For many, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a scourge on their lives, causing innumerable pain across the joints and other parts of the body. Now a pioneering study has given hope to those suffering from the disease, as a new drug, tocilizumab (marketed as RoActemra), has been successfully trialled.

More than 300 patients were tested at five trial centres in the UK, as part of the Adacta study conducted by pharmaceutical giant Roche. The results released show that almost four times as many RA patients achieve remission taking RoActemra than those on the current standard biologicalal drug, Humira.

Methotrexate (MTX) is the current synthetic drug prescribed for patients with RA in the UK but if this treatment is not working, patients may also be given a biological drug to help control the disease. However, of the estimated 46,000 RA patients taking Humira, one in three are not taking methotrexate, often because of severe side-effects such as inflammation of the mouth and low white blood cell count.

Paul Emery, a consultant rheumatologist professor at the University of Leeds, said: "These results are impressive and important for the 30 percent of patients with RA who cannot take methotrexate. In RA, disease remission is the goal of therapy. However, for varied reasons, many patients fail to achieve this goal.

"Adacta has produced striking results and the results help in choosing the right drug for the right patient."

Rheumatoid arthritis often starts during a person's prime, typically between the ages of 35 and 45. It is estimated to affect 400,000 people across England and Wales, with women three times more likely to develop the disease than men. It is an incurable, painful and debilitating autoimmune disease where the body attacks itself, most noticeably in the joints.

Ailsa Bosworth, chief executive of the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, said that utilising the most effective drug as quickly as possible provides the greatest chance of remission of the disease.

"With any medical condition, remission is the number one target. Curing the person of their illness and enabling them to get on with their life is the ultimate goal. For those with rheumatoid arthritis however, there is no cure, they will always have rheumatoid arthritis. Remission for those with RA does not mean the disease has gone, it just means it is better controlled. The key to the most successful outcome is an early diagnosis and early treatment with the most effective drugs."

At £9,500 per patient per year, RoActemra costs about the same as Humira. The NHS cost-effectiveness watchdog Nice has approved it when it is combined with methotrexate. It is believed the new results may lead to the drug being given to a greater numbers of patients on its own.