The expansion of the synovial lining of joints in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and the subsequent invasion by the pannus of underlying cartilage and bone necessitate an increase in the vascular supply to the synovium, to cope with the increased requirement for oxygen and nutrients. The formation of new blood vessels – termed ‘angiogenesis’ – is now recognised as a key event in the formation and maintenance of the pannus in RA. This pannus is highly vascularised, suggesting that targeting blood vessels in RA may be an effective future therapeutic strategy. Disruption of the formation of new blood vessels would not only prevent delivery of nutrients to the inflammatory site, but could also lead to vessel regression and possibly reversal of disease. Although many proangiogenic factors are expressed in the synovium in RA, the potent proangiogenic cytokine vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) has been shown to a have a central involvement in the angiogenic process in RA.
The additional activity of VEGF as a vascular permeability factor may also increase oedema and hence joint swelling in RA. Several studies have shown that targeting angiogenesis in animal models of arthritis ameliorates disease. Our own study showed that inhibition of VEGF activity in murine collagen-induced arthritis, using a soluble VEGF receptor, reduced disease severity, paw swelling, and joint destruction. Although no clinical trials of anti-angiogenic therapy in RA have been reported to date, the blockade of angiogenesis – and especially of VEGF – appears to be a promising avenue for the future treatment of RA.