Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune condition that affects your joints, isn’t something that you just wake up with one day out of the blue. Although scientists don’t understand exactly how the disease progresses, they do know that changes in the immune system can occur a decade or more before a person actually develops RA. During that window, there’s a theoretical opportunity to intervene and hit the pause button. According to a new, small study, the drug rituximab (Rituxan or MabThera) may have the potential to do just that.

The study, published in the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, followed 82 people in the Netherlands who were believed to be at high risk for developing RA. They already had joint pain and had tested positive for antibodies that are associated with RA (rheumatoid factor and anti-citrullinated protein) but did not actually have damage that is indicative of the full-blown disease.

Participants were randomly assigned to get a one-time infusion of 1,000 mg of rituximab or a placebo. Rituximab targets a specific type of immune cells (B cells) that are linked to inflammation in patients with RA.

Although using rituximab did not prevent RA, it substantially delayed the disease’s onset: People in the treatment group were 55 percent less likely to develop RA within 12 months. After the 12-month mark, an equal number of people in the placebo and treatment group (25 percent) were diagnosed with RA.

“The results of our current study show that a single infusion of rituximab may alter the disease process, although temporarily,” the authors wrote.

Can the progression to RA actually be stopped, rather than just slowed? The authors note that it might one day be possible, perhaps by giving people who are at high risk for RA an annual injection of rituximab or by exploring other therapies.

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