Inflammation within the arteries can cause a condition called giant cell arteritis (also known as temporal arteritis). For most patients, GCA primarily affects arteries in the scalp, neck, and head — especially in both temples. (Hence the name temporal arteritis.) Temporal arteritis symptoms include headaches, scalp tenderness, jaw pain and vision problems. And if left untreated, patients may suffer a stroke or even blindness. Approximately 30% of GCA patients suffer some vision problems, while 15% go permanently blind.
Temporal arteritis patients usually have two main treatment options: Injectable rheumatoid arthritis drug Actemra (generic name: tocilizumab), and corticosteroids. Prompt treatment with either prescription medication usually resolves any GCA symptoms and may prevent sudden, irreversible vision loss. However, even with treatment, many patients may experience subsequent temporal arteritis relapses. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Actemra for temporal arteritis in 2017, it has serious side effect risks.
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Actemra vs. Corticosteroids for Temporal Arteritis
A July 2017 New England Journal of Medicine study compared Actemra and corticosteroid treatments for temporal arteritis. In most cases, patients given high-dose corticosteroid drugs (like prednisone) experience a GCA relapse once they start tapering the dosage. Unfortunately, another 2015 study found 80% of corticosteroid therapy patients experience severe side effects, including osteoporosis, cataracts, diabetes and hypertension. In fact, This one-year trial randomly assigned 251 patients weekly or bimonthly Actemra injections combined either with a prednisone taper or placebo.
At the study’s conclusion, 56% of patients given weekly Actemra injections reported experiencing sustained temporal arteritis remission. And 53% of subjects given Actemra injections every other week also reported sustained remission from all GCA symptoms. That’s around three times more effective than the 18% of subjects who experienced GCA remission after a 52-week prednisone taper. However, 14-15% of Actemra subjects reported serious adverse events, including neutropenia, gastroenteritis, pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis. One Actemra study participant experienced anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (sudden loss of central or side vision). Researchers concluded that combining Actemra injections with a 26-week prednisone taper was superior for achieving GCA remission than the placebo. However, researchers also mentioned the need for longer follow-up to determine how long patients might enjoy sustained temporal arteritis remission.
GCA Patients Should Consider Actemra Side Effects Prior to Treatment
Because Actemra affects your immune system, you risk experiencing several serious side effects. Immunosuppressant drugs like Actemra can reduce your ability to fight infections, making you more susceptible to certain diseases, such as:
- Bacterial, fungal and viral infections
- Chronic lung disease
- Diabetes mellitus
Patients submit adverse event reports to the FDA detailing potentially deadly Actemra side effects, including:
- Heart failure, heart attacks, palpitations, and other cardiac events.
- Pancreatitis — in its most acute form, up to 50% of patients end up dying.
- Gastrointestinal perforation injuries (small holes and tears in the patient’s stomach and lower intestines).
- Multiple sclerosis (MS).
- Pulmonary embolism — to date, 82 Actemra patients submitted PE adverse event reports to the FDA, and nine individuals died.
While the 2017 Actemra study showed promising results for treating temporal arteritis sufferers, doctors should use caution before prescribing it. Screening GCA patients for potential risk factors, including a weakened immune system, can help patients avoid most serious Actemra dangers.
What You Can Do
Since Actemra can cause potentially deadly health complications, some patients are now filing failure to warn and product liability lawsuits. Many patients say the drug’s manufacturer, Roche, failed to adequately warn patients and healthcare providers about all possible Actemra side effects. As a result, 1,128 individuals died shortly after taking Actemra.
If you or someone you love experienced life-threatening Actemra side effects (including interstitial lung disease), you may qualify for compensation. To see if you may be entitled to a cash settlement, fill out your free compensation evaluation form now. Once you submit your information, an experienced advocate will call to set up an appointment for reviewing your compensation options.