Objective: To determine if methotrexate has disease-controlling and corticosteroid (cs)-sparing effects in the treatment of giant cell arteritis (GCA).
Methods: This was a randomized, controlled, double-blind trial comparing methotrexate versus placebo in addition to corticosteroid therapy in patients with newly diagnosed giant cell arteritis. Patients with giant cell arteritis were enrolled and treated with high dose corticosteroids as well as methotrexate starting at 7.5 mg/week or placebo. Corticosteroids were tapered by the treating physician as guided by the clinical picture, with methotrexate or placebo dose increased by 2.5 mg/week for disease flare with a maximum allowable dose of 20 mg/week. After a clinically-defined remission and steroid discontinuation, methotrexate or placebo was tapered monthly to zero by 2.5 mg/week.
Results: Twenty-one patients were enrolled, 12 randomized to methotrexate, 9 to placebo. Baseline characteristics (age, height, weight, sedimentation rate, bone mineral density, total corticosteroid dose prior to randomization, and quality of life as measured by SF-36 and function as measured by AIMS) were comparable between groups. At completion, there was no significant difference between methotrexate- and placebo-treated patients with regard to the cumulative corticosteroid dose (6469 mg and 5908 mg respectively, p = 0.6), number of weeks to completion of steroids (68 and 60 respectively, p = 0.5), time (weeks) to taper prednisone to less than 10 mg prednisone/day (23 and 25 respectively, p = 0.5), bone mineral density in lumbar spine (p = 0.2) or hip (p = 0.4) at one year, or functional status as measured by AIMS and quality of life as measured by SF36. There was no late vision loss in either group, and only one major treatment-responsive relapse in a methotrexate-treated patient. There were few major corticosteroid-related side effects and these did not significantly differ between groups.
Conclusion: With this study design, no corticosteroid-sparing benefit could be attributed to the combination of methotrexate with corticosteroid therapy for the treatment of patients with giant cell arteritis. Both groups did well, with few major corticosteroid-related side effects, and most patients were safely tapered off corticosteroids sooner than reported in many series. The shorter overall duration of steroid treatment in this study probably contributed to the remarkably low frequency of side effects, without increased ischemic risk for the patient.