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New Drug Treats Arthritis, Easy on Stomach

But Huge Trial Raises Questions Over Value of Prexige

Pain, Ulcers, and Heart Disease continued...

He admits more study is needed. Falk argues that the study included too few heart patients to prove that Prexige is safe for the heart. He also says the study offers little new information about patients at high risk of heart disease and/or digestive system complications.

"We all had great hopes for this coxib class of drugs to eliminate our problems, but they don't," Falk says. "There is a group of people for whom coxib treatment makes sense. ... The million-dollar question is what to do about patients at high risk. These studies don't answer that. We worry about people whose age is over 65. We worry about people with prior ulcers or gastrointestinal complaints. We worry about people on steroids. We worry about people on high doses of NSAIDs or aspirin. All those questions need to be asked."

Thomas J. Schnitzer, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and assistant dean for clinical research at Northwestern University, is the lead researcher of the paper reporting the study's main findings. He says Falk asks excellent questions but that no single study could answer them all.

"I believe this study shows that coxibs can prevent meaningful, serious, gastrointestinal events," Schnitzer tells WebMD. "Even to the extent seen here, it has major clinical meaning in high-risk patients. But this study is not directed to answer every question about these patients. If I have a patient on aspirin at relatively high risk of gastrointestinal complications who requires an analgesic agent, I think the choice of a coxib is arguably a better choice based on these data." But he adds that these patients at high risk of developing an ulcer should consider taking a medication to protect their stomach along with their coxib.

Perspective

All of the experts who spoke with WebMD about this study agree on several things:

  • Patients who are at low risk of heart disease and who don't take aspirin can benefit from coxibs -- if they can afford the high price of these drugs.
  • Patients who take low-dose aspirin and also take pain relievers, even coxibs, may need to take other drugs for stomach protection.
  • Individual patients need individual treatment. Doctors must look at each patient's risk factors before prescribing any of the medications.

Doherty warns arthritis sufferers and their doctors not to focus solely on the relative merits of drug treatments.

"When talking about managing people with pain due to osteoarthritis, everybody agrees on patient education, exercise, losing weight, mechanical factors -- the lifestyle approach," he says. "When you are down to giving painkillers, everybody agrees that acetaminophen has to be the first tablet for pain relief. In the U.K., we also consider topical creams because they are safe. And there are other things to try before using traditional NSAIDs and coxibs. They come lower down on the list -- they are not the one thing everybody needs."

Prexige is made by Novartis, a WebMD sponsor.

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