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How Biologics Treat Rheumatoid Arthritis

Biologics are drugs that work on your immune system to curb inflammation.

There are different types of them. They target immune system triggers that cause joint inflammation and damage in rheumatoid arthritis. Each focuses on one of these things:

  • T cells. These are a type of white blood cell and part of the immune system. The drug abatacept (Orencia) works in this way.
  • TNF (tumor necrosis factor). Your doctor may call these “anti-TNF” drugs. TNF is a chemical your body makes that causes inflammation. These drugs include adalimumab (Humira), certolizumab pegol (Cimzia), etanercept (Enbrel), golimumab (Simponi), and infliximab (Remicade). Most people take this type of biologic drug first.
  • IL-1 or IL-6. Those are inflammatory chemicals your body makes. Anakinra (Kineret) blocks IL-1. Tocilizumab (Actemra) blocks IL-6.
  • B cells. These are a type of white blood cell. Rituximab (Rituxan) targets them.

Tame Inflammation and Save Joints

The goal is to control inflammation to ease joint pain and other symptoms, and to slow down or stop joint damage.

Doctors often prescribe biologics if DMARDs (disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs) don’t work well enough to control the disease. You can take them with other types of RA drugs. Usually, people who take a biologic also take a DMARD to ease their symptoms and curb RA. But you can take a biologic alone.

All biologics have been shown to slow or even stop joint damage from getting worse. Though it may take some time to find the one that works best for you, most people eventually have some improvement in their RA symptoms.

Studies show that these improvements usually last, and that they can help you move better and handle your daily activities.

Because biologic drugs suppress the immune system, you’re more likely to get an infection. Most cases are mild, such as a cold or sinus infection. It’s uncommon, but there have been life-threatening infections, including tuberculosis. Your doctor will closely watch for serious infections when you take a biologic, and she can tell you about the benefits and risks of all your medicines.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on March 24, 2015
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