, Volume 23, Issue 5, pp 231–269 | Cite as

Therapy and pharmacological properties of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine in treatment of systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis and related diseases

  • K. D. Rainsford
  • Ann L. Parke
  • Matthew Clifford-Rashotte
  • W. F. KeanEmail author



This review examines the pharmacokinetics, modes of action and therapeutic properties of the anti-malarial drugs, hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and chloroquine (CQ), in the treatment of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and related conditions, as well as osteoarthritis (OA).

Key findings

Both HCQ and CQ have historically been employed successfully for the treatment of SLE and RA for over 70 years. HCQ has been used extensively for SLE where it has a good reputation for controlling the dermatological complications in SLE. It has also been reported to effectively control the symptoms of Sjøgren’s syndrome, as well as preventing thrombosis in phospholipid antibody (aPL) syndrome. In RA and SLE, HCQ is preferred because of the lower incidence of gastrointestinal adverse reactions compared with CQ and it might have a lower risk of ocular adverse reactions. There is increasing evidence that HCQ may reduce atherosclerosis and risks of cardiovascular disease in rheumatic patients. Both HCQ and CQ have been shown to improve glycaemia and reduce the risks of type II diabetes mellitus. Although both HCQ and CQ are effective in low-moderate RA, HCQ is now preferred as part of combination therapy for more severe disease. The advantages of combination therapy are that the doses of the individual drugs may be lowered so reducing adverse reactions. Both HCQ and CQ are diastereoisomers, have basic properties and are given as the sulphate and phosphate salts. While being relatively well absorbed orally and with good bioavailability, they have long and variable plasma terminal elimination half-lives (approximately 40–60 days). This reflects their high volume of distribution, V D (HCQ 44,000L; CQ 65,000L) which extends into aqueous compartments, long mean residence time (HCQ 1300 h; CQ 900 h) and with about half the drugs (metabolites) undergoing renal clearance. The strong binding to melanin reflects the ocular injury and dermatological properties of these drugs. The consensus is that the occurrence of ocular adverse reactions can be minimised by close attention to the dose (which should be set on a body weight basis) with regular (e.g. quarterly) retinal examination. Although HCQ and CQ can pass through the placenta, the use of these drugs during pregnancy does not appear to risk harm to the baby and might be beneficial to the mother with SLE and her child by controlling the SLE disease activity, which is known to be an important factor affecting pregnancy outcome. The modes of action of HCQ and CQ in these arthritides represent somewhat of an enigma. Undoubtedly, these drugs have multiple actions related, in part, their ability to accumulate in lysosomes and autophagosomes of phagocytic cells as well as affecting MHC Class II expression and antigen presentation; actions of the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines [e.g. interleukin-1 (IL-1) tumour necrosis factor-α (TNFα)]; control of toll-like receptor-9 activation; and leucocyte generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS); i.e. antioxidant activity. The actions of these drugs on T and B cells are less clear but may depend on these leucocyte-mediated actions. Anti-malarials also protect against cytokine-mediated cartilage resorption. This and other actions may underlie the potential benefits in treating OA. The exact relationships of these various actions, mostly determined in vitro, have not been specifically defined in vivo or ex vivo in relation to clinical efficacy.


HCQ and CQ have a good reputation for being effective and relatively safe treatments in SLE, mild-moderate RA and Sjøgren’s syndrome. There is need for (a) more information on their mode of action in relation to the control of these diseases, (b) scope for developing formulations that have improved pharmacokinetic and therapeutic properties and safety, and (c) further exploring their use in drug combinations not only with other disease-modifying agents but also with biologics.


Chloroquine Hydroxychloroquine Lupus Rheumatoid arthritis Cytokine Lysosomotropic activity Inflammasome Toll-like receptors Lupus Sjøgren’s syndrome Dermatological Chronic inflammation 


Conflict of interest

The authors declare no financial interest or support from commercial organizations marketing antimalarials in preparing this review. This was entirely author-initiated research for publication.


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Copyright information

© Springer Basel 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • K. D. Rainsford
    • 1
  • Ann L. Parke
    • 2
  • Matthew Clifford-Rashotte
    • 3
  • W. F. Kean
    • 4
    • 5
    Email author
  1. 1.Biomedical Research CentreSheffield Hallam UniversitySheffieldUK
  2. 2.Department of RheumatologySt Francis Hospital and Medical CenterHartfordUSA
  3. 3.McMaster UniversityHamiltonCanada
  4. 4.Department of Medicine (Rheumatology)McMaster University Faculty of Health SciencesHamiltonCanada
  5. 5. Department of Medicine (Rheumatology)McMaster University Faculty of Health SciencesHamiltonCanada

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