Taper, Withdrawal of RA Meds Tested in Real-Life Trial Setting

Heidi Splete

October 08, 2021

About half of patients with rheumatoid arthritis who taper or stop disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) retain stable remission after 12 months, and a majority of those who do relapse regain remission when back on their original treatments, according to data from the open-label, randomized Rheumatoid Arthritis in Ongoing Remission (RETRO) study.

"Currently, 40%-50% of patients with rheumatoid arthritis reach stable remission," as a result of factors including earlier diagnosis and a wider range of treatments, Koray Tascilar, MD, of Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (Germany) and colleagues wrote in their publication of the RETRO trial results in Lancet Rheumatology.

Previous studies have suggested that patients with RA in sustained remission may be able to taper or withdraw treatment, but data from randomized trials are limited, the researchers said.

In the RETRO trial, researchers compared three strategies for RA patients in remission, which was defined as <2.6 on the 28-joint Disease Activity Score with erythrocyte sedimentation rate (DAS28-ESR). They randomized 100 adults to continue DMARDs and glucocorticoids, 102 to taper DMARDs and glucocorticoids to half their prior doses, and 101 to reduce the doses to half for 6 months and then stop DMARDs. Patients were enrolled between May 26, 2010, and May 29, 2018, from 14 treatment centers in Germany. The final analysis included 282 patients; 92 in the continuation group, 93 in the taper group, and 96 in the stop group. The mean age of the patients was 56.5 years, and 59% were women. The mean duration of RA was 7.4 years, and the mean duration of remission was 20 months.

Overall, at 12 months, 61% of the patients remained in remission without relapse; 81.2% of the continuation group, 58.6% of the taper group, and 43.3% of the stop group. Relapses occurred in 17%, 43%, and 55% of patients in the continuation, taper, and stop groups, respectively. The median times to relapse in the three groups were 30.6 weeks, 24.3 weeks, and 26.1 weeks, respectively.

Most of the relapses occurred between weeks 24 and 36 after stopping treatment, the researchers wrote. Corresponding hazard ratios for relapse were 3.02 for the taper group and 4.34 for the stop group, compared with the continuation group. In comparison to continuing treatment, the number needed to treat for one more relapse to occur during the 12-month observation period was four for tapering and three for stopping, they noted.

The study protocol called for a return to baseline treatment for any patients who relapsed in the taper and stop groups, and most patients who relapsed regained remission after restarting their baseline treatments. Among patients who had a follow-up visit after a relapse, 10 (63%) of 16 patients in the continuation group reachieved remission before the end of the study, as did 21 (62%) of 34 in the taper group and 35 (76%) of 46 in the stop group.

The most common treatments at baseline were methotrexate (76%) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors (32%).

The researchers also identified several baseline characteristics associated with relapse. Overall, relapse occurred more often in biologic DMARD users than in participants treated with other drugs, more often in women than men, and more often in those with a longer disease duration, higher baseline DAS28-ESR and Health Assessment Questionnaire scores, and in those who were positive for rheumatoid factor or anti–citrullinated protein antibodies.

A total of 38 serious adverse events occurred in 29 participants during the study period, but none were deemed treatment related, and none led to study withdrawal.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the lack of masking of patients and assessors and potential underestimation of disease activity, the researchers noted. Also, the study did not include radiographic data that might have been used to confirm progression; however, such data could have produced a null result and were not feasible in the study population, they wrote.

"If RETRO had been a trial to test the superiority of 100% dose continuation, compared with tapering plus rescue treatment or stopping plus rescue treatment, we would not be able to show that continuation is superior to tapering or stopping," the researchers noted.

The study results support "an increasingly dynamic management approach in patients with rheumatoid arthritis in stable remission," given the changing nature of RA management, that may help reduce overtreatment in many RA patients, the researchers concluded. "Furthermore, the observation that most of the patients regained remission after reintroduction of antirheumatic treatments is helpful with regard to the benefit-risk aspect of treatment reduction."

Real-World Setting Serves as Starting Point

The RETRO study is unique in that it tried to reflect a real-life setting by enrolling patients on baseline treatment with combinations of conventional synthetic DMARDs and biologic DMARDs seen in clinical practice rather than only patients taking biologic DMARDs – primarily TNF inhibitors – as done in previous studies of tapering and stopping DMARDs, wrote Catherine L. Hill, MD, of the University of Adelaide (Australia), in an accompanying editorial. It is also "used a simple, pragmatic one-size-fits-all treatment-tapering strategy," she wrote.

However, she emphasized that answers are needed to questions about what relapse rates are acceptable, what duration of treatment-free time is ideal, and whether benefits to the patient outweigh risks.

Hill also highlighted the issue of identifying patients who are appropriate candidates for tapering or withdrawal. Stricter remission criteria may not be feasible in routine practice, and so "the development of algorithms to guide patient selection is likely to be the most practical way forward for clinicians and patients," she wrote.

"Contemplation of treatment tapering or discontinuation in some patients with rheumatoid arthritis is remarkable and a measure of how far treatments have advanced," Hill wrote. "However, further work to address outstanding questions on who should taper and how best to do it is still required," she concluded.

The study received no outside funding. Lead author Tascilar disclosed lecture fees from Gilead and Union Chimique Belge; several coauthors disclosed relationships with multiple companies outside the current study. Hill had no financial conflicts to disclose.

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


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