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New drug may ease pain, swelling of rheumatoid arthritis

X-ray 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 rheumatoid arthritis.

vxtreme CNN's Al Hinman reports.

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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