Are we giving azathioprine too late? The case for early immunomodulation in inflammatory bowel disease

World J Gastroenterol. 2008 Sep 28;14(36):5512-8. doi: 10.3748/wjg.14.5512.


Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) includes two entities, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Both are chronic conditions with frequent complications and surgical procedures and a great impact on patient's quality of life. The thiopurine antimetabolites azathioprine and 6-mercaptopurine are widely used in IBD patients. Current indications include maintenance therapy, steroid-dependent disease, fistula closure, prevention of infliximab immunogenicity and prevention of Crohn's disease recurrence. Surprisingly, the wide use of immunosuppressants in the last decades has not decreased the need of surgery, probably because these treatments are introduced at too late stages in disease course. An earlier use of immunosuppressants is now advocated by some authors. The rational includes: (1) failure to modify IBD natural history of present therapeutic approach, (2) demonstration that azathioprine can induce mucosal healing, a relevant prognostic factor for Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, and (3) demonstration that early immunosuppression has a very positive impact on pediatric, recently diagnosed Crohn's disease patients. We are now awaiting the results of new studies, to clarify the contribution of azathioprine, as compared to infliximab (SONIC Study), and to demonstrate the usefulness of azathioprine in recently diagnosed adult Crohn's disease patients (AZTEC study).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Azathioprine / administration & dosage*
  • Azathioprine / adverse effects
  • Colectomy
  • Colitis, Ulcerative / drug therapy*
  • Colitis, Ulcerative / surgery
  • Crohn Disease / drug therapy*
  • Crohn Disease / surgery
  • Disease Progression
  • Drug Administration Schedule
  • Humans
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / adverse effects


  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Azathioprine