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Skin Cancer Risk Higher with TNFa Blockers, According to New Study

Sep 9, 2011 | Parker Waichman LLP

A new study published in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases has found that rheumatoid arthritis patients treated with tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFa) blockers face a higher risk of both non-melanoma skin cancer and melanoma.  TNFa blockers include the drugs Cimzia, Enbrel, Humira, Remicade, and Simponi.  

The study, however, did not find an increased risk of other cancers in patients treated with TNFa blockers. 

TNFa blockers are biologic medications which inhibit a protein that, when overproduced in the body due to chronic inflammatory diseases, can cause inflammation and damage to bones, cartilage and tissue.  In addition to rheumatoid arthritis, Cimzia, Enbrel, Humira, Remicade, and Simponi are also used to treat Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, plaque psoriasis, and/or juvenile idiopathic arthritis.

The protein targeted by TNFa blockers also provides some protection against cancer, so since the first one came on the market, there has been concern that these drugs could increase cancer risks.  While studies have so far been inconclusive,  the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) did mandate in 2009 that the Black Box Warnings on TNFa blockers highlight their possible association with lymphoma and other cancers in children and teens.

For the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases study, researchers reviewed results of 21 studies conducted between 1998 and 2010, as well as eight abstracts presented at research conferences during that same period that involved a total of 40,000 people.  According to a report from HeathDay News, four of the studies collectively showed that TNFa blockers increased the risk for non-melanoma skin cancer by 45 percent.   Two other studies suggested that therapy raised the specific risk for developing melanoma by nearly 80 percent.

According to WebMD, while the study did not include Cimzia and Simponi, as they were approved only two years ago, the study authors said any cancer risk is probably common to the entire class of drugs.

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