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Drugs. 1994 Jan;47(1):25-50.

Methotrexate in rheumatoid arthritis. An update.

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  • 1Department of Clinical Pharmacology, Groupe Hospitalier Pellegrin, Bordeaux, France.


Methotrexate has been approved for the treatment of refractory rheumatoid arthritis by several regulatory agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration. The tendency is now to prescribe it at earlier stages of the disease. Methotrexate is a well known antifolate. Its exact mechanism of action in rheumatoid arthritis remains uncertain. The polyglutamated derivatives of methotrexate are potent inhibitors of various enzymes, including dihydrofolate reductase and 5-aminoimidazole-4-carboxamide ribonucleotide transformylase. Inhibitory effects on cytokines, particularly interleukin-1, and on arachidonic acid metabolism, as well as effects on proteolytic enzymes, have been reported. Some of them may be linked to the antifolate properties of methotrexate. Overall, the drug appears to act in rheumatoid arthritis as an anti-inflammatory agent with subtle immunomodulating properties. Direct inhibitory effects on rapidly proliferating cells in the synovium have also been suggested. Methotrexate is usually given orally. Marked interindividual variation in its bioavailability has been found. Food intake has no significant effect on the pharmacokinetics of oral methotrexate. Methotrexate undergoes significant metabolism. The functionally important metabolites are the polyglutamated derivatives of methotrexate, which are selectively retained in the cells. Less than 10% of a dose of methotrexate is oxidised to 7-hydroxy-methotrexate, irrespective of the route of administration. This metabolite is extensively (91 to 93%) bound to plasma proteins, in contrast to the parent drug (35 to 50% bound). Methotrexate is mainly excreted by the kidneys. It undergoes tubular secretion and may thereby compete with various organic acid compounds. Early placebo-controlled trials demonstrated that weekly low dosage methotrexate produced early symptomatic improvement in most rheumatoid arthritis patients. Two meta-analyses showed that methotrexate is among the most efficacious of slow-acting antirheumatic agents, together with parenteral gold (sodium aurothiomalate), penicillamine and sulfasalazine. Furthermore, in the short term context of clinical trials, methotrexate has one of the best efficacy/toxicity ratios. There is little evidence that methotrexate, or any available slow-acting antirheumatic agent, is a true disease-modifying drug. However, the probability that a patient will continue methotrexate therapy over time appears quite favourable compared with any other slow-acting antirheumatic drug. Combination therapy with slow-acting drugs has been advised for the management of rheumatoid arthritis, but the evidence currently available does not support general use of combination therapy including methotrexate. Almost all investigations indicated that toxic effects, rather than lack of response, were the major reason for discontinuing methotrexate therapy.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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