Thousands of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) sufferers have been given hope for the future by new research, it has been revealed.
Scientists have discovered a "three-month window" after symptoms begin that offers the chance of slowing or even curing the crippling disease.
They believe that within five years it may be possible to target patients early on with personalised drugs, allowing them to lead pain-free lives.
Premature deaths may also be prevented. On average a patient with progressive RA dies around 10 years earlier than someone without the disease.
Dr Karim Raza, from the University of Birmingham, said: "Recent trial data has shown that there is a three-month window after the start of symptoms and if you look at the molecules in the joints at that time they are different from what they are at a later stage.
"The data suggests that if you intervene within those three months you can very rapidly slow progression of the disease and in some cases halt it.
"There is also a suggestion that if you intervene aggressively you might in a small proportion of people actually switch off the disease.
"We hope as research continues to see that small proportion get larger. That's the Holy Grail. There is a precedent in the cancer literature - the more you understand what's going on in a tumour, the more you're able to target treatments and the better the outcomes. We'd like the same to be true of rheumatoid arthritis."