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Systematic review and meta-analysis of the efficacy and safety of leflunomide and methotrexate in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis

Roberto Alfaro-Lara, Hector Fabricio Espinosa-Ortega, CĂ©sar Alejandro Arce-Salinas
ReumatologĂ­a Clinica 2017 August 31

OBJECTIVE: To assess the efficacy and side effects of methotrexate and leflunomide in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) as the first disease-modifying antirheumatic drug (DMARD).

METHODS: We performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical studies that included patients who took methotrexate, leflunomide, placebo or another DMARD for RA treatment. A systematic review yielded 1971 articles from databases; once completely reviewed, 73 trials that completed inclusion criteria were selected. In structured workshops for discussion and assessment of each article, 6 could be meta-analyzed for the primary and secondary outcomes: achievement of American College of Rheumatology (ACR) 20 and its core set components; and change of serum C-reactive protein (CRP) levels, Health Assessment Questionnaire Disability Index (HAQ-Di), liver enzyme aspartate transaminase/alanine transaminase ratio, new gastrointestinal (GI) side effects and infections.

RESULTS: A total of 1984 patients were included: 986 took leflunomide and 998 methotrexate. The probability of achieving ACR 20 had an odds ratio (OR) of 0.88 (95% confidence interval [CI] 0.74, 1.06) with a trend toward favoring methotrexate; reduction of the swollen joint count was greater for methotrexate: mean difference=0.82 (95%CI 0.24, 1.39); tender joint count, physician global assessment, HAQ-Di, and serum CRP levels revealed no significant difference between groups. Increased liver enzymes were more frequent in the leflunomide group, OR=0.38 (95%CI 0.27, 0.53), and new GI complaints were more common with methotrexate (OR=1.44; 95%CI 1.17, 1.79). There was no difference in the incidence of non-severe infections.

CONCLUSION: Leflunomide used as the first DMARD in RA seemed to be as efficacious as methotrexate; only the reduction of swollen joint count was more marked for methotrexate. Leflunomide was linked to a greater increase in liver enzymes, but there were fewer GI complaints.


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