel, blocks a natural substance in the body
called tumor necrosis factor, or TNF.
Researchers have known for about a decade that TNF levels
rise in the joint fluid of arthritis patients. A study at the
University of Alabama at Birmingham found that blocking TNF
reduced the number of swollen or sore joints in people with
In the UAB study, 180 patients were given the drug for three
months. Those receiving the highest dosage had a 61 percent
reduction in the number of swollen or sore joints, compared
with 25 percent in those taking placebos.
Enbrel is only a treatment, not a cure
But the study showed that Enbrel, given by injection, is only
a treatment, not a cure. Three months after treatment was
stopped, symptoms returned.
And in an editorial in the Journal, Dr. Gary S. Firestein and
Nathan J. Zvaifler of the University of California at San
Diego cautioned patients "to avoid excessive enthusiasm for
the results of short-term studies."
They said there could be unexpected consequences to blocking
tumor necrosis factor, which serves several useful functions
inside the body. Those complications could include infections
or even cancer.
Also, Firestein and Zvaifler noted that past new treatments
for rheumatoid arthritis turned out to be of little value,
either because they eventually lost their effectiveness or
produced serious side effects.
Rheumatoid arthritis, which affects mostly women, is a
chronic inflammatory disease that causes pain, swelling,
stiffness and loss of functions in joints, as well as eye
problems and inflammation of blood vessels, the lungs and
heart. There is no known cure.
While several drugs offer varying degrees of relief for the
immune-system disorder, no single drug works for everyone.
Doctors think the solution ultimately might be a
multiple-drug combination, not unlike the new
treatments for HIV and AIDS.
Medical Correspondent Al Hinman and Reuters contributed to this report.
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