From the Journals

Early glucocorticoid bridging in RA supported by meta-analysis, but concerns remain



In a new salvo in the dispute over the wisdom of early “bridging” treatment with glucocorticoids in rheumatoid arthritis, Dutch researchers suggested in a new meta-analysis that the American College of Rheumatology guideline is too cautious.

The report, published in Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, examined three randomized trials of bridging versus nonbridging. The findings “emphasize the benefits of bridging therapy and shows that bridgers are not using more glucocorticoids after their intended bridging period, compared with nonbridgers, during a 2-year follow-up,” study coauthor Sytske Anne Bergstra, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Leiden (the Netherlands) University Medical Center, said in an interview.

Sytske Anne Bergstra

Dr. Sytske Anne Bergstra

However, an American researcher who helped create the 2021 ACR guideline is unmoved by the new report. “This publication didn’t do anything to assuage my concerns,” Joel Kremer, MD, founder and president of the Corrona Research Foundation and professor of medicine emeritus at Albany (N.Y.) Medical College, said in an interview.

At issue is whether patients with early RA should be temporarily treated with glucocorticoids in order to provide rapid relief. The ACR’s 2021 guideline on the treatment of RA says short-term glucocorticoids should not be “systematically prescribed” but notes that they are still “frequently necessary to alleviate symptoms” before disease-modifying therapies are given. The guideline adds that “these recommendations were made in recognition of the frequent difficulty tapering glucocorticoids, leading to undesirable prolonged use and the increasing evidence of the negative impact of glucocorticoids on long-term patient outcomes, including risk for infection, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease, in RA and other rheumatic diseases.”

For its part, the European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology’s 2022 recommendations state that short-term glucocorticoids “should be considered when initiating or changing [disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs], in different dose regimens and routes of administration, but should be tapered and discontinued as rapidly as clinically feasible.”

Members of the Dutch team behind the new meta-analysis have been supporters of “bridging” therapy. For the new report, they analyzed three studies, including one led by a member of the team. Each study had at least one arm that randomized patients with RA to glucocorticoid bridging. Patients also took disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

There were 252 patients in study arms that started with bridging (mean age, 52 years; 68% female) and 373 other patients (mean age, 53 years; 67% female).

The researchers found that glucocorticoid use was higher in the bridgers at 12 months (odds ratio, 3.27; 95% confidence interval, 1.06-10.08), but the excess risk at 18 months (OR, 1.60; 95% CI, 0.46-5.60) and 24 months (OR, 1.70; 95% CI, 0.58-4.97) dipped below statistical significance. Also, they reported that “bridgers improved more rapidly (P < .001) in the first 6 months and the bridgers required significantly fewer changes in DMARDs (incidence rate ratio, 0.59; 95% CI, 0.38-0.94).”

“Based on our results, combined with two earlier publications [here and here], we show that most patients included in clinical trials with protocolized tapering schedules are able to stop glucocorticoids after bridging,” Dr. Bergstra said. “We also confirm the well-known short-term clinical effects and show that patients using glucocorticoid bridging require fewer DMARD changes. For a re-evaluation of the ACR guideline, this evidence should be combined with the extensive evidence showing short- as well as long-term clinical benefits of glucocorticoid bridging but also with evidence on potential side effects at different doses.”

She added that “implementing predefined tapering protocols may help clinicians and patients to stop glucocorticoids after bridging.” As for limitations, “patients included in these trials may differ from patients in clinical practice. We cannot be sure whether these results can be generalized to the full patient population.”

Dr. Joel M. Kremer, professor of medicine, Albany (N.Y.) Medical College Mitchel L. Zoler/MDedge News

Dr. Joel M. Kremer

Dr. Kremer, a coauthor of the ACR guideline, pointed out that the patients who took glucocorticoids early were much more likely to be on them at 12 months.

By definition, “bridging” is temporary, he said, a brief period to help patients tolerate RA until DMARDs kick in. But in the studies, many of the patients clearly took the drugs for extended periods of time. In those cases, “it not a bridge,” and the risk is that “you’re treating people with a lifelong disease with doses of glucocorticoids that have been shown in multiple studies to be dangerous.”

He added that, while the excess likelihood of these patients staying on the drugs at 18 or 24 months wasn’t deemed to be statistically significant in the meta-analysis, the confidence intervals were unusually wide. That raises questions about whether some of the patients actually stay on the drugs.

Dr. Kremer said it can still be appropriate to give glucocorticoids to patients in distress, although it’s crucial in those cases to take the patients off them as soon as possible. It’s best, though, to not prescribe them at all. “If you can avoid it,” he said, “definitely avoid it.”

The study was conducted without outside funding. Dr. Bergstra reported receiving grant funding from Pfizer, and some of the other study authors reported various relationships with industry. Dr. Kremer had no relevant disclosures.

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