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Interferon Found Effective Against Rheumatoid Arthritis, Researchers Say

October 9, 1985

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ Injections of the hormone interferon seem to relieve pain and swelling in people afflicted with stubborn cases of rheumatoid arthritis, an ailment that affects about 6 million Americans, researchers say.

Interferon has been widely investigated as a cancer treatment and appears to be useful in some kinds of tumors, but the hormone has not proved to be the dramatic breakthrough in cancer therapy that some had hoped.

″We’ve been so focused on using this in cancer that people have neglected some of the non-cancer uses,″ said Dr. Seth Rudnick, vice president for pharmaceutical development at Biogen, which manufactures interferon.

The effects of the gene-spliced drug on arthritis was noticed during experiments by Bioferon, a West German subsidiary of Biogen, a Swiss biotechnology company with U.S. operations in Cambridge.

A report on the work will be published in the December issue of Biotechnology.

Preliminary studies show that the hormone works in about two-thirds of people who are not helped by conventional treatment, researchers said Tuesday. However, more work will be necessary to demonstrate interferon’s safety and effectiveness in arthritis, they said.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory joint disease thought to result from a misguided attack by the body’s disease-fighting immune system. Experts estimate it affects about 6 million Americans, 10 percent to 20 percent of whom are not helped by traditional therapy such as anti-inflammatory drugs, gold compounds and penicillamine.

Interferon is produced naturally by many cells in the body to fight disease. In the latest experiments, doctors tested a form called gamma interferon that is ordinarily made by white blood cells called T cells.

The hormone’s apparent power against arthritis was first noticed about 11/2 years ago during a cancer study at Bioferon, the Biogen subsidiary.

″They incidentally noted in a few patients who had both cancer and rheumatoid arthritis some improvement in the pain from arthritis,″ said Dr. Rudnick.

At first, company officials were skeptical of the observation. But eventually they tested interferon on 38 patients in Germany and 28 improved. The pain lessened or disappeared within a week or two of the injections, which were given five times weekly.

Dr. Frederick Wolfe later conducted a monthlong comparison study on patients at the Arthritis Center in Wichita, Kan. Half of the patients took 100-microgram doses of the hormone and the rest got 10-microgram doses. Eleven of 14 in the high-dose group had relief of their pain and swelling, compared with seven of 14 who took lower doses.

″One has to accept the results of this study as being tentative and preliminary,″ said Wolfe. ″Patients improved who had received this drug.

″Nowhere have I implied that there is a causal relationship. We believe that gamma interferon should be studied in a placebo-controlled trial, and it might conceivably turn out to be an effective drug in rheumatoid arthritis.″

Another study is under way in Belgium to compare interferon with placebos to try to determine whether the hormone affects the underlying disease as well as relieve its symptoms.

″It makes sense because there is evidence that gamma interferon levels are low in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, but until you have a controlled trial, you can’t say much,″ said Dr. Frederic McDuffie, medical director of the Arthritis Foundation.

During the research, some arthritis patients felt mild, flu-like side effects.

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