The pharmacokinetics of the slow acting antirheumatic drugs (SAARDs), hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, penicillamine, the gold complexes and sulphasalazine, in humans have been studied. For all these drugs, both in controlled clinical trials and in empirical observations from rheumatological practice, delays of several months are reported before full clinical effects are achieved. Variability in response is also characteristic of these agents. Pharmacokinetic factors may partially explain these clinical observations. Delays in the achievement of steady-state concentrations or of concentrations likely to have a therapeutic benefit may occur because of slow drug accumulation. Variable concentrations may arise after standard administered doses because of interindividual pharmacokinetic variability. These factors are likely to contribute to the delay in response and the variable response, respectively.
Pharmacokinetics of the antimalarials, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, are characterised by extensive tissue sequestration with reported volumes of distribution in the thousands of litres. Both drugs have reported elimination half-lives of greater than 1 month. A 2- to 3-fold range occurs in the fraction of an oral dose absorbed from a tablet formulation. Variable interindividual clearance is also reported. Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are administered as racemates. Enantioselective disposition of both compounds occurs, again with notable interindividual variability.
Sulphasalazine is split in the large intestine into sulphapyridine, proposed to be the active compound in rheumatoid arthritis, and mesalazine (5-aminosalicylic acid). Sulphapyridine is metabolised partly by acetylation, the rate of which is under genetic control. A wide range of sulphapyridine steady-state concentrations are reported after standard doses of sulphasalazine.
The gold complexes are administered either intramuscularly or in an oral form (auranofin). Gold is widely distributed in the body. Very long terminal elimination half-lives and slow accumulation rates are reported. Penicillamine is administered orally. Its bioavailability is variable and may decrease by as much as 70% in the presence of food, antacids and iron salts. Penicillamine forms disulphide bonds with many proteins in the blood and tissues, creating potential slow release reservoirs of the drug. Like the other SAARDs, gold complexes and penicillamine are found in a wide range of blood concentrations after administration in standard doses to different individuals.
More research must be conducted into the concentration-effect relationships of the SAARDs before the pharmacokinetic characteristics of these drugs can be used effectively to optimise patient therapy.