Objectives: Treat-to-target strategies in the management of patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) involve intensifying medication as long as low disease activity or remission is not achieved. Our aim was to discuss reasons and opportunities for tapering and discontinuing medication when the target is achieved, in particular of biological agents.
Methods: Data from the Behandel Strategieën (BeSt) study are presented, a multicentre randomised clinical trial comparing 4 treatment strategies in patients with recent onset active RA (1987 criteria): 1. Sequential monotherapy, 2. Step up to combination therapy (both starting with methotrexate (MTX) monotherapy), 3. Initial combination therapy with MTX, sulfasalazine and prednisone and 4. Initial combination therapy with MTX and infliximab. Treatment adjustments involving dose increases, drug changes or expansion to combination therapy occurred based on three-monthly calculations of the Disease Activity Score (DAS), with a target of ≤2.4. If this was achieved for 2 consecutive evaluations, treatment was tapered (combinations to monotherapy, monotherapy to maintenance dose). Prednisone and infliximab (either as part of initial treatment or as delayed treatment after failure on earlier therapies in arms 1, 2 and -for infliximab- 3) were always tapered and discontinued before other drugs. The outcomes of discontinuation of infliximab are presented.
Results: 77/120 (64%) of patients who started initial infliximab were able to discontinue infliximab, whereas 27/109 (25%) of patients who started delayed infliximab in arms 1-3 could discontinue infliximab. Discontinuation was independent of previous dose increases in order to achieve low DAS. After discontinuation of infliximab, 16 of 27 patients (59%) in arms 1-3 and 34 of 77 patients (44%) in arm 4 suffered a DAS flare >2.4 and had to restart treatment. Median time without infliximab treatment was 17 (IQR 3-47) months, and 29 of the 61 patients (58%) who needed to restart had been at least 1 year without infliximab. Restarting infliximab resulted in DAS ≤2.4 in all patients, and there was no progression of radiological damage. Presence of shared epitope, smoking, and a long treatment with infliximab were independent predictors of infliximab restart.
Conclusions: Data on infliximab discontinuation in the BeSt study suggest that this possible in 1 in 4 patients, or more if infliximab was the initial treatment, who have had at least 6 consecutive months of low disease activity. While MTX is continued, about 50% of patients can permanently stop infliximab without radiological damage progression, the others regain low disease activity after restarting infliximab. Treat to target strategies using biologic agents should include strategies for discontinuation.