How aggressive should initial therapy for rheumatoid arthritis be? Factors associated with response to 'non-aggressive' DMARD treatment and perspective from a 2-yr open label trial

E L Matteson, C M Weyand, J W Fulbright, T J H Christianson, R L McClelland, J J Goronzy
Rheumatology 2004, 43 (5): 619-25

OBJECTIVE: To determine what baseline factors might be associated with response to an initial mild treatment regimen in patients with early rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

METHODS: Open label 2-yr study of 111 consecutive patients with early RA of duration less than 1 yr. None of the patients had previously received disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs). All patients were assigned to receive hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) at enrollment, and could also take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and prednisone. At any point during follow-up, patients not fulfilling the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) 50 criteria for improvement and/or who were taking prednisone > 10 mg/day were considered treatment failures and therapy changed to methotrexate (MTX), 7.5-20 mg/week. Clinical, laboratory and immunogenetic factors potentially predictive of treatment assignment at month 24 were evaluated.

RESULTS: After 24 months of follow-up, a majority of patients (56/94) were either still on solo DMARD therapy with HCQ (n = 49) or off DMARD therapy with controlled/quiescent disease (n = 4), and 38 patients were taking MTX (including 11 in combination with other DMARDs). At month 24, all but 9 patients met ACR50 criteria for treatment response. Features present at enrollment which were predictors of MTX therapy at month 24 were high pain score, baseline rheumatoid factor titre > 1:40, higher number of swollen joints, and poor patient global assessment. The presence of HLA-C7xx at enrollment was also predictive of need for MTX therapy.

CONCLUSIONS: This study suggests that even milder treatment with HCQ is greatly beneficial in patients with early RA. There continue to be very few consistently reliable predictors of treatment needs in patients with this disease.

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