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New treatment hope for RA patients

The way patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are treated could be revolutionised thanks to a landmark drug trial.

Currently, patients are given a set order of treatments as the disease, which occurs when the body's immune system attacks its own joints, progresses.

In the initial stages of the disease, ordinary anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen, may be prescribed followed by disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), which slow down progression and delay joint damage.

One of these DMARD drugs is methotrexate, which is the "gold standard" in RA therapy.

In severe cases, biologic drugs may be used, which block an immune system signalling molecule called tumour necrosis factor (TNF), but these are expensive and can have severe side-effects.

Only after patients have failed to respond to an anti-TNF are they prescribed the antibody drug rituximab, marketed as MabThera.

But the new study found that administering rituximab in the early stages of RA, alongside methotrexate, can virtually stop the disease in its tracks.

The drug works by targeting white blood cells which play a key role in the immune response behind the condition.

Researchers from the from the University of Amsterdam say that using rituximab, which was originally developed to treat leukaemia, in this way could lead to a "paradigm shift" in therapy for the 500,000 people in the UK affected by RA.

Copyright © Press Association 2009

NHS Choices - Rheumatoid Arthritis

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"Hopefully someone will be able to say yes and not have to wait for NICE but I know we have to. My mother suffered from RA and we would have been glad if she could have had help" - Wendy Hedges, Blackburn