RA Drugs Not Linked to Cancer

Rheumatoid arthritis patients taking biologic drugs may not have increased cancer risk

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Over the past decade, a new class of drugs has changed the way rheumatoid arthritis is treated. Despite this step forward, there has been fear that these drugs may lead to cancer. New research may ease some of the worry.

Rheumatoid arthritis patients taking certain drugs - called biologic response modifiers, or biologics - did not have a higher risk of cancer compared to patients taking other drugs.

"Ask your doctor about the risks of any medication."

Because biologic drugs block parts of the immune system, there has been concern that they might increase the risk of infections and cancer.

Maria E. Suarez-Almazor, MD, of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and colleagues set out to see if biologic drugs increased the risk of cancer in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

The researchers did not find a serious difference in cancer risk between patients treated with biologic drugs and those treated with other drugs.

Of the nearly 30,000 patients involved in the study, 211 (0.72 percent) developed cancer.

Various types of cancer were found in 23 of 3,615 patients taking biologic drugs (0.64 percent), 123 of 15,989 patients taking biologics and other drugs (0.77 percent) and 65 of 9,819 patients taking placebo or DMARDs (0.66 percent).

"Patients are understandably concerned when treatments are linked to cancer risk," said Dr. Suarez-Almazor.

With the information from this study, doctors can show their patients that the benefits of biologic drugs outweigh the risks, she said.

Usually, the first drug of choice to treat rheumatoid arthritis is a type of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug, or DMARD. When DMARDs fail, biologic drugs are often the second drug of choice. Studies have shown that biologic drugs may lead to better control of arthritis symptoms and joint damage in patients who do not respond to DMARDs.

The study's results may be comforting news to the 25 to 56 percent of rheumatoid arthritis patients taking biologic drugs - a class of drugs that includes TNF inhibitors.

According to Dr. Suarez-Almazor, "This is a step forward in understanding overall the risk of developing cancer when taking this newer class of medication."

However, more research is needed to better understand the long-term cancer risk of biologic drugs, she said.

The current study was not funded or supported by any organization. The authors reported no potential conflicts of interest.

The research was published September 5 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
September 5, 2012
Last Updated:
September 8, 2012