In recent years, tacrolimus (FK506, TAC) has been increasingly utilized in liver transplantation. However, long-term risks and benefits as compared with conventional cyclosporin A (CsA) have not been fully elucidated. This retrospective study examined the potential outcome differences between TAC- and CsA-based immunosuppressive therapy in pediatric liver transplant recipients. From March 1988 to December 1996, 218 children (aged 0.1-17 yr) underwent 238 orthotopic liver transplantations; 58.7% (128/218) were under 2 yr of age at time of transplant. Initially, the maintenance immunosuppressive regimen consisted of CsA and prednisone, with antilymphocytic preparations (MALG, ATGAM, and OKT3) as induction therapy. Subsequently, TAC was used first as rescue therapy for steroid refractory rejection in CsA patients and then as maintenance immunosuppression. Fifty-seven out of the 147 CsA patients were converted to TAC for various reasons while 71 patients were placed on TAC as primary maintenance immunosuppression. 62.6 per cent (92/147) of liver recipients on CsA experienced at least one biopsy-proven acute rejection episode as compared to 50.7% (36/71) for TAC patients (p = 0.09); likewise, 34% (50/147) of CsA patients had more than one episode of rejection vs. 18.3% (13/71) for patients on TAC (p < 0.02). Rejection was the reason for conversion from CsA to TAC in 29 of 57 patients. Conversely, 19.0% (28/147) of CsA patients had to be switched to TAC for reasons not related to rejection (i.e. side-effects). The overall incidence of histologically proven chronic rejection was 7.8% (17/218). 10.9 per cent (16/147) of the children who were on CsA initially developed chronic rejection, which was significantly higher compared with one of 71 TAC recipients (p < 0.02). Of these 16 CsA patients with chronic rejection, 50.0% (8/16) underwent retransplantation for graft failure (mean interval from time of diagnosis of chronic rejection to re-transplant, 4.0 months; range 1-8 months), whereas the TAC patient has remained clinically stable with normal liver function tests after 23 months of follow-up. One year after liver transplantation, 72.8% (107/147) of CsA patients were still on steroids (mean dosage 0.20 mg/kg/d), as compared to 42.3% (30/71) of the TAC patients (mean dosage 0.14 mg/kg/d). The incidence of post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder (PTLD) in Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)-infected patients was 2.2% (2/90), 7.0% (5/71) and 12.3% (7/57) for CsA, primary and TAC-converted groups, respectively. The overall incidence of PTLD was 6.9% (15/218). In summary, pediatric liver transplant recipients treated with TAC as primary maintenance immunosuppressive medication experienced significantly fewer episodes of rejection; especially chronic rejection, which lead to graft loss. However, the trade-off is a potential increased incidence of EBV-related PTLD in these patients.