Skin Cancer Risk Associated With Immunosuppressive Therapy in Organ Transplant Recipients: Epidemiology and Proposed Mechanisms

BioDrugs. 2000 Nov;14(5):319-29. doi: 10.2165/00063030-200014050-00004.


The aim of this review is to summarise the available literature regarding the epidemiology and proposed mechanisms of skin cancer development in organ transplant recipients who are receiving lifelong treatment with immunosuppressive therapy and to review the different strategies for managing complications in this group of patients. Organ transplantation is complicated by an increased incidence of certain cancers, of which non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Kaposi's sarcoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common. The most important risk factor for these cancers is immunosuppressive therapy. The relative importance of different immunosuppressive therapy regimens in relation to the development of skin cancer is still unclear. Immunosuppression per se may play the most important role, but other mechanisms, which are independent of host immunity and which may be different for the various agents used, may also be of importance for the increased risk of cancer. Apart from immunosuppressive therapy, exposure to sunlight and infection with human papillomaviruses are believed to be the most important risk factors for the development of cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma in organ transplant recipients. Human papillomaviruses, no doubt, benefit considerably from immunosuppression, as is indicated by the large number of warts found in these patients, but many questions remain unanswered about their significance in cutaneous oncogenesis. The E6 protein from a range of cutaneous human papillomavirus types effectively inhibits apoptosis in response to ultraviolet light damage. It is, therefore, conceivable that the development of skin cancer in organ transplant recipients is the result of a complex interplay between exposure to ultraviolet radiation, human papillomavirus infection and genetic predisposition. Measures for protection from the sun are important for reducing the risk of skin cancer in organ transplant recipients. Regular surveillance of patients with skin problems and easy access to a dermatologist for these patients is advised. Changing the immunosuppressive regimen from azathioprine to cyclosporin or vice versa does not seem to relieve the skin problems. Tapering the immunosuppressive therapy to the lowest possible dose may be of some advantage. Oral retinoids, e.g. acitretin, have some effect in reducing the number of keratotic skin lesions and in the prevention of skin cancer in organ transplant recipients. Resurfacing the back of the hand can be a successful treatment for patients with multiple skin cancers on the back of the hand and can be used prophylactically in patients with severely actinically damaged skin.