Researchers are hailing a new medication as a “major advance” in the war against rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s own joints and tissues, causing pain, stiffness, and deformity in the wrists, fingers, knees, feet, and ankles.
“It’s the first oral medication that’s been released in years,” says Roy Fleischmann, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Developed by Pfizer, the new medication is called tofacitinib (pronounced too-fah-sit-in-ib). It is the first rheumatoid arthritis medication from a new class drugs called JAK inhibitors, which block enzymes that cause joint pain.
An estimated one third of the 1.5 million Americans with rheumatoid arthritis do not receive adequate relief from current treatments, including so-called “biologic” drugs, which must be injected.
The FDA has granted final approval to tofacitinib and the drug recently went on sale under the brand name Xeljanz (pronounced zel-jans).
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Dr. Fleischmann is the lead author of a tofacitinib study that was recently published the New England Journal of Medicine. He and his colleagues recruited 700 patients who had failed to respond to methotrexate, a commonly used oral drug for rheumatoid arthritis.
The patients were randomly assigned to take either 5 or 10 mgs of tofacitinib twice daily, 40 milligrams of the biologic drug Humira (adalimumab) by injection twice monthly, or a placebo.
After 12 months, the researchers found that tofacitinib was at least as effective as Humira at relieving symptoms. However, tofacitnib has a big advantage over biologic drugs such as Humira because patients can take it by pill instead of having to go to their doctors to get injections.
Other recent studies have found that tofacitinib provides superior pain relief to methotrexate, an old-line arthritis drug that can have serious side effects.
“Because tofacitinib is an oral medication without a need for injections, that’s a big advantage,” Dr. Fleischmann tells Newsmax Health. “And it’s a big advance for patients who either don’t want to or cannot take methotrexate.”
The study results have been so impressive, he adds, that tofacitinib “has the potential to be a first-line therapy.”
“In the patients I have treated, the drug has done very well,” he says. “Many of them have had an excellent response very quickly. In those patients that it helps, it seems to have a rapid onset of action.”
So far, tofacitinib appears to be associated with the same side effects as the biologic drugs, which are opportunistic infections, Dr. Fleischmann says.
“Tofacitinib is not safer than the biologics,” explains Dr. Fleischmann. “But it’s still pretty reasonable in terms of absolute risk.”
The most common side effects associated with tofacitinib include bronchitis, headache, infections, and gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Because tofacitinib helps tame the immune response which damages joints in people with rheumatoid arthritis, it’s not a potential therapy for those with osteoarthritis. Unlike rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis is caused by long-term wear-and-tear on bones and joints and often is associated with obesity.
The full version of this article first appeared in Health Radar. To read more click here.
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