New and Experimental Therapies for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune inflammatory disease. In RA, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in your body, which causes joint swelling, pain, and stiffness. RA can also affect other areas, including your lungs, heart, and eyes.

About 1.5 million people in the United States have RA. While there’s currently no cure for the disease, researchers have identified many treatments in recent years that can help lessen symptoms and minimize joint damage.

Read on to learn more about new and experimental therapies for RA management.

Woman with RA holding her hand

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What Are Experimental Therapies for RA?

Experimental therapies are new treatments that show promise but aren’t yet proven for treating certain medical conditions, such as RA.

Researchers test these therapies in clinical trials to see how well they work. If the medicines are shown to be safe and effective in clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may approve them for use in the general public.

News on Latest RA Treatment

The latest treatments for RA may help patients find more relief, so they can get back to doing what they enjoy most.

Janus Kinase (JAK) Inhibitors

JAK inhibitors are some of the newest treatments to gain FDA approval for RA. These medications come in pill form and help stop a person’s immune system from producing certain enzymes that can stimulate inflammation.

JAK inhibitors may be used alone or with other RA medicines for a compound effect.

FDA-Approved JAK Inhibitors

The FDA has approved the following JAK inhibitors for RA:

  • Xeljanz (tofacitinib)
  • Olumiant (baricitinib)
  • Rinvoq (upadacitinib)

Researchers are expecting more of these types of drugs to be approved in the future.

Bruton’s Tyrosine Kinase (BTK) Inhibitor

Researchers are studying an experimental medicine called fenebrutinib, which blocks the action of Bruton’s tyrosine kinase (BTK), an enzyme that promotes inflammation in the body.

In a phase 2 clinical trial, fenebrutinib was effective at reducing RA activity in patients with an inadequate response to other treatments. Fenebrutinib showed similar results when compared to the popular RA drug Humira (adalimumab).

While more research is needed, scientists are excited about the potential of BTK inhibitors for helping people with RA.

Neurostimulation

Researchers are studying the potential of vagus nerve stimulation, a treatment that uses electrical impulses to stimulate the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain stem to the stomach. This nerve is involved in regulating inflammation in the body.

In a small pilot study, investigators implanted vagus nerve neurostimulators or placebos in 14 people with RA. Results showed that four out of six of the patients who received the vagus nerve stimulation once a day for 12 weeks reported symptom improvement.

Other Uses for VNS

Vagus nerve stimulation has also been used to treat other conditions, such as epilepsy and depression.

Supplements

In recent years, several clinical trials have been conducted to test supplements as possible treatments for RA.

Some compounds that have shown promise for RA include:

You should always talk to your healthcare provider before using a supplement, as many can interact with other medications you take.

Other Treatments

Several other treatments are on the horizon for RA.

For example, researchers in Australia are conducting the first human trial of DEN-181, a vaccine for people with RA.

Scientists are also experimenting with ways to train stem cells to become “smart cells” by fighting inflammation, turning on and off, and delivering biologic drugs.

Progress Over Last Three Decades

Treatments for RA have evolved dramatically over the last three decades.

Some of the first therapies focused only on providing symptom relief. Then, treatment options progressed to impact disease activity and slow joint damage.

Current Options

Today, people with RA have many newer options, including disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDS), biologic agents, and JAK inhibitors. 

Ways to Stay Informed on New RA Treatment

If you have RA, staying informed about the latest treatment options can be helpful. You might want to share information you learn with your healthcare provider and ask if you're a candidate for new therapies.

Some helpful resources to check out include:  

Affordability and Financial Assistance

RA therapies can be costly. In fact, biologic medicines are some of the most expensive drugs on the market, costing, on average, $10,000 to $30,000 a year. The most expensive can run more than $500,000.

If you can’t afford your recommended medications, talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist about ways to cut your costs.

Many organizations, such as Good Days, provide financial assistance to people with chronic illnesses. Drug companies may also offer discounts to patients in need. It also might help to check out websites like GoodRx and RxSaver for coupons and where to find the lowest prices in your area.

RA Drug Side Effects

As with most treatments, RA drugs can cause unwanted symptoms.

Possible side effects of JAK inhibitors include:

  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea
  • Indigestion
  • Upper respiratory infections or other infections
  • An increase in cholesterol levels
  • Abnormal blood counts or liver function tests
  • An increased risk of bowel perforation
  • Kidney function problems

New Warning About JAK inhibitors

In September 2021, the FDA announced that JAK inhibitors are required to carry warnings about an increased risk of heart-related events, cancer, blood clots, and death.

Complementary Therapy Approaches 

Making lifestyle changes or trying complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies may help reduce symptoms in people with RA.

Some approaches that may be useful include:

Summary

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory autoimmune disease affecting the joints. Though effective treatment options are available, scientists are always looking for new and better ways to treat RA.

JAK inhibitors, BTK inhibitors, vagus nerve stimulation, stem cells, and vaccines are some novel treatments being explored. As researchers and healthcare providers learn more about what causes RA, therapeutic options are likely to improve even more in the coming years.

A Word From Verywell

If you live with RA, you likely experience pain that impacts your daily life. Fortunately, experimental treatments are showing promise. Some are already available, and others may be an option soon. Arming yourself with information about your disease and available therapies can help you manage your condition.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What’s the best treatment for rheumatoid arthritis?

    The best RA treatment for you will depend on many factors, including the severity of your disease, what medicines you've tried in the past, and your medical history. Your healthcare provider can help you determine which treatment will be most effective for you.

  • What should you do if RA treatment doesn’t work?

    If an RA treatment doesn't work, you should talk to your healthcare provider about other options. There are many therapies available, and you may have to try a few before you find an effective one.

  • Can you enroll in clinical trials to get access to newer RA drugs?

    Yes, clinical trials are ongoing to test newer RA drugs. You can talk to your healthcare provider about these studies. Or, visit clinicaltrials.gov to search for trials in your area.

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13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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