Skip to content

Biologics for RA: Understanding Risks and Benefits

Font Size
A
A
A
By Joanne Barker
WebMD Feature

Medications called biologic response modifiers have given new hope to people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and the doctors who treat them. Until the late ’90s, people with RA looked at a future of pain, lost function, and eventual disability. Biologics have changed that outlook.

Many people now live with significantly less pain and more function, but may worry about side effects. Here's a look at the risks and benefits of biologics.

Recommended Related to Rheumatoid Arthritis

An Overview of Rheumatic Diseases

Rheumatic diseases are painful conditions usually caused by inflammation, swelling, and pain in the joints or muscles. Some rheumatic diseases like osteoarthritis are the result of "wear and tear" to the joints. Other rheumatic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, happen when the immune system becomes hyperactive; the immune system attacks the linings of joints, causing joint pain, swelling, and destruction. Almost any joint can be affected in rheumatic disease. There are more than 100 rheumatic...

Read the An Overview of Rheumatic Diseases article > >

Biologics in Action

Ed Clough’s story demonstrates how biologics have changed the RA picture. He was first diagnosed in the early ’90s and advised to take ibuprofen for pain. “It didn’t do much,” he says.

Then, for no apparent reason, his RA went into remission. A few years later, it came back with a vengeance. “The pain in my fingers and wrists got so bad I couldn’t button my shirt or lift a gallon of milk without dropping it,” he says. “Things I never used to think about.” 

The return of Clough’s RA coincided with the FDA’s 1998 approval of the first two biologic agents on the U.S. market. The drugs were so new that Clough’s doctor had to put him on a special list to qualify for the treatment. “Within weeks of the first injection, I could manage everyday activities again,” Clough says. “I played golf without pain for the first time in years.”

What Are Biologics?

Biologics are a class of drug that target specific parts of the immune system. With RA, the immune system goes into overdrive and attacks healthy cells. So bringing the immune system under control is key to managing the disease.

This approach is not new, exactly. Some disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) that have been around for decades. But many work by suppressing the whole immune system, rather than specific parts of it.

“Biologics are the first agents developed specifically with RA in mind,” says Theodore R. Fields, MD, clinical director of the Early Arthritis Initiative at the Hospital for Special Surgery. “Some were originally developed as chemo drugs, others to treat tuberculosis. The new agents target specific chemicals in the immune system so you see more benefits without as much collateral damage.”

1 | 2 | 3

Today on WebMD

rubbing hands
Avoid these 6 common mistakes.
woman roasting vegetables in oven
Four that fight inflammation.
 
mature woman threading needle
How much do you know about these RA myths and facts?
Patients who take the product would get no
This may lead to worsening symptoms.
 
Lucille Ball
Slideshow
Hand bones X-ray
Article
 
prescription pills
Article
Woman massaging her neck
Quiz
 
woman roasting vegetables in oven
Slideshow
Woman rubbing shoulder
Slideshow
 
Working out with light weights
Video
arthritis
Article