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Spring 2009

New Medications Provide Relief from Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis, in which the body’s own immune system attacks the joints, is a debilitating condition that can cause intense pain, stiffness, swelling, physical deformity and fatigue, and can affect other organs in the body.

Though there is no cure, new medications can help patients improve the quality of their lives and slow, or even stop, progression of the disease. “The sooner these new treatments are used, the better the outcome,” says Bevra Hahn, M.D., chief of rheumatology at UCLA. With aggressive early treatment, as many as one-third of patients will experience remission of active disease, says John Fitzgerald, M.D., associate chief of clinical rheumatology.

Among the new medications for treating rheumatoid arthritis is a class of drugs called biologic response modifiers, which are administered by injection either into the veins or under the skin, and which modify the immune system by inhibiting proteins that contribute to inflammation. The biologic medications often are used in combination with traditional therapies, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Patients who do not respond to currently available medications may benefit from clinical trials that test new therapies, says Daniel E. Furst, M.D., director of clinical research for rheumatology. UCLA currently is testing six different drugs, among them medications that target white blood cells and proteins that may cause the inflammation that accompanies rheumatoid arthritis.

While fairly common, rheumatoid arthritis often is confused with other conditions such as reactive arthritis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, thyroid disease or even certain viral infections. Physicians use two specific blood tests to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis — rheumatoid factor and anti-CCP antibody. Obtaining a thorough medical history, physical exam and proper testing is important for an accurate diagnosis.

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