Objective: To determine whether a regimen of methotrexate, cyclosporin A, and corticosteroids introduced at onset in poor-prognosis rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can produce a significant improvement in outcome compared with standard monotherapy with sulfasalazine (SSZ).
Methods: Eighty-two consecutive patients presenting with new, untreated RA of less than 12 months' duration who fulfilled criteria for poor long-term outcome were randomized to receive either combination therapy (n = 40) or SSZ alone (n = 42). The primary outcome measures were remission and American College of Rheumatology (ACR) criteria for 20% improvement at 48 weeks.
Results: After 48 weeks, the numbers of patients who met the ACR criteria for 20% improvement were not significantly different between the two groups (combination 58% versus SSZ 45%), and similar numbers of patients had persisting clinical remission (approximately 10% both groups). During the first 3 months, there were significantly greater reductions in parameters of disease activity in the combination group. By 24 weeks, the swollen and tender joint counts, C-reactive protein levels, and erythrocyte sedimentation rates had fallen significantly in both groups, with a greater improvement in the swollen and tender joint count in the combination group. At 48 weeks, the radiographic damage score had increased by a median of 1 (range 0-42.5) in the combination group and 1.25 (range 0-72.5) in the SSZ group (P = 0.28; although there were significant differences in the scores for the right hand). There were significantly fewer withdrawals due to lack of efficacy in the combination group than in the SSZ group (1 of 40 versus 10 of 42; P = 0.007). In the combination group, dose reduction was needed in 22.5% because of hypertension and in 22.5% because of elevated creatinine levels. Over 48 weeks, serum creatinine increased in both groups, but particularly in the combination arm.
Conclusion: In poor-prognosis RA patients, "aggressive" combination therapy led to more rapid disease suppression but did not result in significantly better ACR response or remission rates. This suggests that in poor-prognosis disease, an approach based on identifying patients with poor treatment responses before extra therapy is added ("step-up" approach) may be more appropriate than the use of combination therapy in all patients from the outset.