Etanercept is a subcutaneously administered biological response modifier that binds and inactivates tumour necrosis factor-alpha, a proinflammatory cytokine. In patients with early active rheumatoid arthritis, etanercept 25mg twice weekly was associated with a more rapid improvement in disease activity and a significantly greater cumulative response than methotrexate over 12 months of treatment in a randomised, double-blind trial. In addition, etanercept recipients showed a slower rate of radiographic progression and a more rapid improvement in quality of life than methotrexate recipients. The efficacy of etanercept was maintained at 3 years' follow-up. Etanercept was also significantly better than placebo at reducing disease activity in patients who had an inadequate response to previous treatment with disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) in several well controlled trials. At study end (after 3 or 6 months' treatment), the percentage of patients achieving an American College of Rheumatology 20% (ACR20) response with etanercept (25mg or 16 mg/m(2) twice weekly) was 59 to 75% as monotherapy and 71% in combination with methotrexate; corresponding placebo response rates were 11 to 14% and 27%, respectively. Response has been maintained in patients who continued treatment for up to 5 years. In patients with psoriatic arthritis, etanercept 25mg twice weekly significantly reduced disease activity and improved skin lesions in two double-blind, placebo-controlled, 12- to 24-week trials. In the 24-week study, ACR20 response rates (50 vs 13%), psoriatic arthritis response rates (70 vs 23%) and the median improvement in skin lesions (33 vs 0%) were significantly greater in etanercept than in placebo recipients. In patients with polyarticular-course juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, etanercept resulted in improvements in all measures of disease activity and was significantly more effective than placebo at reducing disease flare. Eighty percent of patients receiving etanercept achieved a >or=30% reduction in disease activity over 7 months of treatment, and this was maintained for up to 2 years in a trial extension. Etanercept was generally well tolerated in children and adults in clinical trials; the most commonly occurring adverse effects included injection site reactions, infection, headache, rhinitis and dizziness. In conclusion, etanercept has emerged as an important new treatment option in inflammatory arthritis. Etanercept provides rapid and sustained improvements in disease activity in patients with early and DMARD-refractory rheumatoid arthritis and has been shown to inhibit radiographic progression in those with early disease. Well controlled studies have also demonstrated the efficacy of etanercept in patients with psoriatic arthritis or polyarticular-course juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.