They found that remission was achieved in 153 (58.6 percent) of the participants with RA and 107 (66.5 percent) of the participants with undifferentiated arthritis. Altogether, the disease went into remission in 63 percent of patients.

Researchers recently assessed whether people with RA (which had developed less than two years before the start of the study) or undifferentiated arthritis (defined, for this study, as having arthritis in more than one joint and being considered at risk for developing RA) could achieve remission after four months of taking a combination of methotrexate and prednisone.

Throughout the course of the study, researchers followed 261 people with RA and 161 people with undifferentiated arthritis who were taking 25 mg per week of methotrexate and 60 mg per day of prednisone, which was tapered down to 7.5 mg per day over the course of seven weeks.

According to C. F. (Renée) Allaart, MD, PhD—associate professor of rheumatology at Leiden University Medical Center in Leiden, The Netherlands, and an investigator in the study—this is first study to treat early RA and undifferentiated arthritis patients with progressive combination therapy, which was previously reserved for active, more advanced RA. The goal was to see if participants could achieve remission based on a Disease Activity Score under 1.6. Researchers measured this clinical outcome and considered functional abilities when making their final assessments of the success of the combination of methotrexate and prednisone.

They found that remission was achieved in 153 (58.6 percent) of the participants with RA and 107 (66.5 percent) of the participants with undifferentiated arthritis. Altogether, the disease went into remission in 63 percent of patients. There was improvement in the average DAS scores of participants of 1.90 for participants with RA, and 1.32 in participants with undifferentiated arthritis. There was also an improvement in overall functionality reported by participants in both groups. Participants in both groups who began the study with lower DAS scores were more likely to achieve remission after four months of the combined treatment.

“The results show that—in this group of patients with earlier, and on average less active RA—remission percentages are higher than with similar treatment in more active RA, and that the addition of high-tapered-to-low prednisone to methotrexate works in undifferentiated arthritis,” says Dr. Allaart, noting that previously published early remission rates for active RA are less than 30 percent (depending on initial treatment). “We now will try to taper and stop the medication in order to achieve drug-free remission.”

This ongoing study will continue to report on the patients who achieved remission and had their medications discontinued. More than 600 patients have now been included, and the study will begin a second phase where participants with RA and undifferentiated arthritis who have not achieved remission while taking methotrexate with prednisone are randomly placed in two treatment groups. One group will be given multiple disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (such as methotrexate, sulfasalazine, hydroxychloroquine, and low-dose prednisone), while the other group will be given an anti-TNF (adalimumab) with methotrexate. The aim remains to achieve (ultimately drug-free) remission.

“The results of the randomized, second phase of the study will determine whether there is still a place for conventional DMARD therapy after failure on methotrexate and prednisone, or whether anti-TNF is the best option for early remission induction treatment,” Dr. Allaart says.

For now, she suggests the optimal strategy is to start treatment early and aim at remission. “A short initial course of prednisone, even at a relatively high dose, is probably preferred over delayed but long-term low prednisone dosages in patients with RA,” she says. “We found that even with relatively mild or little joint involvement, patients are motivated to take progressive medication in order to achieve early remission.”

Patients should talk to their rheumatologists to determine their best course of treatment.