Adalimumab for psoriasis

Author: Vanessa Ngan, Staff writer in 2006. Updated by Chief Editor Hon Assoc Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand. February 2015.


Adalimumab belongs to the class of biologic medicines called tumour necrosis factor (TNF) blockers. It is approved for the treatment of psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn disease. In New Zealand, PHARMAC has approved funding for severe treatment-resistant psoriasis on Special Authority application. In September 2015, the FDA also approved adalimumab for the treatment of hidradenitis suppurativa.

Adalimumab has the trade name Humira®. Generic biosimilar adulimumab is under development.

How effective is adalimumab in psoriasis?

Adalimumab has been studied in several thousand adult patients with moderate to severe psoriasis. The efficacy of the medication was judged using PASI (Psoriasis Area and Severity Index) scores before treatment and after using adalimumab 40 mg every 2 weeks. More than 70% of patients achieved a 75% reduction in the PASI score at 16 weeks, and in 15-20% the psoriasis cleared up completely.

Adalimumab is not a cure for psoriasis and must be continued long term. Although it continues to be effective in the majority of patients, sometimes the psoriasis recurs despite on-going adalimumab injections. This is called secondary failure.

Adalimumab 40 mg every 2 weeks has also been studied in several hundred patients with psoriatic arthritis. Most patients get some improvement in joint pain and swelling in at least a few affected joints and some patients report remarkable benefit from the treatment.

More pictures of the effect of adalimumab ...

How does adalimumab work?

Adalimumab is a recombinant monoclonal antibody containing only human peptides. It works by directly binding to TNF molecules in the blood and diseased tissue. TNF bound to adalimumab is prevented from causing the inflammation that results in psoriasis plaques.

How is adalimumab given?

Adalimumab is administered by subcutaneous injection once every two weeks. It is available as a pre-prepared syringe or pen. After initial counselling and training, patients can usually self-inject into the thigh or abdomen. A different site should be used at each injection to reduce soreness and prevent the skin from becoming tender, red, bruised or hard.

The recommended dose for treating psoriasis is 80 mg then 40 mg a week later, followed by 40 mg every fortnight as a single dose.

Other medications including methotrexate and acitretin can usually be continued during treatment with adalimumab.

Tests prior to adalimumab

Dermatologists are likely to request routine blood count, liver and renal function, fasting lipids and antinuclear antibody (ANA) before starting adalimumab. In females, a pregnancy test may be appropriate.

Patients should be screened for tuberculosis (TB), active or latent viral hepatitis (HAV, HBV, HCV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). If present, these infections should be treated before starting adalimumab.

Vaccinations and adalimumab

Immunisation status should be reviewed prior to starting adalimumab. If necessary, vaccines should be updated prior to treatment. Annual influenza vaccination is recommended.

As they may induce illness in immunodeficient individuals, live vaccines should not be used during treatment with adalimumab. Currently available live attenuated viral vaccines include measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, yellow fever, influenza (intranasal vaccine) and oral polio vaccine. Live attenuated bacterial vaccines include BCG and oral typhoid vaccine.

Read more about immunisation in immunosuppressed dermatology patients ...

Precautions while on adalimumab

Because adalimumab works by selectively targeting TNF, theoretically it should not have much effect on the rest of the body's immune system. However, caution must be taken when considering its use in patients prone to infections or in those with active chronic or recurrent infections. It is wise to avoid concurrent treatment with corticosteroids, azathioprine or ciclosporin as the combination increases the risk of infection. Infection can be due to bacterial, mycobacterial, invasive fungal (disseminated or extrapulmonary histoplasmosis, aspergillosis, coccidioidomycosis) viral, parasitic, or other opportunistic infectious agents.

There is particular concern that etanercept may reactivate tuberculosis (TB), viral hepatitis B, C, and increase the risk of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), listeria and legionella infections.

Adalimumab should also be used with caution in the following situations:

Patients on anakinra, a drug used in rheumatoid arthritis, should not be prescribed adalimumab.

The safety of adalimumab during pregnancy and breastfeeding is unknown. It is therefore not recommended. Where possible, the drug should be discontinued several months before conception.

Patients who require major surgery may be advised to stop adalimumab temporarily 2 to 3 months prior to a planned operation. It can be started again 2 weeks after surgery providing no infection is present.

Adverse effects of adalimumab

Adalimumab appears to be well tolerated. Mild to moderate injection site reactions (redness, swelling, itching, pain) appear to be the most common side effect, occurring in 20% of patients. Mild to serious infections are the main risk of treatment and should be promptly treated.

Severe cutaneous reactions have rarely been reported, including worsening psoriasis, vasculitis, anaphylaxis, Stevens Johnson syndrome and toxic epidermal necrolysis.

Like all medications that work on the immune system, it may increase the risk of certain types of lymphoma (white blood cell cancer). These have rarely been reported in patients on adalimumab, usually in those also taking other medicines that suppress the immune system such as azathioprine or mercaptopurine.

Skin cancers, in particular squamous cell carcinoma, have also been reported in patients on adalimumab, usually in patients with other risk factors such as sun-damaged skin or previous treatment with photochemotherapy (PUVA).

Monitoring while on adalimumab

Regular follow-up visits to monitor the safety and efficacy of treatment are necessary. It is recommended that patients on biologic medications have routine blood tests every 6 months or so, including full blood count and liver function tests. TB testing should also be repeated from time to time.

Interrupting adalimumab

Adalimumab should be discontinued in the following circumstances:

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