AstraZeneca pairs two key drugs to prevent arthritis-causing disease

AstraZeneca is ahead of the US drug giant Amgen in an experimental drug combination to prevent a potentially life-threatening inflammation-inducing autoimmune disease.

AstraZeneca and the pharmaceutical research company Amgen, along with the gene therapy company Spark Therapeutics and the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, have reported positive early-stage trials of a therapy combining their drugs that were well-tolerated and significantly more effective than a placebo at preventing a condition called polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR).

Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is a common inflammatory disease of the joints which affects up to 1.8 million people in the UK, making it the seventh most common autoimmune disorder. Common symptoms include inflammation of the joint and blood in the joint fluid. Over time, the condition can lead to joint damage and permanent disability.

The drug combination works by using the immune system to target and destroy the cells causing inflammation. In the early-stage trial, the drug combination, called reovaginal reinvaginal infusions, reached a target antibody dose that was more than 80% effective at preventing a negative immune response in those who developed the disease. These positive antibody levels mean the therapeutic drug only has to be administered every four weeks, so the cycle of treatment is more frequent.

The scientists behind the drug combination are now investigating whether it can be used to prevent some forms of inflammatory arthritis in the knee joint. In the trial, researchers reported a 12-week repeat treatment with the drug in those who had developed PMR but showed no signs of inflammatory arthritis and over half (61%) of people with PMR who developed inflammation still showed no signs of it.

“Approximately half of all cases of PMR can be prevented by treating the underlying defect, which is the problem with the immune system causing inflammation,” said Professor Mark Benfield, head of the inflammatory arthritis research group at Imperial College London. “These antibodies are a means of targeting the underlying inflammatory response, and if this can be achieved we think this could make an important contribution to preventing PMR.”

Martin Wolf, vice-president of global R&D at Amgen, said: “Additional opportunities to prevent moderate joint damage and disability in the early stages of the disease should not be under-recognised.”

Amgen had already been working on the same science in collaboration with Bristol-Myers Squibb, with promising results in 2016. Following these good results and Amgen’s need to focus on newer and more advanced projects, the companies decided to form a joint venture, Amgen BioPharma, to seek new treatments.

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