Background: The value of intensive combination therapy in early rheumatoid arthritis is unproven. In a multicentre, double-blind, randomised trial (COBRA), we compared the combination of sulphasalazine (2 g/day), methotrexate (7.5 mg/week), and prednisolone (initially 60 mg/day, tapered in 6 weekly steps to 7.5 mg/day) with sulphasalazine alone.
Methods: 155 patients with early rheumatoid arthritis (median duration 4 months) were randomly assigned combined treatment (76) or sulphasalazine alone (79). Prednisolone and methotrexate were tapered and stopped after 28 and 40 weeks, respectively. The main outcomes were the pooled index (a weighted change score of five disease activity measures) and the Sharp/Van der Heijde radiographic damage score in hands and feet. Independent health-care professionals assessed the main outcomes without knowledge of treatment allocation.
Findings: At week 28, the mean pooled index was 1.4 (95% CI 1.2-1.6) in the combined treatment group and 0.8 (0.6-1.0) in the sulphasalazine group (p < 0.0001). At this time, 55 (72%) and 39 (49%) patients, respectively, were improved according to American College of Rheumatology criteria. The clinical difference between the groups decreased and was no longer significant after prednisolone was stopped, and there were no further changes after methotrexate was stopped. At 28 weeks, the radiographic damage score had increased by a median of 1 (range 0-28) in the combined-therapy group and 4 (0-44) in the sulphasalazine group (p < 0.0001). The increases at week 56 (2 [0-43] vs 6 [0-54], p = 0.004), and at week 80 (4 [0-80] vs 12 [0-72], p = 0.01) were also significant. Further analysis suggests that combined therapy immediately suppressed damage progression, whereas sulphasalazine did so less effectively and with a lag of 6 to 12 months. There were fewer withdrawals in the combined therapy than the sulphasalazine group (6 [8%] vs 23 [29%]), and they occurred later.
Interpretation: This combined-therapy regimen offers additional disease control over and above that of sulphasalazine alone that persists for up to a year after corticosteroids are stopped. Although confirmatory studies and long-term follow-up are needed, this approach may prove useful in the treatment of early rheumatoid arthritis.