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Friday, 3 May, 2002, 23:08 GMT 00:08 UK
Arthritis drug 'could treat spine condition'
Mike Atherton has been a high-profile sufferer
Mike Atherton has been a high-profile sufferer
A crippling spinal condition could be treated with a drug normally used to help people with rheumatoid arthritis, researchers suggest.

US scientists say the drug etanercept can significantly relieve ankylosing spondylitis (AS).

In the study, it relieved symptoms in four-fifths of patients.

AS is a heredity back condition which causes progressive stiffening of the spine, and which, if left untreated, can cripple sufferers.

This is an excellent study, and it's great news for AS patients

Dr Madeleine Devey, Arthritis Research Campaign
Other joints such as the hips, shoulders, knees, or ankles can also be affected.

There is currently no cure for the condition.

Every year, an estimated 200,000 visit their GP with AS.

Former England cricketer Mike Atherton is one of the most high-profile sufferers. His father was also affected.

Etanercept was recently approved for NHS use for patients with severe rheumatoid arthritis.

The US research showed it worked faster than the current therapies such as aspirin-like drugs, other immunosuppressives and physical therapy in treating AS.

The drug may reduce spinal inflammation and actually slow the progress of the disease, the researchers suggest.

Inflammation control

AS, like rheumatoid arthritis, is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system can no longer control proteins called cytokines.

These attack the body, prompting a damaging increase in inflammation.

Etanercept is a Tumour Necrosis Factor alpha blocker (anti-TNF).

It works by switching off TNF, which stimulates cells to produce that inflammation response.

In the study, carried out by researchers from the University of California - San Francisco 20 patients were given the drug and 20 more a dummy version.

Of those who were given etanercept, 80% said they had less stiffness, less pain and improved functioning.

Only 30% of those in the other group showed such improvements.

The benefits of etanercept lasted for the duration of the study, and though there were side effects, they were mild.

A larger study is now underway.

In April, German researchers found another drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, infliximab, showed similarly promising results in the treatment of AS.

Access query

Jennifer Gorman, assistant adjunct professor of medicine at UCSF, who led the US study said: "Both these results are very encouraging for patients with spondylitis.

"The development of anti-tumour necrosis factor therapies has finally given us the opportunity to effectively treat some of the most disabling symptoms in this disease."

Dr Madeleine Devey, scientific officer for the Arthritis Research Campaign, told BBC News Online: "This is an excellent study, and it's great news for AS patients.

"Use of TNF blockers in rheumatoid arthritis has recently been approved by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence in the UK but it is very likely that their use in AS will have to undergo a separate assessment so it is not clear whether AS patients will have access to the therapy in the UK except as part of a clinical trial."

The research is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

See also:

22 Mar 02 | Health
Go-ahead for NHS arthritis drugs
03 Jul 00 | Health
Drug combats rheumatoid arthritis
07 Jun 99 | Medical notes
Ankylosing spondylitis
23 Nov 01 | Health
How arthritis drug helped me
17 Nov 98 | England on Tour
Atherton receives second jab
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