HUNDREDS of thousands of Britons crippled by rheumatoid arthritis are being given fresh hope by a powerful new drug.
Patients taking the pill, tofacitinib, suffered less pain and inflammation than those on today’s best treatments.
It was also more effective at slowing damage to joints. Scientists say an ongoing clinical trial of nearly 1,000 people living with the pain of a disease that can leave sufferers virtually immobile showed the pill is “superior” to MTX (methotrexate).
Tofacitinib targets pathways in the cells that regulate inflammation. And, unlike many treatments for rheumatoid arthritis – which affects around 400,000 Britons – it can be taken orally instead of by injection.
Half of those on the trial had fewer symptoms than those on MTX and displayed less joint damage. Judith Brodie, chief executive of UK charity Arthritis Care, said: “This looks very promising.
“Anything that can make a difference to people with rheumatoid arthritis is hugely important.” The disease, in which the body’s immune system attacks the joints, can strike at a young age, unlike the more common osteoarthritis, which mainly strikes older people.
It usually affects hands and feet, although any of the body’s joints can become inflamed and painful.
It can also lead to crippling flare-ups.
Ms Brodie added: “What many people don’t realise is that patients can be coping well one day and flare up badly the next.
“This can make them very immobile and it can also be very painful.”
Tofacitinib, still in the developmental stage, belongs to a new group of drugs called Janus kinases, which can be used to treat adults with moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis.
The current more common treatment involves painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs which tackle the pain and swelling.
Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs or DMARDS – of which methotrexate is the most common – are used to slow down the progression of the disease and joint damage.
Tofacitinib is being reviewed by regulators in the US, Europe and Japan. If approved, it would become the first new-generation inhibitor treatment drug on the market.
Harley Street consultant Dr Malcolm Vandenburg welcomed the findings.
He said: “This is a step forward but they still have to show an acceptable risk/benefit ratio.
“Tofacitinib is getting positive reviews in the United States but the Food and Drug Administration is not willing to approve it for use yet. It is still very much in the development stages.”
GP Dr Ian Campbell said: “Rheumatoid arthritis is very difficult to treat and can be severely debilitating.
“If this new drug is even slightly more effective, without more toxic effects, it will be a very welcome addition.”
Professor Alan Silman, medical director at Arthritis Research UK, welcomed the findings but said more research is needed on the drug’s safety.
He said: “Unlike most of the recently introduced new treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, which are given by injection, tofacitinib can be taken by mouth.”
He said this was “a potential big advantage” for patients.
But he added: “There are still questions to be answered on how effective it is and whether there are any important safety concerns.
“It will be important to look in detail at the data from this study alongside other recent studies on tofacitinib before we can know what role it will play in treatment.”
A spokesman for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which has developed the drug, said: “Tofacitinib is a novel, oral small molecule Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitor that is being investigated as an immunomodulator and disease-modifying therapy for rheumatoid arthritis.
“Tofacitinib is currently under review by several regulatory agencies around the world, including in the European Medicines Agency.”
Rheumatoid arthritis is less common that osteoarthritis, which affects around 8.5 million Britons.
Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition associated with age, treated by exercise and painkillers.