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Azathioprine and mercaptopurine

Author: Hon A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, 2001.

Azathioprine and mercaptopurine — codes and concepts

What are azathioprine and mercaptopurine?

Azathioprine is an antimetabolite thiopurine analogue drug that suppresses the immune system by altering white blood cell function. It is changed in the liver to a related drug, mercaptopurine and then into metabolites called thioguanine (tioguanine) nucleotides, which inhibit cell growth.

What skin disorders are azathioprine and mercaptopurine used for?

The main cutaneous indications for azathioprine and mercaptopurine are:

Other skin disorders treated with these drugs include:

What doses are used?

In New Zealand azathioprine is available as 50 mg tablets or as an injection, trade name Imuran®, Azamun®, Imuprine. Mercaptopurine is available as 10 mg or 50 mg tablets, trade name Puri-nethol®. The dose is generally one or two tablets once or twice daily (1–3 mg/kg/day). Occasionally doses as high as 5 mg per kg body weight per day prove necessary.

What are the side effects and risks of azathioprine and mercaptopurine?

Side effects are generally mild but occasionally are severe enough to stop treatment with azathioprine or mercaptopurine.

  • Loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea (more common if the medications are taken on an empty stomach). Mouth ulceration may also occur.
  • Liver upset (cholestatic hepatitis). Hypersensitivity reaction to azathioprine usually affects the liver, most often several weeks after starting treatment.
  • Pancreatitis
  • Lung disease: acute interstitial pneumonia, eosinophilic pneumonia or chronic pneumonitis
  • Bone marrow suppression, particularly leukopenia (reduced number of white blood cells); azathioprine should be stopped if the neutrophil count drops below 1.0x10^9/L, the lymphocyte count drops below 0.5x10^9/L or the platelet count below 50x10^9/L.
  • Megaloblastic erythropoiesis or macrocytosis (production of large red blood cells).
  • Severe prolonged drug hypersensitivity syndrome resulting in widespread rash, fever, enlarged lymph glands and organ failure (heart, lungs, kidneys, liver).
  • Hair loss
  • Immunosuppression leads to an increased risk of serious infections.
  • Skin cancer, especially cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma. This is more likely after several years´ treatment with azathioprine, especially on skin that has been exposed to the sun. Protect your skin from the sun at all times, using a broad-spectrum sunscreen on exposed areas every day.

Azathioprine and mercaptopurine are FDA Pregnancy Category D. Where possible, these drugs should not be taken during pregnancy, except where the benefits outweigh the risks. Those taking these medications should not breastfeed. In some circumstances, it may also be advisable for males to ensure their partners do not become pregnant, but overall it is thought that azathioprine does not affect fertility in males. Discuss your own situation with your physician.

Prevention of infection when on azathioprine or mercaptopurine

Tests to exclude latent tuberculosis and hepatitis B/C are wise before starting azathioprine, and to determine measles and varicella immunity. It is also important to consider the need to update immunisation in immunosuppressed dermatology patients.

Monitoring while on azathioprine or mercaptopurine

Patients taking azathioprine or mercaptopurine should be carefully monitored and should have regular blood tests to monitor the safety of the treatment, at first fortnightly then monthly long term.

  • Complete blood count (CBC or FBC)
  • Liver function tests

Azathioprine and mercaptopurine are not metabolised properly by some people, who have a faulty enzyme called thiopurine methyltransferase. They may have one gene for the bad enzyme (found in 11% of the population) or two bad genes (in 0.3%). Those with both genes are at severe risk of dangerous marrow suppression i.e. reduction of white cells (leukopenia) or of all blood cells (pancytopenia). Some other individuals have high levels of enzyme activity and may require a higher dose than normal for therapeutic effect.

Thiopurine methyltransferase (TPMT) levels can be measured to determine a patient's level of risk before starting treatment. Low levels are < 5 U/mL, intermediate levels are 5–13.7 U/mL, and high levels are > 13.8 U/mL. A typical therapeutic dose of azathioprine is 1mg/kg/day when the TPMT level is 10 U/mL and 3.5 mg/kg/day when it is 20 U/mL.

6-Thioguanine nucleotide levels are sometimes used to check whether the dose is correct.

Patients taking azathioprine and mercaptopurine should also undergo regular skin checks and should practice self-skin examination.

Drug interactions with azathioprine and mercaptopurine

If you take azathioprine, you must advise any medical practitioner or pharmacist. It is particularly important if you take allopurinol for gout, as the dose of azathioprine will need to be reduced to one-quarter to one-third of normal to avoid severe toxicity.

The following drugs are best avoided, but if unavoidable it is important to monitor blood count very carefully:

    • Neuromuscular blocking agents (such as rocuronium, mivacurium, vecuronium, atracurium, tubocurarine)
    • Warfarin (the warfarin dose requirement may go up by 3-4 times during treatment with azathioprine)
    • D-penicillamine
    • Trimethoprim + sulphamethoxazole
    • Captopril, enalapril, lisinopril and other angiotensin-converting enzymes (ACE) inhibitors
    • Cimetidine
    • Indomethacin.
  • Sulfasalazine and other benzoic acid derivatives
  • Live vaccines such as yellow fever

New Zealand approved datasheets are the official source of information for prescription medicines, including approved uses and risk information. Check the individual New Zealand datasheet on the Medsafe website.

If you are not based in New Zealand, we suggest you refer to your national drug approval agency for further information about medicines (eg, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration and the US Food and Drug Administration) or a national or state-approved formulary (eg, the New Zealand Formulary and New Zealand Formulary for Children and the British National Formulary and British National Formulary for Children).

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