Immunosuppressive drugs in kidney transplantation: impact on patient survival, and incidence of cardiovascular disease, malignancy and infection

Drugs. 2009 Nov 12;69(16):2227-43. doi: 10.2165/11319260-000000000-00000.


Renal transplant recipients have increased mortality rates when compared with the general population. The new immunosuppressive drugs have improved short-term patient survival up to 95% at 1-2 years, but these data have to be confirmed in long-term follow-up. Furthermore, no particular regimen has proved to be superior over others with regard to patient survival. Cardiovascular diseases are the most common cause of mortality in renal transplant recipients and while no immunosuppressive drug has been directly associated with cardiovascular events, immunosuppressive drugs have different impacts on traditional risk factors. Corticosteroids and ciclosporin are the agents with the most negative impact on weight gain, blood pressure and lipids. Tacrolimus increases the risk of new-onset diabetes mellitus. Sirolimus and everolimus have the most impact on risk factors for post-transplant hyperlipidaemia. Modifications in immunosuppression could improve the cardiovascular profile but there is little evidence regarding the beneficial effects of these changes on patient outcomes. Malignancies are also an increasing cause of mortality, overtaking cardiovascular disease in some series. Induction therapy, azathioprine and calcineurin inhibitors (CNIs) are probably the immunosuppressive agents most linked with post-transplant malignancies. Mycophenolate mofetil (MMF) has no negative impact on the incidence of malignancies. Target of rapamycin (mTOR) inhibitors have antioncogenic properties and they are associated with a lower incidence of malignancies. In addition, these agents have been recommended for use to decrease the dose or withdrawal of CNIs in patients with malignancies. Infections are still an important cause of morbidity and mortality in renal transplant recipients. Some immunosuppressive agents such as MMF increase the incidence of cytomegalovirus infection and the need for prophylactic measures in risk recipients. The use of potent immunosuppressive therapy has resulted in the appearance of BK virus nephropathy, which progresses to graft failure in a high percentage of patients. Although first associated with tacrolimus and MMF immunosuppression, recent data suggest that BK nephropathy appears with any kind of triple therapy. In conclusion, reducing risk factors for patient death should be a major target to improve outcomes after renal transplantation. Effort should be made to control cardiovascular diseases, malignancies and infections with improved use of immunosuppressive drugs. Preliminary results with belatacept suggest its safety and efficacy, and open new perspectives in the immunosuppression of de novo renal transplant recipients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cardiovascular Diseases / complications
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / mortality
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / therapy
  • Humans
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / adverse effects
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Kidney Transplantation / methods*
  • Kidney Transplantation / mortality
  • Neoplasms / complications
  • Neoplasms / mortality
  • Risk Factors
  • Survival Analysis
  • Virus Diseases / etiology
  • Virus Diseases / mortality
  • Virus Diseases / prevention & control


  • Immunosuppressive Agents