Initiating treatment of polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (polyJIA) with both a conventional synthetic disease-modifying antirheumatic drug and a biologic DMARD resulted in more patients achieving clinical inactive disease 2 years later than did starting with only a csDMARD and stepping up to a biologic, according to data presented at the virtual annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology.
“The 24-month results support the 12-month primary results that suggested that the early-combination group was superior and that, at 24 months, more early combination CTP [consensus treatment plan] patients achieve CID [clinical inactive disease], compared to step up,” Yukiko Kimura, MD, division chief of pediatric rheumatology at HMH Hackensack (N.J.) University Medical Center, told attendees. “This suggests that starting biologics early in polyJIA may lead to better long-term outcomes in many patients.”
Kimura noted that polyarticular JIA patients are already at risk for poor outcomes, and initial therapy can especially impact outcomes. Further, little evidence exists to suggest when the best time is to start biologics, a gap this study aimed to address.
Diane Brown, MD, PhD, a pediatric rheumatologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles who was not involved in the study, was pleased to see the results, which she said support her own preferences and practice patterns.
“Starting sooner with combination therapy, taking advantage of the advances with biologics and our long history with methotrexate at the same time, gives better outcomes for the long run,” Brown said in an interview. “Having studies like this to back up my own recommendations can be very powerful when talking to families, and it is absolutely invaluable when battling with insurance companies who always want you to take the cheapest road.”
The findings were an update of 12-month results in the CARRA STOP-JIA study that enrolled 400 untreated patients with polyJIA and compared three Childhood Arthritis and Rheumatology Research Alliance (CARRA) CTPs. Overall, 49.5% of participants received biologics within 3 months of starting the study. For these updated results, 275 participants had complete data at 24 months for the three CTPs:
A step-up group of 177 patients who started therapy with a csDMARD and added a biologic if needed at least 3 months later
An early-combination group of 73 patients who started therapy with a csDMARD and biologic together
A biologic-first group of 25 patients who started with biologic monotherapy, adding a csDMARD only if needed at least 3 months later.
The primary outcome was the percentage of participants who reached CID without taking glucocorticoids at 24 months. Since the participants were not randomized, the researchers made adjustments to account for baseline differences between the groups, including differences in JIA categories, number of active joints, physician global assessment of disease activity, and the clinical Juvenile Arthritis Disease Activity Score based on 10 joints (cJADAS10).
At 24 months in an intention to treat analysis, 59.4% of the early-combination group had achieved CID, compared with 48% of the biologic-first group and 40.1% of the step-up group (P = .009 for early combination vs. step up). All three groups had improved since the 12-month time point, when 37% of the early-combination group, 24% of the biologic-first group, and 32% of the step-up group had reached CID.
There were no significant differences between the groups in secondary outcomes of achieving cJADAS10 inactive disease of 2.5 or less or 70% improvement in pediatric ACR response criteria at 24 months. All groups improved in PROMIS pain interference or mobility measures from baseline. Most of the 17 severe adverse events were infections.
Moving From Step-Up Therapy to Early-Combination Treatment
Brown said that she spent many years in her practice using the step-up therapy because it was difficult to get insurance companies to pay for biologics without first showing that methotrexate was insufficient.
“But methotrexate takes so long to control the disease that you need a lot of steroids, with all of their side effects, at least temporarily, or you must simply accept a longer period of active and symptomatic disease before you get to that desired state of clinically inactive disease,” Brown said. “And during that time, you can be accumulating what may be permanent damage to joints, as well as increase in risk of contractures and deconditioning for that child who is too uncomfortable to move and exercise and play normally.”
Brown is also wary of using a biologic as an initial therapy by itself because the actions of biologics are so specific. “I like to back up the powerful, rapid, and specific actions of a biologic with the broader, if slower, action of methotrexate to minimize chances that the immune system is going to find a way around blockade of a single cytokine by your biologic,” she said.
While patient preference will also play a role in what CTP patients with polyJIA start with, Brown said that she believes more medication upfront can result in less medication and better outcomes in the long run, as the findings of this study suggest. The results here are helpful when speaking with families who are anxious about “so much medicine” or “such powerful medicines,” she said. “I hope it will also help ease the fears of other providers who share the same concerns about ‘so much medicine.’ “
The study’s biggest limitation is not being a randomized, controlled trial, but Brown said the researchers demonstrated effectively that the disease burden remains similar across the groups at baseline.
“It would also be useful to have a clear breakdown of adverse events and opportunistic infections because an excess of opportunistic infections would be a key concern with early combination therapy,” she said, although she added that the study overall was a “beautiful example of the value of registry data.”
Kimura emphasized that polyJIA remains a challenging disease to treat, with 40%-60% of participants not reaching CID at 24 months. The registry follow-up will continue for up to 10 years to hopefully provide more information about longer-term outcomes from different treatments.
The research was funded by a grant from Genentech to CARRA. Kimura reported royalties from UpToDate and salary support from CARRA. Brown had no disclosures.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.