The management of first-line biologic therapy failures in rheumatoid arthritis: Current practice and future perspectives

Ennio Giulio Favalli, Maria Gabriella Raimondo, Andrea Becciolini, Chiara Crotti, Martina Biggioggero, Roberto Caporali

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The introduction of biologic disease–modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (bDMARDs) has dramatically changed the management of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). However, in a real-life setting about 30–40% of bDMARD treated patients experience drug discontinuation because of either inefficacy or adverse events. According to international recommendations, to date the best strategy for managing first-line bDMARD failures has not been defined yet and available data (especially on TNF inhibitors [TNFis]) seem to drive toward a personalized approach for the individual patient. Some TNFi partial responders may benefit from optimization of concomitant methotrexate therapy or from switching to a different concomitant sDMARD such as leflunomide. Conversely, apart from infliximab, TNFi dose escalation seems to be poor efficacious and poor cost-effective compared with alternative strategies. Albeit counterintuitive, the use of a second TNFi after the failure of the first-one (cycling strategy) is supported by clear evidences and has become widespread in the 2000s as the result of the limited alternative options till the introduction of bDMARDs with a mechanism of action other than TNF blockade. Nowadays, the use of abatacept, rituximab, tocilizumab, or JAK inhibitors as second-line agent (swapping strategy) is strongly supported by RCTs and real-life experiences. In the absence of head-to-head trials directly comparing these two strategies, meta-analyses of separated RCTs failed to find significant differences in favor of one or another choice. However, results from most observational studies, including well designed prospective pragmatic randomised analyses, demonstrated the superiority of swapping over cycling approach, whereas only few studies reported a comparable effectiveness. In this review, we aimed to critically analyze all the potential therapeutic options for the treatment of first-line bDMARD failures in order to provide a comprehensive overview of available strategies to be applied in clinical practice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1185-1195
Number of pages11
JournalAutoimmunity Reviews
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1 2017


  • Biologic drugs
  • Failures
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • TNF inhibitors
  • Treatment strategy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Immunology


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