Objective: To define the differences in effects on joint destruction in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients between therapy with single and combination disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), glucocorticoids, and biologic agents.
Methods: Randomized controlled trials in RA patients, investigating the effects of drug treatment on the percentage of the annual radiographic progression rate (PARPR) were included in a meta-analysis performed with the use of Review Manager 5.0 software according to the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) Statement protocol.
Results: Data from 70 trials (112 comparisons, 16 interventions) were summarized in 21 meta-analyses. Compared with placebo, the PARPR was 0.65% smaller in the single-DMARD group (P < 0.002) and 0.54% smaller in the glucocorticoid group (P < 0.00001). Compared with single-DMARD treatment, the PARPR was 0.62% smaller in the combination-DMARD group (P < 0.001) and 0.61% smaller in the biologic agent plus methotrexate (MTX) group (P < 0.00001). The effect of a combination of 2 DMARDs plus step-down glucocorticoids did not differ from the effect of a biologic agent plus MTX (percentage mean difference -0.07% [95% confidence interval -0.25, 0.11]) (P = 0.44).
Conclusion: Treatment with DMARDs, glucocorticoids, biologic agents, and combination agents significantly reduced radiographic progression at 1 year, with a relative effect of 48-84%. A direct comparison between the combination of a biologic agent plus MTX and the combination of 2 DMARDs plus initial glucocorticoids revealed no difference. Consequently, biologic agents should still be reserved for patients whose RA is resistant to DMARD therapy. Future trials of the effects of biologic agents on RA should compare such agents with combination treatments involving DMARDs and glucocorticoids.