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New Drug Helps Arthritis Long-Term: MabThera (Rituxan)

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LONDON (Reuters) – A blockbuster drug for cancer also offers long-term relief to rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, according to results of an intermediate Phase II clinical study released on Sunday.

Patients given just two doses of MabThera, also known as Rituxan, continued to show a substantial improvement in symptoms for up to 48 weeks, data presented to the American College of Rheumatology and released in London showed.

Previous clinical trials had demonstrated the benefits of the drug lasting 24 weeks, but the fact the effects can be sustained for nearly a year will increase prospects of its use in the new disease area.

The monoclonal antibody is already one of the world’s most successful cancer medicines, through its use in the treatment of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the most common form of blood cancer.

It is marketed as MabThera in Europe by Swiss healthcare group Roche Holding AG and as Rituxan in the U.S. by biotechnology firm Genentech Inc, which co-developed the product with IDEC Pharmaceuticals Corp.

The medicine has grown to become Roche’s biggest seller, with sales of 2.3 billion Swiss francs ($1.75 billion) in 2002. Earlier this year, Roche predicted peak sales would reach 4.5 billion in cancer treatment alone, before allowing for potential use in arthritis.

Data from the trial, which involved 161 patients who had previously failed to respond to other therapies, showed MabThera relieved their symptoms when tested by itself or in combination with other treatments.

At 48 weeks, 65 percent of patients receiving a combination of MabThera and methotrexate showed at least a 20 percent improvement in symptoms and 35 percent had at least a 50 percent improvement, Roche said in a statement detailing the results.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a condition affecting an estimated one percent of the population, two-thirds of them women, in which the body’s overactive immune system attacks joints and causes crippling pain.

MabThera, which is given by infusion, works by targeting white blood cells called B lymphocytes that are believed to spawn antibodies that attack the body’s joints.

If eventually approved for rheumatoid arthritis it would compete against Amgen Inc.’s Enbrel and Johnson & Johnson’s Remicade, two popular new drugs that treat rheumatoid arthritis by blocking an inflammation-causing protein called tumor necrosis factor.

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