Background: Subclinical rejection (SCR) is defined as histologically proven acute rejection in the absence of immediate functional deterioration.
Methods: We evaluated the impact of SCR in 961 prospective protocol kidney biopsies from diabetic recipients of a kidney-pancreas transplant (n=119) and one kidney transplant alone taken regularly up to 10 years after transplantation.
Results: SCR was present in 60.8%, 45.7%, 25.8%, and 17.7% of biopsies at 1, 3, 12, and greater than 12 months after transplantation. Banff scores for acute interstitial inflammation and tubulitis declined exponentially with time. SCR was predicted by prior acute cellular rejection and type of immunosuppressive therapy (P<0.05-0.001). Tacrolimus reduced interstitial infiltration (P<0.001), whereas mycophenolate reduced tubulitis (P<0.05), and the combination effectively eliminated SCR (P<0.001). Persistent SCR of less than 2 years duration on sequential biopsies occurred in 29.2% of patients and was associated with prior acute interstitial rejection (P<0.001) and requirement for antilymphocyte therapy (P<0.05). It resolved by 0.49 +/- 0.33 years and resulted in higher grades of chronic allograft nephropathy (CAN, P<0.05). True chronic rejection, defined as persistent SCR of 2 years or more duration and implying continuous immunologic activation was found in only 5.8% of patients. The presence of SCR increased chronic interstitial fibrosis, tubular atrophy, and CAN scores on subsequent biopsies (P<0.05-0.001). SCR preceded and was correlated with CAN (P<0.001) on sequential analysis.
Conclusions: Histologic evidence of acute rejection in the absence of clinical suspicion resulted in significant tubulointerstitial damage to transplanted kidneys and contributed to CAN.