In vivo activity of leflunomide: pharmacokinetic analyses and mechanism of immunosuppression

Transplantation. 1999 Jul 15;68(1):100-9. doi: 10.1097/00007890-199907150-00020.


Background: Leflunomide is an experimental drug with demonstrated ability to prevent and reverse acute allograft and xenograft rejection. The two biochemical activities reported for the active metabolite of leflunomide, A77 1726, are inhibition of tyrosine phosphorylation and inhibition of dihydroorotate dehydrogenase, an enzyme necessary for de novo pyrimidine synthesis. These activities can be distinctly separated in vitro by the use of uridine, which reverses the anti-proliferative effects of A77 1726 caused by inhibition of de novo pyrimidine synthesis. We report the effect of uridine on the in vivo immunosuppressive activities of leflunomide.

Methods: We first quantified the serum levels of A77 1726, the active metabolite of leflunomide, after a single treatment of leflunomide (5, 15, and 35 mg/kg). Additionally, we quantified the levels of serum uridine and of nucleotide triphosphates in the liver, spleen, and lymph nodes of Lewis rats after the administration of a single dose of uridine (500 mg/kg; i.p.). Lewis rats heterotopically transplanted with brown Norway or Golden Syrian hamster hearts were treated for 50 or 75 days with leflunomide (5, 15, and 35 mg/kg/day; gavage) alone or in combination with uridine (500 mg/ kg/day; i.p.). Hematocrits were determined and the levels of alloreactive or xenoreactive immunoglobulin (Ig)M and IgG were determined by flow cytometric analysis. The allograft and xenografts, small bowel, liver, kidney, and spleen were subjected to pathological examination.

Results: A linear relationship was observed between the serum A77 1726 concentrations in Lewis rats and the dose of leflunomide administered. Peak A77 1726 concentrations were 20.9, 71.8 and 129.3 mg/l (77.5, 266.1 and 478.8 microM) for the 5, 15, and 35 mg/kg doses of leflunomide, respectively. The concentration of uridine in the serum of normal Lewis rats is 6.5 microM; after i.p. administration of 500 mg/kg uridine, the serum uridine concentrations peaked at 384.1 microM in 15-30 min. The rapid elimination of uridine was not reflected in the lymphoid compartments, and the pharmacokinetics of pyrimidine nucleotides in the spleen resembled that of A77 1726. This dose of uridine, when administered daily (500 mg/kg/day, i.p.), weakly antagonized the immunosuppressive activities of leflunomide (5, 15, and 35 mg/kg/day) in the allotransplantation model. In contrast, in the xenotransplantation model, the same concentration of uridine completely antagonized the immunosuppressive activities of low-dose leflunomide (15 mg/kg/day) and partially antagonized the immunosuppressive activities of high-dose leflunomide (35 mg/kg/day). Toxicities associated with high-dose leflunomide (35 mg/kg/day) were anemia, diarrhea, and pathological changes in the small bowel and liver. These toxicities were significantly reduced by uridine co-administration.

Conclusion: These studies reveal that the blood levels of A77 1726 in Lewis rats satisfy in vitro requirements for both inhibition of de novo pyrimidine synthesis and protein tyrosine kinase activity. Our data also illustrate that the in vivo mechanism of immunosuppression by leflunomide is complex and is affected by at least the following four factors: type and vigor of the immune response, availability of uridine for salvage by proliferating lymphocytes, species being investigated, and concentration of serum A77 1726.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aniline Compounds / blood
  • Aniline Compounds / pharmacokinetics
  • Animals
  • Cricetinae
  • Crotonates
  • Graft Rejection / prevention & control
  • Heart Transplantation / immunology
  • Humans
  • Hydroxybutyrates / blood
  • Hydroxybutyrates / pharmacokinetics
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / metabolism
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / pharmacokinetics
  • Isoxazoles / metabolism*
  • Isoxazoles / pharmacokinetics
  • Isoxazoles / therapeutic use
  • Leflunomide
  • Liver / chemistry
  • Lymph Nodes / chemistry
  • Mesocricetus
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Mice, Inbred C3H
  • Nitriles
  • Pyrimidine Nucleotides / biosynthesis
  • Pyrimidine Nucleotides / blood
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Lew
  • Spleen / chemistry
  • Toluidines
  • Transplantation, Heterologous / immunology
  • Transplantation, Homologous / immunology
  • Uridine / pharmacokinetics


  • Aniline Compounds
  • Crotonates
  • Hydroxybutyrates
  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Isoxazoles
  • Nitriles
  • Pyrimidine Nucleotides
  • Toluidines
  • teriflunomide
  • Leflunomide
  • Uridine