That news, published in the Feb. 23 edition of The Lancet, comes from a study of Crohn's disease patients in Europe.
The study shows better remission rates when patients started their Crohn's disease treatment with certain immune-suppressing drugs instead of steroids.
"Our study clearly demonstrated that this alternative treatment method was more effective at inducing disease remission than the conventional method," says Brian Feagan, MD, in a news release.
"Not only were patients more likely to get their disease under control, but they were also spared exposure to steroids -- the extended use of which is linked with metabolic disease and even increased mortality," says Feagan, who directs clinical trials at the Robarts Research Institute at Canada's University of Western Ontario.
Other researchers are testing the same strategy. If their findings, expected later this year, are in line with those from the European study, "the treatment algorithm for patients with Crohn's disease will change," sates an editorial in The Lancet.
Crohn's Disease Treatments
The European study included 133 Crohn's disease patients who hadn't started taking any Crohn's disease medications.
The researchers randomly assigned half of the patients to start Crohn's disease treatment by taking two immune-suppressing drugs, Remicade and Imuran. Those patients could later take corticosteroids, if needed.
For comparison, the other patients got standard Crohn's disease treatment, which involved first taking corticosteroids, then taking Imuran, and finally taking Remicade.
The goal of the study was to see which group had better remission rates without surgery after 26 weeks of treatment and after a year of treatment.
Crohn's Study Results
Remission rates were superior among patients who started treatment with Remicade and Imuran.
Among those patients, 60% were in remission after 26 weeks of treatment and nearly 62% were in remission one year after treatment started.
In comparison, about 36% of patients who started with steroid treatment were in remission after 26 weeks of treatment and 42% were in remission one year after treatment started.
After the first year of treatment, the two groups had similar remission rates. Relapse happened later for patients who started with Remicade and Imuran than those who started with steroids.
Shifting the Course of Crohn's?
Patients who started with Remicade and Imuran were less likely to have ulcers after two years of treatment, compared with those who started with steroids. In light of that pattern, the researchers suggest that starting with Remicade and Imuran may change the course of the disease.
Both groups had a similar percentage of patients with side effects, note the researchers.
The study was funded in part by Centocor, which makes Remicade, and Schering-Plough, which markets Remicade outside the U.S. In The Lancet, several researchers -- but not Feagan -- report financial ties to those and other drug companies.
An editorial published with the study states that the findings "are not sufficient" to assess serious side effects and that the data are "insufficient to change clinical practice."
But all that could change if another trial, which is still under way, echoes the European results, notes editorialist William Sandborn, MD, of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
The unfinished trial is called the Study of Biologic and Immunomodulator Naive Patients in Crohn's Disease, or the SONIC trial. Sandborn is working on that study, which Centocor and Schering-Plough are funding.