Arthritis Drug

Reporter: Jackie Quist

Maria Sciarrone and Nicole Riley are enjoying a remarkable turnaround -- their arthritis now only a painful memory.

For ten years, 46 year old Maria tried every medication on the market, yet her hips, elbows and hands remained affected. Climbing the stairs was an impossibility, she was depressed and life was grim. "It got the point where we thought about selling the home because I couldn't get up and down the stairs. I wouldn't be able to do my shopping or even carry two bags of shopping, even with the children doing sports or kicking a football, couldn't do that", Maria said.

Then Maria's rheumatologist involved her in the trial of a new drug called Tocilizumab. It's given intravenously once a month and having exhausted every other avenue, it was the mother of three's last roll of the dice. "It's changed my life right around", Maria said.

"The trials that were probably the most exciting were the ones where patients had failed to respond to the best treatments we currently have available. In that patient population, the vast majority of people exhibited a good response to this new drug", Dr Stephen Hall.

Dr. Hall says the drug -- a large protein -- blocks the chemical in the joint responsible for driving rheumatoid arthritis and is a world first. "This new drug is a really valuable addition to the treatments we already have for rheumatoid arthritis. We now have the ability to take people with this really nasty arthritis and return them to good activity to the point where they can play competitive sport", he added.

What a difference eight weeks can make -- that was all the time it took for 39 year old Nicole Riley's body to respond to the treatment. "I started to notice I wasn't as tired as I had been, in the past I used to have to go and have a nap, even at work I'd say I was just ducking off to the sick room and had a lay down. I stopped doing that. I could walk for longer distances and basically the pain had started to ease ", Nicole said.

Such was the improvement, Nicole joined a gym within months and now she works there as a circuit trainer -- not bad for someone who spent the proceeding 17 years in agony. "I still have pain and I've got joint damage which causes pain, but it's nothing to what I've experienced in the past", Nicole said.

Tocilizumab trials are claimed to show it's three times more effective at halting the progression of the disease than current therapies. Researchers say it can result in full remission while you're on the drug but a year's worth of treatment costs $30,000. "If the Government doesn't put it on the PBS it's going to be very hard because there's no way I could afford that kind of money", Maria said.

Before that can happen, though, the drug needs to be approved -- Dr Hall believes it's only a matter of time. "The drug will be submitted for registration in Australia and elsewhere around the world and I've got little doubt that it's going to be a drug looked on favourably by most regulatory authorities", Dr. Hall said.

It is expected that Tocilizumab will not be available for sale before 2010.