Patients receiving immunosuppressants, including azathioprine, are at increased risk of developing lymphoma and other malignancies, particularly of the skin. Physicians should inform patients of the risk of malignancy with azathioprine. As usual for patients with increased risk for skin cancer, exposure to sunlight and ultraviolet light should be limited by wearing protective clothing and using a sunscreen with a high protection factor.
Renal transplant patients are known to have an increased risk of malignancy, predominantly skin cancer and reticulum cell or lymphomatous tumors. The risk of post-transplant lymphomas may be increased in patients who receive aggressive treatment with immunosuppressive drugs, including azathioprine. Therefore, immunosuppressive drug therapy should be maintained at the lowest effective levels.
Information is available on the risk of malignancy with the use of azathioprine in rheumatoid arthritis (see ADVERSE REACTIONS). It has not been possible to define the precise risk of malignancy due to azathioprine. The data suggest the risk may be elevated in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, though lower than for renal transplant patients. However, acute myelogenous leukemia as well as solid tumors have been reported in patients with rheumatoid arthritis who have received azathioprine.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Postmarketing cases of hepatosplenic T-cell lymphoma (HSTCL), a rare type of T-cell lymphoma, have been reported in patients treated with azathioprine. These cases have had a very aggressive disease course and have been fatal. The majority of reported cases have occurred in patients with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis and the majority were in adolescent and young adult males. Some of the patients were treated with azathioprine as monotherapy and some had received concomitant treatment with a TNFα blocker at or prior to diagnosis. The safety and efficacy of azathioprine for the treatment of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis have not been established.
Severe leukopenia, thrombocytopenia, anemias including macrocytic anemia, and/or pancytopenia may occur in patients being treated with azathioprine. Severe bone marrow suppression may also occur. Hematologic toxicities are dose-related and may be more severe in renal transplant patients whose homograft is undergoing rejection. It is suggested that patients on azathioprine have complete blood counts, including platelet counts, weekly during the first month, twice monthly for the second and third months of treatment, then monthly or more frequently if dosage alterations or other therapy changes are necessary. Delayed hematologic suppression may occur. Prompt reduction in dosage or temporary withdrawal of the drug may be necessary if there is a rapid fall in or persistently low leukocyte count, or other evidence of bone marrow depression. Leukopenia does not correlate with therapeutic effect; therefore, the dose should not be increased intentionally to lower the white blood cell count.
TPMT or NUDT15 Deficiency
Patients with thiopurine S-methyl transferase (TPMT) or nucleotide diphosphatase (NUDT15) deficiency may be at an increased risk of severe and life-threatening myelotoxicity if receiving conventional doses of azathioprine (see CLINCIAL PHARMACOLOGY). Death associated with pancytopenia has been reported in patients with absent TPMT activity receiving azathioprine. In patients with severe myelosuppression, consider evaluation for TPMT and NUDT15 deficiency (see PRECAUTIONS: Laboratory Tests). Consider alternative therapy in patients with homozygous TPMT or NUDT15 deficiency and reduced dosages in patients with heterozygous deficiency (see DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION).
Patients receiving immunosuppressants, including azathioprine, are at increased risk for bacterial, viral, fungal, protozoal, and opportunistic infections, including reactivation of latent infections. These infections may lead to serious, including fatal outcomes.
Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy
Cases of JC virus-associated infection resulting in progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), sometimes fatal, have been reported in patients treated with immunosuppressants, including azathioprine. Risk factors for PML include treatment with immunosuppressant therapies and impairment of immune function. Consider the diagnosis of PML in any patient presenting with new-onset neurological manifestations and consider consultation with a neurologist as clinically indicated. Consider reducing the amount of immunosuppression in patients who develop PML. In transplant patients, consider the risk that the reduced immunosuppression represents to the graft.
Effect on Sperm in Animals
Azathioprine has been reported to cause temporary depression in spermatogenesis and reduction in sperm viability and sperm count in mice at doses 10 times the human therapeutic dose1 ; a reduced percentage of fertile matings occurred when animals received 5 mg/kg2.
Pregnancy: Pregnancy Category D. Azathioprine can cause fetal harm when administered to a pregnant woman. Azathioprine should not be given during pregnancy without careful weighing of risk versus benefit. Whenever possible, use of azathioprine in pregnant patients should be avoided. This drug should not be used for treating rheumatoid arthritis in pregnant women3.
Azathioprine is teratogenic in rabbits and mice when given in doses equivalent to the human dose (5 mg/kg daily). Abnormalities included skeletal malformations and visceral anomalies2.
Limited immunologic and other abnormalities have occurred in a few infants born of renal allograft recipients on azathioprine. In a detailed case report4 , documented lymphopenia, diminished IgG and IgM levels, CMV infection, and a decreased thymic shadow were noted in an infant born to a mother receiving 150 mg azathioprine and 30 mg prednisone daily throughout pregnancy. At 10 weeks most features were normalized. DeWitte et al reported pancytopenia and severe immune deficiency in a preterm infant whose mother received 125 mg azathioprine and 12.5 mg prednisone daily5. There have been two published reports of abnormal physical findings. Williamson and Karp described an infant born with preaxial polydactyly whose mother received azathioprine 200 mg daily and prednisone 20 mg every other day during pregnancy6. Tallent et al described an infant with a large myelomeningocele in the upper lumbar region, bilateral dislocated hips, and bilateral talipes equinovarus. The father was on long-term azathioprine therapy7.
Benefit versus risk must be weighed carefully before use of azathioprine in patients of reproductive potential. There are no adequate and well-controlled studies in pregnant women. If this drug is used during pregnancy or if the patient becomes pregnant while taking this drug, the patient should be apprised of the potential hazard to the fetus. Women of childbearing age should be advised to avoid becoming pregnant.
A gastrointestinal hypersensitivity reaction characterized by severe nausea and vomiting has been reported. These symptoms may also be accompanied by diarrhea, rash, fever, malaise, myalgias, elevations in liver enzymes, and occasionally, hypotension. Symptoms of gastrointestinal toxicity most often develop within the first several weeks of therapy with azathioprine and are reversible upon discontinuation of the drug. The reaction can recur within hours after re-challenge with a single dose of azathioprine.
Information for Patients: Patients being started on azathioprine should be informed of the necessity of periodic blood counts while they are receiving the drug and should be encouraged to report any unusual bleeding or bruising to their physician. They should be informed of the danger of infection while receiving azathioprine and asked to report signs and symptoms of infection to their physician. Careful dosage instructions should be given to the patient, especially when azathioprine is being administered in the presence of impaired renal function or concomitantly with allopurinol (see Drug Interactions subsection and DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION). Patients should be advised of the potential risks of the use of azathioprine during pregnancy and during the nursing period. The increased risk of malignancy following therapy with azathioprine should be explained to the patient.
Laboratory Tests: Complete Blood Count (CBC) Monitoring: Patients on azathioprine tablets should have complete blood counts, including platelet counts, weekly during the first month, twice monthly for the second and third months of treatment, then monthly or more frequently if dosage alterations or other therapy changes are necessary.
TPMT and NUDT15 Testing: Consider genotyping or phenotyping patients for TPMT deficiency and genotyping for NUDT15 deficiency in patients with severe myelosuppression. TPMT and NUDT15 testing cannot substitute for complete blood count (CBC) monitoring in patients receiving azathioprine. Accurate phenotyping (red blood cell TPMT activity) results are not possible in patients who have received recent blood transfusions (see CLINICAL PHARMACOLOGY, WARNINGS: Cytopenias, ADVERSE REACTIONS and DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION sections).
All MedLibrary.org resources are included in as near-original form as possible, meaning that the information from the original provider has been rendered here with only typographical or stylistic modifications and not with any substantive alterations of content, meaning or intent.