Background: Corticosteroids have been a cornerstone of immunosuppression for four decades despite their adverse side effects. Past attempts at steroid withdrawal in pediatric renal transplantation have had little success. This study tests the hypothesis that a complete steroid-free immunosuppressive protocol avoids steroid dependency for suppression of the immune response with its accompanying risk of acute rejection on steroid withdrawal.
Methods: An open labeled prospective study of complete steroid avoidance immunosuppressive protocol was undertaken in 10 unsensitized pediatric recipients (ages 5-21 years; mean 14.4 years) of first renal allografts. Steroids were substituted with extended daclizumab use, in combination with tacrolimus and mycophenolate mofetil. Protocol biopsies were performed in the steroid-free group at 0, 1, 3, 6, and 12 months posttransplantation. Clinical outcomes were compared to a steroid-based group of 37 matched historical controls.
Results: Graft and patient survival was 100% in both groups. Clinical acute rejection was absent in the steroid-free group at a mean follow-up time of 9 months (range 3-13.7 months). Protocol biopsies in the steroid-free group (includes 10 patients at 3 months, 7 at 6 months, and 4 at 12 months) revealed only two instances of mild (Banff 1A) subclinical rejection (reversed by only a nominal increase in immunosuppression) and no chronic rejection. At 6 months the steroid-free group had no hypertension requiring treatment (P=0.003), no hypercholesterolemia (P=0.007), and essentially no body disfigurement (P=0.0001). Serum creatinines, Schwartz GFR, and mean delta height Z scores trended better in the steroid-free group. In the steroid-free group, one patient had cytomegalovirus disease at 1 month and three had easily treated herpes simplex stomatitis, but with no significant increase in bacterial infections or rehospitalizations over the steroid-based group. The steroid-free group was more anemic early posttransplantation (P=0.004), suggesting an early role of steroids in erythrogenesis; erythropoietin use normalized hematocrits by 6 months.
Conclusions: Complete steroid-free immunosuppression is efficacious and safe in this selected group of children with no early clinical acute rejection episodes. This protocol avoids the morbid side effects of steroids without increasing infection, and may play a future critical role in avoiding noncompliance, although optimizing renal function and growth.