A generic drug, which has been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, can significantly reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke for people with the painful joint condition. This is the findings reported by an international team of researchers in the journal Arthritis & Therapy on March 6, 2008. In the paper, the researchers also provide further evidence of the benefits of the generic drug, known as methotrexate, and emphasize the importance of prescribing it early on.
About 20 million people worldwide have rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease caused when the body confuses healthy tissue for foreign substances and attacks itself.
Several drugs are used to treat it: some reduce inflammation directly but others tone down immune system response. The later type of drugs may risk patients to infections and cancer.
Methotrexate was developed as a cancer drug. Its function is to alter the body’s use of folic acid, which is required for cell growth. It can start working as early as 3 to 6 weeks after commencement of treatment.
In order to examine the causes and effects of rheumatoid arthritis and the potential benefits of medications, the researchers from Spain, Argentina and the United States carried out a long-term study on more than 4,300 people in 15 countries. After adjusting for traditional risk factors such as exercise, smoking and diabetes, the researchers found potential health benefits for patients given methotrexate.
The study indicated that patients who used methotrexate for 1 year, their risk of heart attack was cut by 18 percent and that of stroke was cut by 11 percent. Moreover, results from the study also suggested that newer drugs that block an inflammatory protein called tumor necrosis factor (TNF) were also effective at reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Nevertheless, further research is necessary to gather more evidences.
Of course, methotrexate is not the only drug that can treat arthritis. There are other drugs with similar functions as methotrexate, for instance, Johnson & Johnson's Remicade, Amgen's Enbrel, and Abbott Laboratories's Humira. However, because they are expensive, patients often do not get them right away.