The arthritis and ulcerative colitis medicine tofacitinib (Xeljanz, Xeljanz XR) poses an increased risk of serious cardiac events such as heart attack or stroke, cancer, blood clots, and death, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced today.

Manufacturers of this drug along with other Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors baricitinib (Olumiant) and upadacitinib (Rinvoq) must update their boxed warnings to include information about these health risks. The FDA made the determination after new study data from Pfizer, which manufacturers Xeljanz, found an association between a lower dose of Xeljanz and increased risk of blood clots and death.

“Recommendations for healthcare professionals will include consideration of the benefits and risks for the individual patient prior to initiating or continuing therapy,” the agency stated.

The FDA is limiting all approved uses of these three medications to patients who have not responded well to tumor necrosis factor (TNF) blockers to ensure their benefits outweigh their risks. Tofacitinib is indicated for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and polyarticular course juvenile idiopathic arthritis

The FDA included baricitinib and upadacitinib in the warning because of the similar properties they share with Xeljanz, even though they haven’t been studied as extensively.

“We believe this update will bring important clarity for healthcare plans on the risk/benefit profile of Xeljanz, which is a medicine informed by more clinical data than any other JAK inhibitor,” Pfizer said in a statement.

Investigators for the ORAL Surveillance trial compared two doses of tofacitinib (5 mg twice daily and 10 mg twice daily) with TNF blockers in patients with rheumatoid arthritis age 50 years or older with at least one additional cardiovascular risk factor.

For both dose regimens of tofacitinib, they found an increased risk of major adverse cardiovascular events, malignancies, thrombosis, and death compared with the TNF blocker regimen. Additionally, rates of lung cancers and lymphomas were higher with tofacitinib. In trial data released earlier this year, Pfizer revealed that the tofacitinib group had a much higher incidence of adjudicated malignancies compared with the TNF blocker group (1.13 vs 0.77 per 100 person-years; hazard ratio, 1.48; 95% CI, 1.04 – 2.09).

Impact on Clinical Practice

Physicians treating patients who have rheumatoid arthritis with tofacitinib may initially decrease prescriptions following the FDA’s drug safety communication, said Daniel E. Furst, MD, professor of medicine (emeritus) at the University of California, Los Angeles, adjunct professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, and a research professor at the University of Florence (Italy) — particularly those with a principal mechanism of action slightly different from tofacitinib, he added.

“Tofacitinib is principally a JAK 1,3 inhibitor at usual concentrations, whereas upadacitinib and baricitinib are JAK 1,2 inhibitors. Thus, I speculate that the tofacitinib prescriptions will go down more than the upadacitinib and baricitinib prescriptions,” he said in an interview.

Some patients may also be worried about taking tofacitinib, particularly those with previous events or predisposing conditions, Furst noted.

“First and foremost, I think we need to actually look at the data in a publication rather than just an FDA statement before making huge changes in our practice,” he advised.

Pfizer’s data may be affecting FDA approvals of other JAK inhibitors. This past summer, AbbVie and Eli Lilly stated that the FDA’s ongoing assessment of the safety trial was delaying the agency’s decisions about expanding use of their respective drugs upadacitinib and baricitinib.

The agency’s decision corroborates an earlier 2019 warning about the increased risk of blood clots and of death in patients with ulcerative colitis taking 10 mg tofacitinib twice daily.

The FDA said that two other JAK inhibitors, ruxolitinib (Jakafi) and fedratinib (Inrebic), are not indicated for the treatment of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions, and so are not a part of the updates being required.

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