Biologics and JAK Inhibitors: What’s the Difference?

Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on October 16, 2020

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor may prescribe a biologic or janus kinase (JAK) inhibitor. Both of these medicines dampen an overactive immune system, which is your body’s defense system against germs. They help block the inflammation that can cause swelling, pain, and joint damage.

Although biologics and JAK inhibitors treat the same issues, there are important differences between the two. Each works in its own way.

How Biologics Can Help Your RAThese meds help a lot of people with their RA joint pain by targeting their immune system.123

SPEAKER: Biologics represent

a class of medications in which

we can target particular parts

of the immune system.

Using biologic therapy,

we can try and tailor

the treatment towards getting

a particular person's

rheumatoid arthritis

under better control.

There's no one-size-fits-all

type of an answer for rheumatoid


The decision about whether

or not to use a biological agent

to control the disease is really

a personal one.

The physician and the patient

will end up talking together

to decide whether the disease

manifestations are

aggressive enough in which they

need to use a biologic agent

or whether

a different medication might be


In general, biologics are

safe medications,

and we use them for a lot

of different patients.

However, just

like any other medication,

they have the potential for side


In patients that may have

certain types of infections

or certain exposure

of infections in the past,

they might not


suitable for that particular


In addition,

particular biologics

may interact with other parts

of the immune system

or other medications

that people are taking, and so

in those cases,

the decision as to whether

or not to use a biologic

and if so, which one,

is really

a customized, personalized


In general, the biologics work

for a large portion

of the population, especially

those that may not have

responded well enough

to the more traditional


Most biologics take a few weeks

in order for them to take

maximal effect,

but that varies a little bit

depending on which biologic

we're talking about.

We really, for the longest time,

had very limited treatments

in order to help keep

rheumatoid arthritis

under control.

With these biologic agents,

we've been able to make patients

feel better,

have longer, healthier lives

and be able to be more active.

And so I think that this is

a really exciting development

for both rheumatologists

as well as the patients which we

deal with.

I think that it's really

important to talk

with your physician

if you don't have good disease

control using other medications

and decide whether a biologic

might be right for you.

Prateek Gandiga, MD./delivery/79/22/79224dc7-da12-4ceb-bc03-8cfc8ccaa619/vd-1369-ra-how-biologics-help_,1000k,4500k,750k,2500k,400k,.mp412/20/2017 13:22:00650350test tubes/webmd/consumer_assets/site_images/article_thumbnails/video/generic_aidshiv_3_video/650x350_generic_aidshiv_3_video.jpg091e9c5e818a8b5d


What Are Biologics and JAK Inhibitors?

Both of these medications belong to a family of drugs called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs). These medicines stop or slow down the disease process instead of only treating the symptoms. 

Biologics: These drugs are genetically engineered proteins that are made in a lab. Biologics zero in on specific parts of your immune system that drive inflammation. Most of the time, they block chemicals outside of cells called cytokines. These are proteins that help cells talk to each other. Some cytokines attach to the receptors on the surface of immune cells, causing changes that trigger inflammation.


There are four main categories of biologics:

  • Tumor necrosis factor inhibitors
  • B-cell inhibitors
  • Interleukin inhibitors
  • Selective co-stimulation modulators

Each one targets a certain cell or cytokine.

JAK inhibitors: JAK inhibitors stop inflammation from inside cells. These small molecules block enzymes called JAK1, JAK2, JAK3, and tyrosine kinase 2. When cytokines attach to cell receptors, JAK enzymes send messages within the cell. This sets off a series of signals that leads to inflammation. JAK inhibitors halt this process early on, like removing a domino in a chain.

JAK inhibitors prevent the action of many cytokines. Experts say there are more than 200 different cytokines, and about 60 of them use JAK enzymes.

Biologics and JAK inhibitors: What Are the Differences?

Biologics and JAK inhibitors have different targets, and each works in its own way to fight inflammation.

Other differences include:

  • How you get them: You get biologics through a shot into your skin or an infusion in your bloodstream. You may need to go to your doctor’s office or give yourself a shot. It depends on what kind of biologic drug you’re on, but you’ll need treatment anywhere from daily to every few months. JAK inhibitors are taken as pills, usually once or twice a day.
  • When they became available: The first biologic drug for rheumatoid arthritis was approved in 1998. JAK inhibitors became available much later in 2012. This means that there’s more research on biologic drugs’ track record. Doctors often have a better idea of how safe they are and how well they work.

What Do Biologics and JAK Inhibitors Have in Common?

Although they have different actions, biologics and JAK inhibitors also have similarities.

  • Results: Biologics and JAK inhibitors can lower inflammation and protect against the rheumatoid arthritis joint damage. Both drugs can ease symptoms, such as pain, and improve quality of life. Studies suggest JAK inhibitors are just as effective as biologic drugs.
  • Side effects and risks: Early research suggests that biologic drugs and JAK inhibitors cause side effects at roughly the same rate. Because both suppress the immune system, they increase your risk of serious infections and certain cancers. JAK inhibitors may be safer because they aren’t linked to any allergies. Biologic drugs may cause an allergic reaction in a small amount of people.

When Do Doctors Prescribe Biologics or JAK Inhibitors?

The first drug doctors prescribe for rheumatoid arthritis is usually methotrexate, a kind of DMARD. If methotrexate stops working or causes too many side effects, you’ll need to add or switch to a new drug. These include biologics and JAK inhibitors.


Most of the time, doctors prescribe biologics first. That's because more research has been done on these drugs. But roughly 30% of the time, biologic drugs aren’t enough. They may not help, or they may stop working. If that’s the case, your doctor may suggest JAK inhibitors.

Or you may decide on JAK inhibitors first. Many people prefer taking pills instead of getting a shot or IV. Talk to your doctor about your best option.

WebMD Medical Reference



Cleveland Clinic: “Could a JAK Inhibitor Be Right for Your Rheumatoid Arthritis?”

Hospital Pharmacy: “Janus Kinase Inhibitors for the Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis.”

Arthritis Foundation: “Biologics,” “DMARDS,” “Will Jakinibs Change Your Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment?”

International Anesthesiology Clinics: “Cytokines, Inflammation and Pain.”

Rheumatology: “Clinical efficacy of launched JAK inhibitors in rheumatoid arthritis,” “JAK-inhibitors. New players in the field of immune-mediated diseases, beyond rheumatoid arthritis.”

BioMed Research International: “Are Janus Kinase Inhibitors Superior Over Classic RA Patients?”

Clinical Therapies: “The Use of Biologics in Rheumatoid Arthritis: Current and Emerging Paradigms of Care.”

American College of Rheumatology Meeting Abstracts: “Pre-Biologic Use of Janus Kinase Inhibitors for the Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis in the United States.”

BioDrugs: “The Arrival of JAK Inhibitors: Advancing the Treatment of Immune and Hematologic Disorders.”

© 2021 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.