Meta-Analysis Examines Cancer Risk Concern for JAK Inhibitors

Sara Freeman

April 26, 2023

MANCHESTER, England — Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors may be associated with a higher risk for cancer relative to tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors, according to a meta-analysis reported at the British Society for Rheumatology (BSR) 2023 Annual Meeting.

Looking at all phase 2, 3, and 4 trials and long-term extension studies across the indications of rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, axial spondyloarthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and atopic dermatitis, the risk ratio (RR) for any cancer developing was 1.63 when compared to anti-TNF therapy, with a 95% confidence interval of 1.27 - 2.09.

By comparison, JAK inhibitor use was not significantly associated with any greater risk for cancer than methotrexate (RR, 1.06; 95% CI, 0.58 - 1.94) or placebo (RR, 1.16; 95% CI, 0.75 - 1.80).

Dr Christopher Stovin

"Our data suggests that rather than JAK inhibitors necessarily being harmful, it could be more a case of TNF inhibitors being protective," said Christopher Stovin, MBChB, a specialist registrar in rheumatology at the Princess Royal University Hospital, King's College Hospital NHS Trust, London, England.

"We should stress that these are rare events in our study, roughly around one in every 100 patient-years of exposure," Stovin said.

"Despite having over 80,000 years of patient exposure, the median follow-up duration for JAK inhibitors was still only 118 weeks, which for cancers [that] obviously have long latency periods is still a relatively small duration of time," the researcher added.

"People worry about the drugs. But there is a possibility that [a] disturbed immune system plays a role per se in development of cancers," consultant rheumatologist Anurag Bharadwaj, MD, DM, told Medscape Medical News.

Dr Anurag Bharadwaj

"Although there are studies which attribute increased risk of cancer to different DMARDs [disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs] and biologics like TNF, but on other hand, it's maybe that we are giving these drugs to patients who have got more serious immunological disease," suggested Bharadwaj, who serves as the clinical lead for rheumatology at Basildon Hospital, Mid & South Essex Foundation Trust, Basildon, England.

"So, a possibility may be that the more severe or the more active the immunological inflammatory disease, the higher the chance of cancer, and these are the patients who go for the stronger medications," Bharadwaj said.

There is an "immunological window of opportunity" when treating these inflammatory diseases, said Bharadwaj, noting that the first few months of treatment are vital.

"For all immunological diseases, the more quickly you bring the immunological abnormality down, the chances of long-term complications go down, including [possibly that the] chances of cancer go down, chances of cardiovascular disease go down, and chances of lung disease go down. Hit it early, hit it hard."

Concern over a possible higher risk for cancer with JAK inhibitors than with TNF inhibitors was raised following the release of data from the ORAL Surveillance trial, a postmarketing trial of tofacitinib (Xeljanz) that had been mandated by the US Food and Drug Administration.

"This was a study looking at the co-primary endpoints of malignancy and major adverse cardiovascular events, and it was enriched with patients over the age of 50, with one additional cardiac risk factor, designed to amplify the detection of these rare events," Stovin said.

"There was a signal of an increased risk of malignancy in the tofacitinib group, and this led to the FDA issuing a [boxed warning for all licensed JAK inhibitors] at that time," he added.

Stovin and colleagues aimed to determine what, if any, cancer risk was associated with all available JAK inhibitors relative to placebo, TNF inhibitors, and methotrexate.

In all, data from 62 randomized controlled trials and 14 long-term extension studies were included in the meta-analysis, accounting for 82,366 patient years of follow-up. The JAK inhibitors analyzed included tofacitinib, baricitinib (Olumiant), upadacitinib (Rinvoq), filgotinib (Jyseleca), and peficitinib (Smyraf). (Filgotinib and peficitinib have not been approved by the FDA.)

The researchers performed sensitivity analyses that excluded cancers detected within the first 6 months of treatment, the use of higher than licensed JAK inhibitor doses, and patients with non-rheumatoid arthritis diagnoses, but the results remained largely unchanged, Stovin reported.  

"Perhaps not surprisingly, when we removed ORAL Surveillance" from the analysis comparing JAK inhibitors and TNF inhibitors, "we lost statistical significance," he said.

"Longitudinal observational data is needed but currently remains limited," Stovin concluded.

Stovin and Bharadwaj report no relevant financial relationships. The meta-analysis was independently supported. Bharadwaj was not involved in the study and provided comment ahead of the presentation.

British Society for Rheumatology (BSR) 2023 Annual Meeting: Abstract OA18. Presented April 24, 2023.

Sara Freeman is a medical journalist based in London, UK.

For more news, follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.