Objective To determine whether intensive combinations of synthetic disease modifying drugs can achieve similar clinical benefits at lower costs to high cost biologics such as tumour necrosis factor inhibitors in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis resistant to initial methotrexate and other synthetic disease modifying drugs.
Design Open label pragmatic randomised multicentre two arm non-inferiority trial over 12 months.
Setting 24 rheumatology clinics in England.
Participants Patients with rheumatoid arthritis who were eligible for treatment with tumour necrosis factor inhibitors according to current English guidance were randomised to either the tumour necrosis factor inhibitor strategy or the combined disease modifying drug strategy.
Interventions Biologic strategy: start tumour necrosis factor inhibitor; second biologic in six month for non-responders. Alternative strategy: start combination of disease modifying drugs; start tumour necrosis factor inhibitors after six months in non-responders.
Main outcome measure Primary outcome: reduction in disability at 12 months measured with patient recorded heath assessment questionnaire (range 0.00-3.00) with a 0.22 non-inferiority margin for combination treatment versus the biologic strategy. Secondary outcomes: quality of life, joint damage, disease activity, adverse events, and costs. Intention to treat analysis used multiple imputation methods for missing data.
Results 432 patients were screened: 107 were randomised to tumour necrosis factor inhibitors and 101 started taking; 107 were randomised to the combined drug strategy and 104 started taking the drugs. Initial assessments were similar; 16 patients were lost to follow-up (seven with the tumour necrosis factor inhibitor strategy, nine with the combined drug strategy); 42 discontinued the intervention but were followed-up (19 and 23, respectively). The primary outcome showed mean falls in scores on the health assessment questionnaire of −0.30 with the tumour necrosis factor inhibitor strategy and −0.45 with the alternative combined drug strategy. The difference between groups in unadjusted linear regression analysis favoured the alternative strategy of combined drugs. The mean difference was −0.14, and the 95% confidence interval (−0.29 to 0.01) was below the prespecified non-inferiority boundary of 0.22. Improvements at 12 months in secondary outcomes, including quality of life and erosive progression, were similar with both strategies. Initial reductions in disease activity were greater with the biologic strategy, but these differences did not persist beyond six months. Remission was seen in 72 patients (44 with biologic strategy; 36 with alternative strategy); 28 patients had serious adverse events (18 and 10, respectively); six and 10 patients, respectively, stopped treatment because of toxicity. The alternative strategy reduced health and social care costs per patient by £3615 (€4930, $5585) for months 0-6 and £1930 for months 6-12.
Conclusions In patients with active rheumatoid arthritis who meet English criteria for biologics an alternative strategy with combinations of intensive synthetic disease modifying drugs gives non-inferior outcomes to treatment with tumour necrosis factor inhibitors. Costs are reduced substantially.
Trial Registration ISRCTN 37438295.