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Biologics and Arthritis: What they are and how they differ from other drugs

Biologics and arthritis

Think of five friends. Statistically, one of them either already has or will develop arthritis. Forty six million people in the United States have some form of the degenerative joint disease, which results in pain, limited mobility and comes second only to heart disease as a cause of work disability.

Yet, because arthritis is such a common disease, pharmaceutical companies are eager to provide solutions. They have dedicated serious time and money to developing ways to ease sufferers’ pain. Earlier this month, Rheumatologist Laisvyde Smajkic, MD, spoke about the latest arthritis drugs, their costs and side effects, at a Weiss Learning Café event sponsored by the Arthritis Foundation.

“The (medical) timeline for arthritis has been aspirin, cortisone, anti-malarials, leflunomide and then this century, biologics emerged,” says Dr. Smajkic.

A biologic is a new class of drugs in use since 1998. Scientists create these drugs via biologic processes instead of chemical synthesis, isolating living cells from humans, animals or microorganisms.

One woman raises her hand during Dr. Smajkic’s talk, and calls biologics “miracle drugs.” The woman says she has a close friend whose arthritis had crippled her. She began getting biologic injections of Orencia, and now, “she can do anything.”

So far the Food and Drug Administration has approved 10 biologics for inflammatory arthritis. Their annual costs range from $13,000 to $30,000. Even if two patients take the same drug, their prices may vary depending on the patient’s weight and the hospital providing the treatment.

Side effects are few, “except for the major one, which is expense,” says Dr. Smajkic. She cites other possible side effects as redness at the injection site, pain or upper respiratory infections. “On every medicine label, it says it can cause serious infection, but don’t be scared. These are very rare.”

Dr. Smajkic discussed the latest arthritis drugs at a Weiss Learning Café earlier this month.

Dr. Smajkic discussed the latest arthritis drugs at a Weiss Learning Café earlier this month.

In the past, doctors decided to treat patients with biologic agents once the patient’s arthritis had grown debilitating, keeping the patient from using her hands or walking. Now, however, doctors try to start patients on biologics earlier.

“We understand we cannot wait, or it may be too late,” says Dr. Smajkic.

Another woman in the audience says she has had arthritis since her late 20s. When she began taking Enbrel, she says, “It brought me from praying for death back to enjoying life.”

Dr. Smajkic sees patients at Weiss on Fridays. Before deciding if biologics will help a particular patient, she analyzes that patient’s blood to see how advanced their swelling is and asks the patient to rate the day-to-day pain. To make an appointment with Dr. Smajkic, call (773) 913-2585.

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