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Biologic Agents and the Treatment of Autoimmune Disorders

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The immune system plays a vital role in keeping the body healthy. It is made up of a complex network of cells and organs that work together to defend the body against foreign invaders. It can sometimes work against you to cause disease.

While traditional pharmaceuticals are made up of chemicals, biologic agents are actually developed using proteins from living cells. They are designed to act on different parts of the inflammatory system in order to evoke specific, targeted effects.

Biologic Agents and the Treatment of Autoimmune Disorders

In autoimmune disorders, the immune system is overactive and destroys not only foreign substances, but also the body’s own tissues. The goal of biologic therapy is to slow or block specific components of the immune system and halt tissue destruction.

Autoimmune disorders treated with biologic agents include:

  • Psoriasis—A chronic skin disorder that not only causes skin lesions, but also problems with the joints, fingernails and toenails, genitals, and inside of the mouth. In psoriasis, certain immune cells become overactive, which results in psoriatic lesions developing on the skin and arthritis symptoms developing in the joints.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)—A chronic inflammation of the lining of the joints that results in pain, stiffness, swelling, damage, and loss of function. In RA, the immune system initiates chronic inflammation of the lining of the joints.
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)—A chronic debilitating disease in which the immune system attacks the coating (called myelin) of the nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. This causes inflammation and injury to the sheath and the nerves. It can cause problems with coordination, balance, speaking, and walking.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease—A chronic disease that results in inflammation, ulcers, and bleeding of the intestines. The course of the disease is generally marked by flare-ups between periods of remission. The 2 types are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Side Effects of Biologic Agents    TOP

Side effects depend on many factors such as the type of biologic, dosage, route of administration, schedule, and how your body reacts to the biologic agents. Some possible side effects of biologic therapies are:

  • Infection
  • High blood pressure
  • Lightheadedness
  • Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, muscle and joint aches
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Redness, rash, and/or pain at injection site
  • Headache
  • Allergic reaction
  • Increased risk of Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other types of cancer in children and teens taking TNF inhibitors
  • Possible reactivation of latent tuberculosis infections with TNF inhibitors

If your doctor recommends biologic therapy, ask about which specific side effects you may experience.

A Step Forward in Medicine    TOP

Many biologic agents have been approved by the FDA (see the following table), and many more are under development.

Examples of Approved Biologic Agents for Autoimmune Disorders

Biologic Agent

Disease State






psoriatic arthritis; rheumatoid arthritis; juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and more


rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, psoriasis and more


rheumatoid arthritis; Crohn’s disease; ulcerative colitis


rheumatoid arthritis

interferon beta

multiple sclerosis


Crohn's disease; rheumatoid arthritis; psoriatic arthritis


Crohn's disease; ulcerative colitis


National Multiple Sclerosis Society

National Psoriasis Foundation


Health Canada

Healthy U


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Updated July 16, 2012. Accessed June 24, 2016.

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Updated July 10, 2015. Accessed June 24, 2016.

Keystone EC, et al. Once-weekly administration of 50 mg etanercept in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis: results of a multicenter, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Arthritis Rheum. 2004;50(2):353-63.

Moderate to severe psoriasis: biologic drugs. National Psoriasis Foundation Web site. Available at:
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Accessed June 24, 2016.

National drug code directory. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at:
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Updated April 22, 2016. Accessed June 24, 2016.

Last reviewed June 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 7/18/2014

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