When a JAK Inhibitor Fails for a Patient With RA, What's Next?

Neil Osterweil

November 10, 2021

For patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) for whom a first Janus kinase inhibitor (JAKi) has failed, there appears to be no difference in treatment effectiveness whether the patient is cycled to a second JAKi or receives a biologic disease-modifying antirheumatic drug (bDMARD), a study of international patient registry data suggests.

However, patients who are prescribed a different JAKi after the first has failed them tend to have conditions that are more difficult to treat than do patients who are switched to a bDMARD after JAKi failure. In addition, adverse events that occur with the first JAKi are likely to occur again if a different agent in the same class is used, reported Manuel Pombo-Suarez, MD, PhD, adjunct professor of medicine at the University Hospital of Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

"When the first JAK inhibitor was stopped due to an adverse event, it was also more likely that the second JAK inhibitor would be stopped for the same reason," he said in an oral abstract presentation during the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) 2021 Annual Meeting, which was held online.

The 2019 update of the European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology (EULAR) guidelines for RA recommend that for patients for whom a first JAKi has failed, clinicians can consider a different JAKi or switch to a bDMARD. But at the time the guidelines were published, no data were available from studies in which a second JAKi was used after the failure of a first JAKi, Pombo-Suarez noted.

"We are trying to shed a light on this growing population of patients, as prescription of these drugs is increasing and new JAK inhibitors come into play, meaning that this scenario, we propose, is becoming more and more frequent in real life. We must provide a solution for these patients," he said.

Pooled Registry Data

The investigators compared the effectiveness of the two approaches with respect to rates of drug retention and Disease Activity Score in 28 joints (DAS28).

They conducted a nested cohort study using data from 14 national registries that are part of the JAK-pot collaboration.

They pooled data from each registry on patients with RA for whom a first JAKi had failed and who were then treated with either a second JAKi or a bDMARD.

They identified a total of 708 patients for whom a JAKi had failed initially. Of these patients, 154 were given a different JAKi, and 554 were switched to a bDMARD. In each group, women accounted for a large majority of patients.

The mean age was slightly older among those who received a second JAKi (58.41 years vs 54.74 years for patients who were given a bDMARD). The mean disease duration was 13.95 years and 11.37 years, respectively.

In each group, approximately 77% of patients received tofacitinib (Xeljanz).

At baseline, the mean DAS28 scores were similar between the groups: 4.10 in the group that received a second JAKi, and 4.17 in the group given a bDMARD.

Reasons for initially stopping use of a JAKi were as follows: adverse events (27.3% of those who took a second JAKi after they had stopped taking one initially, and 17.9% of patients who received a bDMARD); lack of efficacy (61% and 65%, respectively), and other reasons (11.7% and 17.1%, respectively).

At 2 years' follow-up, drug survival rates were similar between the two treatment arms, although there was a nonsignificant trend toward a higher rate of discontinuation among patients who were given a second JAKi after they stopped taking the first JAKi because of adverse events. In contrast, there was also a nonsignificant trend toward lower discontinuation rates among patients who were given a second JAKi after they had stopped taking the first JAKi because of lack of efficacy.

As noted before, patients who stopped taking the first JAKi because of an adverse event were more likely to stop taking the second JAKi because of they experienced either the same or a different adverse event, whereas patients who started taking a bDMARD were equally likely to stop taking the second therapy because of either adverse events or lack of efficacy.

The treatment strategies were virtually identical with respect to improvement of DAS28 at 7 months after the start of therapy.

Pombo-Suarez acknowledged that the study was limited by the fact that heterogeneity between countries could not be assessed, owing to the small sample sizes in each nation's registry. Other limitations include short follow-up and the fact that tofacitinib was used as the first JAKi by the large majority of patients.

What's Your Practice?

In a media briefing during which Pombo-Suarez discussed the study findings, Medscape Medical News polled other speakers who were not involved in the study about their go-to strategies when JAKi therapy fails.

Silje Watterdal Syversen, MD, PhD, a consultant rheumatologist and researcher at Diakonhjemmet Hospital, in Oslo, Norway, said that she would choose to switch to a tumor necrosis factor [TNF] inhibitor.

"I think it would depend on what prior treatment the patient had received," said April Jorge, MD, a rheumatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston. "In my practice, patients receiving a JAK inhibitor typically failed on their biologics. I haven't had many fail a JAK inhibitor ― a small sample size."

"That's what we see in our study," Pombo-Suarez said. "Most of the patients that cycled JAK inhibitors had higher numbers of biologics compared with switchers."

"I can share my experience, which is a greater comfort level with cycling a TNF antagonist. I agree with Dr Jorge: I don't use JAK inhibitors in the first line for rheumatoid arthritis, but based on the work that's been described here and future data, I might have a greater comfort level cycling JAK inhibitors once the data support such an approach," commented H. Michael Belmont, MD, professor of medicine at New York University, co-director of the NYU Lupus Center, and medical director of Bellevue Hospital Lupus Center, in New York City.

The JAK-pot study is supported by unrestricted research grants from AbbVie and Galapagos. Pombo-Suarez has received adviser and speaker honoraria from several companies other than the funders. Syversen has received honoraria from Thermo Fisher. Jorge has disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Belmont has received honoraria from Alexion.

American College of Rheumatology (ACR) 2021 Annual Meeting: Abstract 1442. Presented November 8, 2021.

Neil Osterweil, an award-winning medical journalist, is a long-standing and frequent contributor to Medscape.

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