Background: Etanercept, which blocks the action of tumor necrosis factor, reduces disease activity in patients with long-standing rheumatoid arthritis. Its efficacy in reducing disease activity and preventing joint damage in patients with active early rheumatoid arthritis is unknown.
Methods: We treated 632 patients with early rheumatoid arthritis with either twice-weekly subcutaneous etanercept (10 or 25 mg) or weekly oral methotrexate (mean, 19 mg per week) for 12 months. Clinical response was defined as the percent improvement in disease activity according to the criteria of the American College of Rheumatology. Bone erosion and joint-space narrowing were measured radiographically and scored with use of the Sharp scale. On this scale, an increase of 1 point represents one new erosion or minimal narrowing.
Results: As compared with patients who received methotrexate, patients who received the 25-mg dose of etanercept had a more rapid rate of improvement, with significantly more patients having 20 percent, 50 percent, and 70 percent improvement in disease activity during the first six months (P<0.05). The mean increase in the erosion score during the first 6 months was 0.30 in the group assigned to receive 25 mg of etanercept and 0.68 in the methotrexate group (P= 0.001), and the respective increases during the first 12 months were 0.47 and 1.03 (P=0.002). Among patients who received the 25-mg dose of etanercept, 72 percent had no increase in the erosion score, as compared with 60 percent of patients in the methotrexate group (P=0.007). This group of patients also had fewer adverse events (P=0.02) and fewer infections (P= 0.006) than the group that was treated with methotrexate.
Conclusions: As compared with oral methotrexate, subcutaneous [corrected] etanercept acted more rapidly to decrease symptoms and slow joint damage in patients with early active rheumatoid arthritis.