The news of a possible cure for rheumatoid arthritis is making the news all over the world. Scientists at Newcastle University in the UK have developed a patient customized "vaccine" that they hope will cure arthritis within a single dose and will be available to the public within five years.
The treatment begins by harvesting white blood cells from each patient's body. These cells are treated with a cocktail of chemicals, steroids and Vitamin D. Then the altered cells are injected back into a joint with active rheumatoid arthritis. The researchers hypothesize that the treatment will cause the white blood cells to suppress the immune system and keep it from attacking the patient's body. Essentially, the treatment reprograms the white blood cells. They are hoping that one injection into one joint will be enough to bring relief to the entire body. The technique is similar to some current cancer research.
While this research is very exciting, there are big concerns about the cost of a patient-centric, or customized, treatment. Right now, the predicted cost of a single "jab" or immunization is £25,000 in British pounds -- that's a whopping $46,599 in U.S. dollars. If the immunization doesn't show results throughout the rest of the body, then additional treatments could raise the cost per patient. This great cost of the treatment may hinder the possibility that it would be approved by the UK's government body responsible for approving drugs and medical treatments. Scientists hope that if the treatment is effective, it will someday be producible on a large scale, bringing down the cost.
The scientists are planning a pilot study of the treatment, testing it in 8 volunteers. If the pilot study is successful, then larger clinical trials may follow. The research is being funded by a charity called the "Arthritis Research Campaign."
The research certainly sounds exciting, but I have questions that haven't been discussed in the news reports:
- Will the immunization suppress just specific immune system cells causing RA, or will the patient be left with an overall suppressed immune system -- raising risks of infection?
- What will the long-term results be? Will the effectiveness of the cell retraining potentially wear off and require additional treatments months or years down the road?
- Will it be only effective for people with newly active disease and/or few affected joints, or is there hope for people like me who have had RA for decades and many affected joints?
- What are the other potential side effects, if any?
These questions can only be answered by continuing research over time with expanded clinical trials. I will be watching the news for the next several years, hoping for positive results.
Published On: August 15, 2008