The Rheumatic Crash of the Silver Wave
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that affects between 0,5-1% of the general population. It is considered an autoimmune disorder as the inflammatory system attacks joint locations of the body — typically in the hands but also other areas such as the feet.
Enough damage will considerably lower or possibly prevent the individual’s ability to perform motor activity.
Whether the inflammatory arthritides, including RA, have a distinct presentation and course in older as compared to younger subjects as first postulated in 1941 remains unsettled. The issue has gained significant importance as the proportion of the population who are over the age of 60 continues to grow in developed nations. As multiple newer treatment strategies emerge for RA, the efficacy and safety of these in elderly populations need to be evaluated as a distinct clinical issue.
— Aviva Hopkins, MD, and Carlos J. Lozada, MD
Traditionally, treatments known as Disease-Modifying Antirheumatic Drugs (DMARDs) have been used to treat RA in order to slow the progression of the condition — with methotrexate being the gold standard. In cases of heavy or severe inflammation and/or when DMARDs fail, glucocorticoids (corticosteroids) are also used in tablet or IV form. When used over time, these drugs cause considerable damage to the body. Immunosuppressives such as cyclophosphamide are also used in cases of strong inflammation and these drugs bear considerable toxicity — including the risk of developing infertility (which is vital to understand, especially considering the majority of cases are female; 3:1 in younger-onset RA). With these factors in mind, several new treatments have been made available and the most notable are called biologic drugs. These drugs are created from a biological process rather than being chemically synthesized; most often involving recombinant DNA technology to create, for example, monoclonal antibodies and fusion proteins. An example of a monoclonal antibody used in RA is rituximab, which was created as an “antibody” to specifically target B cells — which are a vital part of the immune response. Where a healthy immune system equates to a healthy person, in the case of an autoimmune patient the inflammatory response goes out of control and must be suppressed. Taking these drugs of course can lead to a rise in the rate of infections as they very effectively do what they were made for — lowering the immune response. However, a search on PubMed or any other medical database reveals a very positive force for the usage of biologic drugs; as they are also considered safer than some traditional DMARDs. Biologics have existed for approximately 20 years, but despite evidence showing them to be significantly more effective than DMARDs, they are quite costly. Therefore, biologics are typically reserved for those patients who do not respond well to DMARDs.
If there would be a way to make these biologic drugs more cost effective, these drugs are an important milestone for an answer to worldly health with the rising rates of elderly who may potentially develop RA. Novel drugs which may be considered similar to biologics have just been introduced within the past few years and these are known as protein kinase inhibitors. More research will show if these drugs will prove to be more cost effective than the competitive biologics.