November 4, 1996 in Nation/World

Arthritis Drug Called Miracle In Spokane Test Genetically Engineered Treatments Restore Joys Of Life To Area Recipients

By The Spokesman-Review
 

When Lindagail Dixon got out of bed in the morning, she’d totter against the wall or the stereo cabinet for support.

She couldn’t hold a needle. She couldn’t run. Sometimes, she couldn’t zip up her pants. Even stirring a pot of soup was painful.

The 42-year-old Otis Orchards woman was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis 17 years ago. Sometimes, the disease went into remission. Other times, it flared so severely that she preferred a wheelchair to walking.

“At times, the pain was so bad. I didn’t think of ending my life, but I thought how nice it would be to not feel anymore,” said Dixon, a single mother of four. “I had no life. I couldn’t enjoy my kids. I couldn’t really do anything.”

Now, Dixon can dance with her two daughters, 20 and 22. She jogs. She’s sewing a cross-stitch pattern that says “Bless This House O Lord We Pray.” She works more than 50 hours a week as a manager at the Old Country Buffet in the Franklin Park Mall.

Dixon and others debilitated by rheumatoid arthritis have new hope from a promising line of genetically engineered drugs working their way through the federal approval process. The drugs also could lead to treatments for other immune disorders, such as lupus.

Dixon was one of more than 30 people taking part in the study of one drug at a Spokane arthritis clinic.

“I feel guilty feeling so good when so many people out there feel so bad,” said Dixon, who went running the night she received her first shot.

More than 2 million Americans suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic disease that inflames joints and joint tissue when the immune system attacks the body.

The disease can be crippling. During flare-ups, joints become red, swollen, tender and painful. Simple tasks such as picking up grocery bags or turning doorknobs can be difficult.

Rheumatoid arthritis strikes three times more women than men, usually in their 40s and 50s.

There’s no known cure. Patients usually are treated with a combination of drugs that operates like a linebacker, pounding at the body’s faulty immune system.

But that combination hasn’t worked for Dixon, and it hasn’t worked for many others.

Almost 800 patients nationwide took part in three studies of the new drugs. Most who received one of the drugs reported improvements in their swollen joints, often within two weeks.

The studies were presented last month at the national meeting of the American College of Rheumatology in Orlando, Fla.

Dixon’s doctor, Scott Baumgartner of Spokane, presented the national paper on one of the more promising arthritis drugs, tested on 180 patients nationwide for Immunex Corp. of Seattle.

Baumgartner and partner Meredith Heick’s practice gave different levels of the drug or a placebo to patients, all of whom had failed to respond to traditional therapy.

The Spokane test site attracted more patients than any of the 10 other test sites nationwide. Baumgartner thinks that’s because of the large practice and the number of patients willing to try new treatments. The test ran three months.

“This is scientifically based,” Baumgartner said. “It’s exciting science. You look at it, and you think: Gosh, this just makes sense.”

The drugs target the disease’s inflammatory cycle to stop arthritis flare-ups. So far, they’ve delivered amazing results with few serious side effects.

The premise is simple, with many years of complex science behind it.

The drug tested in Baumgartner’s practice works like a sponge, soaking up a specific blood protein that triggers inflammation.

The other two drugs work similarly. One targets another inflammatory protein. The third is an antibody derived from monkey and human proteins that knocks out immune cells that attack the joints.

That antibody generated success for patients of Dr. Craig Wiesenhutter, director of the Coeur d’Alene Arthritis Center, which participated in that drug’s national test.

The drugs probably will require at least two more years of testing before federal Food and Drug Administration approval for general use.

Dixon wants approval now. She’s participating in another test for the drugs, but she wants all sufferers to be able to use them. On Thursday, she waited for her mother to come over to deliver one of her weekly shots, stored in a blue bag in the refrigerator.

“It looks like water,” said Dixon, holding up one of the syringes. “It’s not though. It’s the miracle drug.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos (1 color)

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