Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis: Unraveling the conundrum

J Autoimmun. 2015 Dec;65:1-18. doi: 10.1016/j.jaut.2015.10.003. Epub 2015 Oct 27.


Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a heterogeneous disease with a complex and yet not fully understood pathophysiology, where numerous different cell-types contribute to a destructive process of the joints. This complexity results into a considerable interpatient variability in clinical course and severity, which may additionally involve genetics and/or environmental factors. After three decades of focused efforts scientists have now achieved to apply in clinical practice, for patients with RA, the "treat to target" approach with initiation of aggressive therapy soon after diagnosis and escalation of the therapy in pursuit of clinical remission. In addition to the conventional synthetic disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, biologics have greatly improved the management of RA, demonstrating efficacy and safety in alleviating symptoms, inhibiting bone erosion, and preventing loss of function. Nonetheless, despite the plethora of therapeutic options and their combinations, unmet therapeutic needs in RA remain, as current therapies sometimes fail or produce only partial responses and/or develop unwanted side-effects. Unfortunately the mechanisms of 'nonresponse' remain unknown and most probable lie in the unrevealed heterogeneity of the RA pathophysiology. In this review, through the effort of unraveling the complex pathophysiological pathways, we will depict drugs used throughout the years for the treatment of RA, the current and future biological therapies and their molecular or cellular targets and finally will suggest therapeutic algorithms for RA management. With multiple biologic options, there is still a need for strong predictive biomarkers to determine which drug is most likely to be effective, safe, and durable in a given individual. The fact that available biologics are not effective in all patients attests to the heterogeneity of RA, yet over the long term, as research and treatment become more aggressive, efficacy, toxicity, and costs must be balanced within the therapeutic equation to enhance the quality of life in patients with RA.

Keywords: Biologic agents; DMARDs; Pathophysiology; Rheumatoid arthritis; Treatment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / adverse effects
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / economics
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal / therapeutic use*
  • Antirheumatic Agents / administration & dosage
  • Antirheumatic Agents / adverse effects
  • Antirheumatic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / drug therapy*
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / genetics
  • Autoantigens / immunology*
  • B-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • B-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Biological Products / adverse effects
  • Biological Products / economics
  • Biological Products / therapeutic use*
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Humans
  • Quality of Life
  • Signal Transduction / immunology
  • Synovial Membrane / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Antirheumatic Agents
  • Autoantigens
  • Biological Products
  • Cytokines