RA Remission? Stop Methotrexate, Keep Etanercept

Jim Kling

November 24, 2020

In patients with RA whose disease is well controlled by methotrexate combined with etanercept, withdrawal of methotrexate led to long-term outcomes that were nearly as good as continuation of combination therapy. The finding comes from the randomized, controlled SEAM-RA trial that sought to address weaknesses of previous studies. It included a long lead-in time with stringent criteria to ensure that participants had very good disease control.

Both the American College of Rheumatology and the European League Against Rheumatism recommend tapering medication in RA patients who are in long-term remission, but there is no established optimal strategy.

"There have been some prior RA trials that have looked at therapy reduction or withdrawal, but most did not use a very stringent definition of how well people were when they began. Were they in remission, or only in low disease activity?" said Jeffrey R. Curtis, MD, during a presentation of the results at the virtual annual meeting of the ACR. The study was also published online Nov. 18 in Arthritis & Rheumatology.

Stringent Remission Criteria

The key feature of the trial was the 6-month run-in period, when subjects were taking 50 mg etanercept once per week and 10-25 mg of oral methotrexate once per week, and had to complete at least three visits. They were excluded from the ensuing randomization if they had a Simplified Disease Activity Index (SDAI) score >3.3 and ≤11 at two or more visits, had an SDAI >11 at any time during the run-in period, or had an SDAI >3.3 at the third run-in visit.

"We [wanted them] to be doing quite well for a long period of time. That was empirically confirmed under observation as part of the lead-in period, and even before that, the clinical investigator had to affirm that they believed the patient was doing well for 6 or more months even before they were screened to enter the trial," said Curtis, professor of medicine in the division of clinical immunology and rheumatology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Once enrolled in the trial, patients were randomized 2:2:1 to continuing etanercept only (n = 101), continuing methotrexate only (n = 101), or continuing both medications (n = 51). Patients were eligible for rescue after randomization if they had an SDAI score >11 at any time, SDAI between 3.3 and 11 on three separate visits, or between 3.3 and 11 at two consecutive visits at least 2 weeks apart. About three-quarters of patients in each treatment arm were female, with a mean age of about 55 years, and 82%-91% were White.

Good Remission Recovery With Rescue Therapy

At week 48, 28.7% of the methotrexate-only group were in remission (SDAI ≤3.3), compared with 49.5% of the etanercept-only group (P = .004) and 52.9% of the combination group (P = .006). Time to disease worsening was shorter in the methotrexate-only group (median, 198 days) than in the etanercept-only group (median, not estimable; P < .001) and the combined therapy group (median, not estimable; P < .001).

The researchers also found that most patients who underwent rescue therapy once again achieved remission, including 71% of the methotrexate-only group, 75% of the etanercept-only group, and 80% of the combination therapy group. There was no between-group differences in the time required to reattain remission.

The high rate of remission recovery was a good sign, Curtis said. "To me as a clinician, the risk to try [withdrawing a medication] is quite low because the likelihood you can regain where you were before is quite good. It's obviously more successful if you stop methotrexate and continue etanercept than if you do the reverse, but to me, this is quite a practical trial, and in fact the rigor of the inclusion criteria are much more like the patients I'm talking to about stopping therapy than some of the past studies in this regard. I think it's quite useful in terms of generalizability. We want people that are doing this well or close to it before we take away medication."

Positive Reactions From Rheumatologists

The reaction from the viewing audience was also positive. "I think this study fills a big data gap for what we do in clinical practice," wrote Janet Pope, MD, in comments during the session.

Pope, who is a professor of medicine at the University of Western Ontario and head of rheumatology at St. Joseph's Health Centre, both in London, said that the results build on previous work, including the CAMEO study, which showed that discontinuation of methotrexate in patients taking methotrexate and etanercept failed to achieve noninferiority to continuation of both medications, and the PRIZE study, which showed that continuing combination therapy at a reduced dose led to better outcomes than did switching to methotrexate alone or placebo. "This may be for some patients what they prefer if they don't tolerate methotrexate," she added.

"It's wonderful to have these data to counsel patients. This is something we face every day," wrote Elizabeth Wahl, MD, who is an acting assistant professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, and acting chief of rheumatology at the VA Puget Sound Healthcare System.

The study was funded by Amgen. Curtis has received grants or research support from AbbVie, Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Corrona, Janssen, Lilly, Myriad, Pfizer, Regeneron, Roche, and UCB. Pope consults for a variety of pharmaceutical companies. Wahl has no relevant financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Curtis JR et al. Arthritis Rheumatol. 2020;72(suppl 10), Abstract 0939.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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