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Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug Prolongs Life

WebMD Health News

April 4, 2002 -- A drug traditionally used to treat cancer patients, methotrexate, can also help prolong the life of people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, according to a new study.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a progressive disease that causes inflammation of joints and can lead to loss of mobility and physical function. Overall, people with rheumatoid arthritis typically live shorter lives than the general population and are at greater risk of dying from heart disease, infection, and cancer, according to the researchers.

Although methotrexate was originally designed to treat cancer, it has also become a popular RA treatment. The drug works by interfering with the replication of cells in the body. Despite its popularity, researchers say little was known about the drug's effect on prolonging life in RA patients.

The study, published in the April 6 issue of TheLancet, looked at more than 1,200 people with RA. Those that took methotrexate were 60% less likely to have died during the six-year period compared with those on other common RA drugs.

The study was conducted through December 1999, so newer-generation drugs that have come into use since then, such as Enbrel and Remicade, were not included in the study.

Researchers say the life-extending effect was even more notable because patients who received methotrexate had significantly worse RA than other people in the study when they began the treatment. Methotrexate seemed to provide the biggest benefit in preventing deaths from heart disease.

Deaths from heart attacks or stroke were reduced by 70% among individuals treated with methotrexate. "These results are important in long-term rheumatoid arthritis care, since cardiovascular death is common in this population and a prominent contributor to the excess deaths in patients with rheumatoid arthritis compared to the general population," the researchers write.

Researchers think the drug may work to prolong life in RA patients by reducing inflammation throughout the body and improving mobility, which can reduce the risk of other diseases such as heart disease. Increased use of the drug, they say, could substantially reduce the number of deaths associated with RA.

Since many of the new drugs used to fight RA are strong blockers of inflammation, it's possible that these drugs may have the same life-saving effect as that seen with methotrexate.

Future research should now look at the life-prolonging benefit of other drugs and compare them with those found in this study of methotrexate, according to the researchers.

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