Mechanism of action of hydroxychloroquine as an antirheumatic drug

Semin Arthritis Rheum. 1993 Oct;23(2 Suppl 1):82-91. doi: 10.1016/s0049-0172(10)80012-5.


The antimalarial agents chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have been used widely for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus. These compounds lead to improvement of clinical and laboratory parameters, but their slow onset of action distinguishes them from glucocorticoids and nonsteroidal antiinflammatory agents. Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine increase pH within intracellular vacuoles and alter processes such as protein degradation by acidic hydrolases in the lysosome, assembly of macromolecules in the endosomes, and posttranslation modification of proteins in the Golgi apparatus. It is proposed that the antirheumatic properties of these compounds results from their interference with "antigen processing" in macrophages and other antigen-presenting cells. Acidic cytoplasmic compartments are required for the antigenic protein to be digested and for the peptides to assemble with the alpha and beta chains of MHC class II proteins. As a result, antimalarials diminish the formation of peptide-MHC protein complexes required to stimulate CD4+ T cells and result in down-regulation of the immune response against autoantigenic peptides. Because this mechanism differs from other antirheumatic drugs, antimalarials are well suited to complement these other compounds in combination drug therapy.

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / pharmacology*
  • Antimalarials / pharmacokinetics
  • Antimalarials / pharmacology
  • Autoimmunity / drug effects
  • Chloroquine / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration / drug effects
  • Hydroxychloroquine / pharmacology*
  • Major Histocompatibility Complex / drug effects
  • Peptides / drug effects
  • Peptides / metabolism
  • T-Lymphocytes / drug effects


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Antimalarials
  • Peptides
  • Hydroxychloroquine
  • Chloroquine