Positive Trial of Methotrexate in Hand OA Has Modest Results

Patients with hand osteoarthritis (OA) and MRI-detected synovitis who took methotrexate (MTX) 20 mg weekly over a 6-month period had a significant and potentially clinically meaningful reduction in pain and stiffness over those who received placebo in the first randomized controlled trial of its kind to show positive results with the drug.

Patients who were randomly assigned to MTX took 10 mg orally for the first 4 weeks then increased to 20 mg for the rest of the trial, with differences in the primary outcome of pain measured by visual analog scale (VAS) first becoming significant over placebo at 3 months.

Dr Flavia Cicuttini

Senior author of the METHODS study (Methotrexate to Treat Hand Osteoarthritis with Synovitis), Flavia Cicuttini, PhD, MSc, head of the Musculoskeletal Unit at Monash University and head of rheumatology at Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, Australia, noted that the effect of MTX was higher than effect sizes that have been reported for NSAIDs on pain in hip or knee OA.

The study was published online October 12 in The Lancet.

METHODS Makes Improvements on Past Studies

While OA is traditionally categorized as a noninflammatory process, it’s known that there are some patients who have a clinical phenotype characterized by joint swelling (synovitis) and others develop erosive disease. MTX is one of the most common therapies for inflammatory arthritis and standard of care for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) management. Previous studies of methotrexate showed lack of efficacy in hand OA but may have been because of the use of a low dose, poor power due to moderate sample size, and failure to target the specific inflammatory OA phenotype.

In an interview, Cicuttini noted the selection of methotrexate for this trial was intentional.  “We considered the evidence and decided to test methotrexate because we know it is effective in inflammatory arthritis, and its mode of action is broader than the more selective anti-TNF [tumor necrosis factor] agents,” which she noted have failed in prior hand OA trials. She also noted that the only previous randomized controlled trial of MTX tested a dose of 10 mg/week, rather than the 20 mg/week dose used in METHODS. 

Study Details and Results

METHODS was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial at multiple sites within Australia. Patients were recruited from 2017-2022, with a temporary pause in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic because of safety concerns regarding MTX use. Participants included in this study were aged 40-75 years, had pain in hand joints for most days in the past 3 months, and a pain score of at least 40 mm on a 100-mm VAS in the past 7 days.

The participants’ hand OA fulfilled American College of Rheumatology criteria, radiographic osteoarthritis (Kellgren and Lawrence grade 2 or more) in at least one joint, and MRI-detected synovitis of grade 1 or more in at least one joint. They excluded patients with concomitant rheumatic disease, gout, psoriasis, positive rheumatoid factor or anti-cyclic citrullinated peptides, or elevated inflammatory markers (erythrocyte sedimentation rate or C-reactive protein), as well as those with contraindication to methotrexate or MRI.

The trials’ 97 participants were assigned 1:1 to MTX or placebo using block randomization. The MTX group started on oral MTX 10 mg weekly for the first 4 weeks, followed by 20 mg weekly for the remainder of the study. Participants took folic acid 5 mg once a day to reduce risk of MTX-related side effects.

The mean age of the participants was 61 years, with 70% female. Baseline characteristics were generally well-balanced, except for higher mean BMI in the MTX group. At 6 months, the MTX group had a greater reduction in mean VAS pain than the placebo group (-15.2 mm vs. -7.7 mm; adjusted between-group difference, -9.9 mm). The minimally clinically important difference for OA trials is a 15-mm change (out of 100) in VAS pain.

The MTX group also had greater reduction in mean Australian Canadian OA Hand Index (AUSCAN) score for pain and stiffness at 6 months, compared with placebo, but there were no differences in other secondary outcomes (mean AUSCAN, Functional Index for Hand Osteoarthritis, Health Assessment Questionnaire, Michigan Hand Outcomes Questionnaire, or grip strength).

MTX was well-tolerated with no serious adverse events related to treatment; only 5 of 50 participants in the MTX group and 4 of 47 in the placebo group discontinued study medication. Incidence of adverse events was similar in the two groups throughout the trial, including mild leukopenia, elevated liver enzymes, mild reduction of hemoglobin, and raised creatinine. None of the laboratory abnormalities required change in medication dosage or affected ability to continue in the study. 

Qualifications and Considerations for MTX Use

Commenting on the study, OA researcher Amanda E. Nelson, MD, MSCR, associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Thurston Arthritis Research Center, said that its overall design was “excellent,” including appropriate masking, controls, randomization, and power and sample size calculations, contributing to “the trial’s relatively positive, although still modest, results.” Nelson was not involved with the METHODS study.

Dr Ida Haugen

Several factors may have contributed to the study’s success, including the broader mechanism of action of methotrexate and higher dose used, Ida K. Haugen, MD, PhD, senior researcher at Diakonhjemmet Hospital’s Center for Treatment of Rheumatic and Musculoskeletal Diseases in Oslo, Norway, told Medscape Medical News.

She noted that the MTX 20 mg/week dosage is similar to what is used in treatment of RA and may be key to better targeting inflammation. “Furthermore, the study included individuals with hand OA and synovitis by MRI, and thus may have found the right patient population in comparison to prior studies,” Haugen said.

Cicuttini agreed, noting that “previous trials [of MTX] did not target the inflammatory phenotype of hand osteoarthritis that would be expected to respond.” In the previous randomized controlled trial of MTX in hand OA, only 29 of a total 1024 joints had synovitis, she explained. “Their inclusion criteria were individuals with severe erosive hand osteoarthritis, suggesting that this later-stage disease is less likely to respond.”

Cicuttini said that she saw no specific issues in regard to potential use of MTX in the OA population in the clinic. “The data we have, together with the large experience we have with using methotrexate and the fact that treatments for hand OA are not very effective, means that it would be reasonable to offer this to patients with hand OA and inflammation,” she said. “The level of evidence for an effect of methotrexate would need to be discussed with the patient. The discussion around the use of methotrexate would then need to proceed in the same way we discuss the use of methotrexate with patients when used for other inflammatory joint diseases, and the decision is then made with the patient.”

Dr Amanda Nelson

In contrast, Nelson expressed some concerns regarding the immediate use of MTX for this population. “Many individuals with hand OA have multiple medical comorbidities and polypharmacy, which are important when considering additional treatments, particularly those with modest benefit and potential adverse effects over the long term,” she said. “I do not think this single study provides enough evidence to suggest that all such patients should be treated with methotrexate, and more data, particularly about long-term use and optimal risk stratification, is needed.” 

While MTX use in refractory inflammatory hand OA is not yet recommended in international guidelines, Haugen believes this study supports use of MTX in this patient population. Given that MRI and ultrasound may not always be available to identify synovitis, Nelson and Haugen suggested identifying patients who may benefit through careful history and clinical examination for evidence of swollen joints. Additionally, Cicuttini explained that she would not necessarily use MTX in patients with erosive OA radiographically because it may be a later stage of disease that is less likely to respond.

The authors highlight potential limitations of the METHODS trial. They initially planned to study whether MTX reduced pain and improved radiographic progression at 2 years, but since they paused the study for 7 months during the COVID-19 pandemic, they amended the trial protocol and focused on pain reduction at 6 months as the primary endpoint instead.

Tender and swollen joint counts were initially going to be included, but this was also modified given the use of virtual telemedicine visits during the pandemic. Cicuttini said that further studies are underway to identify potential subpopulations who may benefit from immunosuppression, and others are needed to determine whether MTX reduces joint damage and slows disease progression in hand OA with inflammation.

Cicuttini said her research group is interested to see whether women who develop hand OA around the time of menopause (“menopausal OA”) are a group that could benefit. Haugen noted that she is involved in a study testing MTX in erosive hand OA (the MERINO trial). 

The study was funded by a project grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia. The authors report no relevant financial relationships.

The Lancet. Published online October 12, 2023. Abstract

Mithu Maheswaranathan, MD, is a rheumatologist at Duke University School of Medicine. He can be followed on X (formerly Twitter) @ MithuRheum

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