Early initiation of biologics — within the first 2 months of symptom presentation — appears to have a significant impact on how rapidly patients with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) improve, according to findings presented on March 18 at the online annual meeting of the Childhood Arthritis and Rheumatology Research Alliance (CARRA).

“Our study provides evidence that early use of biologics can significantly alter the disease trajectory of patients with JIA,” Mei-Sing Ong, PhD, of Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, told attendees. At the same time, however, not all patients who improved rapidly during a 3-year follow-up period needed biologics, a finding that Ong said the researchers are continuing to investigate.

Marinka Twilt, MD, MScE, PhD, chair of CARRA’s JIA Research Committee and a pediatric rheumatologist and clinician scientist at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, Canada, was not involved in the research but said the continued sustained remission in patients who improved rapidly is very reassuring.

photo of Marinka Twilt
Marinka Twilt, MD, MScE, PhD

“We always wonder if initial response will be sustained or if patients tend to flare after the initial treatment,” Twilt told Medscape Medical News. “To see the sustained response up to 3 years is fantastic.” She added that it would be enlightening to see more information about patients who rapidly improved over 3 years, including whether they were still taking a DMARD and/or biologic.

“A new diagnosis can be overwhelming for families, and this sometimes leads to step-up therapy to not overwhelm them more with information on new drugs,” Twilt said. “This study shows that an earlier start is beneficial, and this should be discussed with families early on so there is less delay in early treatment.”

Canada and many US states currently require 3 months of DMARD treatment before patients can start a biologic, Twilt said, yet “this study shows the additive benefit of using a biologic within 2 months of starting a DMARD, which hopefully will lead to insurance companies adopting this threshold.”

The STOP-JIA study is a prospective observational study that compares the effectiveness of three different treatment plans for JIA. A Step-Up cohort of 257 patients received conventional antirheumatic monotherapy initially, with a biologic added at 3 months or later as needed. The Early Combination cohort of 100 patients received conventional antirheumatic therapy with a biologic from the start. The Biologic First cohort of 43 patients began taking a biologic as a first-line therapy.

In previously reported results of the study at 12 months’ follow-up, there was no significant difference between the Step-Up and Biologic First groups, but there were significant differences between the Step-Up and Early Combination groups. Significantly more patients in the Early Combination group (58.8%) than in the Step-Up group (42.8%) had inactive disease, based on the clinical Juvenile Arthritis Disease Activity Score 10 (cJADAS-10) (P = .03). Similarly, 81% of Early Combination patients achieved the American College of Rheumatology 70% improvement criteria, compared with 62% of the Step-Up patients (P = .01).

To learn whether the timing of starting a biologic influenced the disease trajectory over time, the researchers compared subgroups of patients with similar trajectories.

“Assessing treatment outcomes at a single point in time does not give us a complete picture of the effects of treatment on disease trajectory, which is an important outcome given that JIA is characterized by a relapsing-remitting course,” Ong told attendees.

Patients were sorted in the slow, moderate, or rapid improvement trajectories. In previously reported data at 12 months’ follow-up, patients’ odds of achieving rapid improvement were 3.6 times greater if they had started a biologic within 3 months.

This study compared patients’ trajectories over 3 years in the 259 patients (65% of the original cohort) who had at least one cJADAS-10 assessment in each year of follow-up. Most patients (66.8%) were in the rapid improvement class, with 25.9% in the moderate improvement class and 7.3% in the slow improvement class.

Patients in the rapid improvement group achieved inactive disease (cJADAS-10 of 2.5 or less) within 1 year and maintained inactive disease through the second and third years. The moderate and low improvement groups both had higher disease activity at baseline, but the moderate group continued to improve in years 2 and 3, with minimal disease by year 3, on the basis of the cJADAS-10 scores of 2.5-5. The slow group continued to experience moderate disease activity during years 2 and 3.

The findings also revealed that the earlier patients began a biologic, the more likely they were to be in the rapid improvement group than the slow improvement group. Participants who started a biologic in the first month had more than five times greater odds of being in the rapid improvement group than in the slow improvement group (odds ratio [OR], 5.33; P = .017).

Those who started a biologic in the second month were also more likely to be in the rapid improvement group (OR, 2.67; P = .032). For those who began a biologic by the third month, the odds of improving rapidly were not statistically significant, though Ong noted that could have been because of the small sample size. There was also no significant difference between those who improved moderately vs slowly based on when a biologic was initiated.

It would be helpful to learn whether any of the patients in the rapid improvement group were able to stop medications or whether they all continued treatment during the 3 years of follow-up, Twilt said. “Does early treatment with biologics not only lead to early remission after initiation but also to the possibility of stopping treatment earlier and remaining in remission?” she asked.

The researchers also found that not all patients needed biologics to end up in the rapid improvement group. Among patients who never received any biologics during the 3-year period, 19.7% improved rapidly and 10.4% improved moderately. Yet the researchers identified no significant differences in demographics or clinical factors between patients who received biologics and those who did not.

“The fact that there is a group of patients in the rapid response group who never need a biologic is of great interest, as we always want to treat patients early with the medications they need, but we also want to avoid overtreating patients,” Twilt said. It’s important to find out what differentiates those patients and whether it is possible to predict which patients do not need biologics early on, she said.

Ong said the research team is working to develop machine learning methods to improve risk stratification in hopes of addressing that question.

Ong and Twilt reported no disclosures. The research was funded by CARRA and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.

Tara Haelle is a science reporter based in Dallas, Texas.

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