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January was crazy for me. I was wrapping up a major project and that included long, long hours and lots of weekend work. I barely had time to come up for air, much less attend to those non-essential things like laundry. (Thanks to my husband, we made it through.)

But not even I, in my work-induced fog, could ignore the recent major news stories about rheumatoid arthritis. And while I have reservations about them, unless you’re Bill Clinton or Anthony Weiner and their various sex scandals, the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity is certainly true. Let’s face it, when it comes to diseases, raising awareness is a critical early step in finding substantive treatments and eventually a cure.

The first was on January 17, marking the 50th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s war on cigarette smoking. The announcement tied cigarette smoking to a number of new diseases including Type 2 diabetes mellitus, age-related macular degeneration, erectile dysfunction and, yes, even rheumatoid arthritis. Of course, the news was really about the real health issues of cigarette smoking, but this kind of awareness of RA can’t be all bad.

The news media reported cigarette smoking as a cause of RA, but looking closer at the information, that’s not the way I interpret the news. The foundation of the surgeon general’s warning stems back to 2001 research that shows the profound impact of cigarette smoking on RA patients, including the fact that they are less responsive to treatment. Part of this is the apparent effect of smoking on blocking TNF inhibitors which are the disease modifying elements of five of the most-used RA biologics on the market: Enbrel, Simponi, Humira, Cimzia, and Remicade. The way I understand it, cigarette smoking doesn’t actually cause RA, but your chances of receiving relief or going into remission are greatly reduced which means a greater chance of debilitating illness.

The other news story just happened. It appears that the USDA, the National Institute of Health, seven nonprofit health organizations, the major pharma trade association, and 10 drug makers have formed a public-private partnership (named Accelerating Medicines Partnership) to assertively address chronic diseases including Alzheimer’s, Type 2 diabetes, and two auto-immune diseases — rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. The partnership announced Tuesday will seek to identify biological targets present in a disease, such as abnormal genes or particular proteins. The goal is to not only find better treatments but also to find tests that better identify the diseases at an earlier stage. It’s a five-year program with a “modest” $230 million budget the first year. Not surprisingly, $130 million of that budget will be focused on Alzheimer’s research, but I was heartened to see RA included in the studies. I’ve included the full list of participants below.

While I am the first to look with askance at anything that corporate America does (being somewhat cynical that anything they do has more to do with corporate profits and less for the good of mankind), I am frankly astounded that this partnership exists in the first place. How this came about in this age of corporate competition is no less than amazing. I only hope that advancements do come out of this (and not just endless committee meetings) and that, while RA and lupus are low on the totem pole, that some positive results trickle into the RA community.

So, seemingly good news. Certainly good exposure for a terrible disease. I hope whatever news comes your way brings a smile to your face. Thanks for checking in.

Participants in the Accelerating Medicines Partnership:

  • DRUGMAKERS: AbbVie Inc., Biogen Idec Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., GlaxoSmithKline PLC, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly and Co., Merck & Co., Pfizer Inc., Sanofi SA and Takeda Pharmaceutical Co.
  • NONPROFIT FOUNDATIONS: Alzheimer’s Association, American Diabetes Association, Foundation for the NIH, Geoffrey Beene Foundation (supports early medical research), Lupus Foundation of America, Rheumatology Research Foundation and USAgainstAlzheimer’s
  • INDUSTRY TRADE GROUP: Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America
  • GOVERNMENT AGENCIES: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health