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NIH Research Leads to New Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug

x-ray image of hands

X-ray image of the hands of a patient with rheumatoid arthritis. Note that the joints at the base of the fingers are eroded — and some, like the index finger on both hands, are actually dislocated.
Copyright (2012) American College of Rheumatology.

About 1.5 million [1] people in the US suffer from rheumatoid arthritis (RA). It is a chronic illness in which the immune system, which protects us from viral and bacterial invaders, turns on our own body and viciously attacks the membranes that line our joints. The consequences can be excruciating: pain, swelling, stiffness, and decreased mobility.  Over time, the joints can become permanently contorted, as in this X-ray image.

There are several RA medications on the market, but I want to tell you about a new one called tofacitinib, a pill which the FDA approved late last year [2]. The drug works by targeting a protein called Janus kinase 3, which was discovered by John O’Shea and colleagues here at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) 20 years ago [3]. As I mentioned in a previous post it takes a really long time to go from a basic discovery to a drug—in most cases nearly 15 years. This drug has been even longer in the making! Shortly after discovering Janus kinase 3 in 1993, NIAMS researchers also revealed its role in inflammation, leading to a public-private collaboration with Pfizer that has now culminated in the approval of tofacitinib.

These Janus kinases (we call them JAKs) are critical messengers in the cell. They receive signals from immune proteins and growth hormones, among others, and convey that message to another group of proteins called STATs (signal transducers and activators), which then alter the activity of particular genes. This JAK-STAT messenger system is absolutely essential for regulating cell growth and development, metabolism, blood cell formation, immune system function, and many other activities critical for normal health and development.

Mutations in a particular JAK or STAT can make these proteins too active, or not active enough, disrupting the messenger system and causing diseases ranging from cancer to dwarfism to autoimmune conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis. Other mutations in the JAKs and STATs make some people more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria, or block the development of their white blood cells.

Tofacitinib is particularly noteworthy because it is the first FDA approved drug for treatment of an autoimmune disease that works by inhibiting a JAK protein.

There’s a terrific review article on the role of JAKs and STATs in the January 10th issue of the New England Journal of Medicine [4] that describes the four JAK proteins, and the seven STAT proteins, and their roles in health and disease. For example, a mutation in JAK3 that makes the protein less active causes an immune deficiency condition similar to that suffered by the Bubble Boy, David Vetter, 30 years ago. On the other side of the coin, mutations in other JAKs that make these proteins hyperactive can trigger T-cell and B-cell acute leukemia or types of lymphomas. Hindering the activity of STAT1 leaves a person vulnerable to bacteria and viruses. You get the idea. Each of these proteins has a specific job, so if you are developing a drug you want to target only the misbehaving protein—you don’t want to disrupt the functions of all members of that protein family as well.

Tofacitinib inhibits three of the four JAKs, ratcheting down the overactive immune response that drives RA. It changes the way the immune system works, potentially raising the risk of some cancers. However, the most common side effects have been upper respiratory infections, headaches, and diarrhea.

Ultimately researchers will likely discover drugs that specifically target each one of these JAK and STAT proteins, so that we can minimize drug side effects and treat the broad array of diseases that occur when the JAK-STAT pathway is disrupted. But for now, having the first magic bullet to target this pathway in autoimmune disease and help the legions of people with RA is a great step forward.



[1] Rheumatoid Arthritis. (CDC Factsheet)

[2] FDA approves Xeljanz for rheumatoid arthritis. (FDA News Release, Nov. 6, 2012)

[3] Phosphorylation and activation of the Jak-3 Janus kinase in response to interleukin-2. Johnston JA, Kawamura M, Kirken RA, Chen YQ, Blake TB, Shibuya K, Ortaldo JR, McVicar DW, O’Shea JJ. Nature. 1994 Jul 14;370(6485):151-3.

[4] JAKs and STATs in immunity, immunodeficiency, and cancer. O’Shea JJ, Holland SM, Staudt LM. N Engl J Med. 2013 Jan 10;368(2):161-70.

11 comments to NIH Research Leads to New Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug

  • Ann Lonnie

    I thank you for this information, as a lot of my family members and myself sufer for arthritis and RA; which causes lots of pain. I will discuss with my doctor.
    Ann Lonnie

  • Debra D. Hahn

    Thank you for efforts to cure and control symptoms of this disease occurring in a family member and others.

    Debbie D. Hahn

  • Joan Campbell

    I’m readn this from my bed. I’m a sandy survivor but it has up my stress level n I’m in sooo much pain from arthritis. my right hand was smashed n is now titanium n steel. I wear a brace, my feet, ankles, heel n legs, knees, lumbar spine are killing me right now. I’m thankful that you continue to research for relief from this agony!

  • Trey Barber

    Hello. As a man who has suffered chronic pain from J.R.A (juvenile rheumatoid arthritis) since a boy, I’m glad to read that medical science is aggressively researching new drugs and treatments. In addition to taking predisone, Celebrax and Humira, I’m in a pain management program. My Doctor has prescribed Chronic Opioid Therapy (COT). COT has improved my health and quality of life by controlling my chronic pain. Also, utilizing COT has really reduced the number of “blue days”. By managing my pain, allows me to exercise more. … Have a safe and pain managed 2013!

  • P.C.Roondhe


    Thank you very much ! Convey my wishes to all those actively involved for their efforts to cure and control symptoms of this disease.

    Dr Roondhe

  • zohar key

    may you all be blessed with good health. thank heaven for the researchers,


    i have a relative who has been bedridden for over ten years due to the debilitating effects of the disease. can the new drug cure her? thanks for the new breakthrough in the research.

    • Thanks for your comment, C.K!

      Unfortunately, while tofacitinib provides a new option for treating rheumatoid arthritis and easing symptoms of the disease, it is not a cure. That is why it’s so important for NIH to continue to support research in this area. As with so many other devastating conditions, our goal is to find ways to cure and, perhaps even, to prevent rheumatoid arthritis.

  • Marilyn von Brauchitsch

    How exciting to read of a new, and it sounds like, a very helpful drug. What is the timeline for production and use in the general population? I am just begining to suffer with RA pain.

  • Hi, Marilyn. As Dr. Collins mentions in his post, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved tofacitinib late last year. For more information about the drug’s availability, you may want to check with Pfizer Inc., which is the drug’s marketer.

  • Janna Spears

    Thank you! My rheumatologist told me about this new drug at my appointment last week. I have rheumatoid arthritis and lupus so I am thrilled to see a new type of drug or biologic that I can try. My doc said this is a whole new type of drug and is excited he has another option for some of his “special patients”. Those of us that have tried all the other medication with very little improvement.