Tacrolimus: a further update of its pharmacology and therapeutic use in the management of organ transplantation

Drugs. 2000 Feb;59(2):323-89. doi: 10.2165/00003495-200059020-00021.


Tacrolimus (FK-506) is an immunosuppressant agent that acts by a variety of different mechanisms which include inhibition of calcineurin. It is used as a therapeutic alternative to cyclosporin, and therefore represents a cornerstone of immunosuppressive therapy in organ transplant recipients. Tacrolimus is now well established for primary immunosuppression in liver and kidney transplantation, and experience with its use in other types of solid organ transplantation, including heart, lung, pancreas and intestinal, as well as its use for the prevention of graft-versus-host disease in allogeneic bone marrow transplantation (BMT), is rapidly accumulating. Large randomised nonblind multicentre studies conducted in the US and Europe in both liver and kidney transplantation showed similar patient and graft survival rates between treatment groups (although rates were numerically higher with tacrolimus- versus cyclosporin-based immunosuppression in adults with liver transplants), and a consistent statistically significant advantage for tacrolimus with respect to acute rejection rate. Chronic rejection rates were also significantly lower with tacrolimus in a large randomised liver transplantation trial, and a trend towards a lower rate of chronic rejection was noted with tacrolimus in a large multicentre renal transplantation study. In general, a similar trend in overall efficacy has been demonstrated in a number of additional clinical trials comparing tacrolimus- with cyclosporin-based immunosuppression in various types of transplantation. One notable exception is in BMT, where a large randomised trial showed significantly better 2-year patient survival with cyclosporin over tacrolimus, which was primarily attributed to patients with advanced haematological malignancies at the time of (matched sibling donor) BMT. These survival results in BMT require further elucidation. Tacrolimus has also demonstrated efficacy in various types of transplantation as rescue therapy in patients who experience persistent acute rejection (or significant adverse effect's) with cyclosporin-based therapy, whereas cyclosporin has not demonstrated a similar capacity to reverse refractory acute rejection. A corticosteroid-sparing effect has been demonstrated in several studies with tacrolimus, which may be a particularly useful consideration in children receiving transplants. The differences in the tolerability profiles of tacrolimus and cyclosporin may well be an influential factor in selecting the optimal treatment for patients undergoing organ transplantation. Although both drugs have a similar degree of nephrotoxicity, cyclosporin has a higher incidence of significant hypertension, hypercholesterolaemia, hirsutism and gingival hyperplasia, while tacrolimus has a higher incidence of diabetes mellitus, some types of neurotoxicity (e.g. tremor, paraesthesia), diarrhoea and alopecia.

Conclusion: Tacrolimus is an important therapeutic option for the optimal individualisation of immunosuppressive therapy in transplant recipients.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Child
  • Cyclosporine / pharmacology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Drug Interactions
  • Economics, Pharmaceutical
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / adverse effects
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / pharmacology*
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Organ Transplantation*
  • Pregnancy
  • Tacrolimus / adverse effects
  • Tacrolimus / pharmacology*
  • Tacrolimus / therapeutic use*


  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Cyclosporine
  • Tacrolimus