Background: We present a study protocol for a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial that investigates the hypothesis if intervention in the symptomatic phase preceding clinical arthritis (clinically suspect arthralgia (CSA)) is effective in preventing progression from subclinical inflammation to clinically apparent persistent arthritis. Currently, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can be recognized and diagnosed when arthritis (joint swelling) has become detectable at physical examination. Importantly, at this time, the immune processes have already matured, chronicity is established, and patients require long-standing treatment with disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs. The TREAT EARLIER trial studies the hypothesis that intervention in the symptomatic phase preceding clinical arthritis is more often successful in permanent disease modification because of less matured underlying disease processes. Methods: A two-level definition to identify patients that are prone to develop RA is used. First, patients should have CSA and recent-onset arthralgia (< 1 year) that is suspect to progress to RA according to the expertise of the treating rheumatologist. Second, patients need to have subclinical inflammation of the hand or foot joints at 1.5 T MRI. The trial aims to recruit 230 participants from secondary care hospital settings across the south-west region of The Netherlands. Intervention will be randomly assigned and includes a single-dose of intramuscular 120 mg methylprednisolon followed by methotrexate (increasing dose to 25 mg/week orally) or placebo (both; injection and tablets) over the course of 1 year. Thereafter, participants are followed for another year. The primary endpoint is the development of clinically detectable arthritis, either fulfilling the 2010 criteria for RA or unclassified clinical arthritis of ≥ 2 joints, which persists for at least 2 weeks. DMARD-free status is a co-primary endpoint. The patientreported outcomes functioning, along with workability and symptoms, are key secondary endpoints. Participants, caregivers (including those assessing the endpoints), and scientific staff are all blinded to the group assignment. Discussion: This proof-of-concept study is the logical consequence of pre-work on the identification of patients with CSA with MRI-detected subclinical joint inflammation. It will test the hypothesis whether intervention in patients in this early phase with the cornerstone treatment of classified RA (methotrexate) hampers the development of persistent RA and reduce the disease burden of RA.

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Niemantsverdriet, E., Dakkak, Y.J., Burgers, L.E., Bonte-Mineur, F., Steup-Beekman, G.M, van der Kooij, S.M, … van der Helm-van Mil, A.H.M. (2020). TREAT Early Arthralgia to Reverse or Limit Impending Exacerbation to Rheumatoid arthritis (TREAT EARLIER): a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial protocol. Trials, 21(1). doi:10.1186/s13063-020-04731-2