A new class of drugs is offering promise for Australians living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). But it’s essential that the progressive and often painful immune disease is detected early, say a group of Australian experts.
RA is one of the most common forms of arthritis that affects an estimated 2 per cent of the Australian population. The autoimmune disease causes the immune system to mistakenly target the body’s joints. This causes the lining of the joints to become inflamed, leading to pain, stiffness and often misalignment of the joints in the hands and feet.
As the disease progresses, symptoms often spread to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders.
The cause of RA remains unknown and there is no cure.
Currently most patients manage the symptoms of the disease through a combination of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, and immunosuppressants.
Immunosuppressants target the whole immune system to slow the progression of RA.
However, in recent years a new class of treatments known as biologics, developed through genetic engineering, have been developed. As a result, Australians with RA have “much to look forward to”, say the authors of a new report in the Medical Journal of Australia, led by professor Graeme Jones from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania.
“There are now eight approved biological disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (bDMARDs), two biosimilars and one targeted synthetic DMARD in Australia, with a number of new products and biosimilars in the pipeline,” they wrote.
Rather than targeting the whole immune system, biologics only target and suppress elements of the body’s inflammatory response that are specific to RA.
The goal is to slow down the progression of the arthritis and and preserve joint function for as long as possible. However, these therapies are most effective in the first six months of the disease.
“This means that RA should be diagnosed and treated with DMARD therapy as quickly as possible to maximise this benefit,” says Jones and his coauthors.
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Tender, warm, swollen joints.
- Morning stiffness that may last for hours.
- Firm bumps of tissue under the skin on your arms (rheumatoid nodules).
- Fatigue, fever and weight loss.