6-Mercaptopurine in the management of inflammatory bowel disease: short- and long-term toxicity

Ann Intern Med. 1989 Oct 15;111(8):641-9. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-111-8-641.


We assess toxicity related to 6-mercaptopurine in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease by reporting our experience with 396 patients (120 patients with ulcerative colitis, 276 with Crohn disease) observed over 18 years. Follow-up data for a mean period of 60.3 months were obtained for 90% of the patients. Toxicity directly induced by 6-mercaptopurine included pancreatitis in 13 patients (3.3%), bone marrow depression in 8 (2%), allergic reactions in 8 (2%), and drug hepatitis in 1 (0.3%). These complications were reversible in all cases with no mortality. Most cases of marrow depression occurred earlier in our experience, when the initial drug doses used were higher. Infectious complications were seen in 29 patients (7.4%), of which 7 (1.8%) were severe, including one instance of herpes zoster encephalitis. All infections were reversible with no deaths. Twelve neoplasms (3.1%) were observed, but only 1 (0.3%), a diffuse histiocytic lymphoma of the brain, had a probable association with the use of 6-mercaptopurine. Our data, showing a low incidence of toxicity in 396 patients, coupled with the previously demonstrated efficacy of 6-mercaptopurine in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, indicate that the drug is a reasonable alternative in the management of patients with intractable inflammatory bowel disease.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Bone Marrow Diseases / chemically induced
  • Chemical and Drug Induced Liver Injury / etiology
  • Child
  • Colitis, Ulcerative / drug therapy*
  • Crohn Disease / drug therapy*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / etiology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Infections / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Mercaptopurine / adverse effects*
  • Mercaptopurine / therapeutic use
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Pancreatitis / chemically induced
  • Pregnancy
  • Time Factors


  • Mercaptopurine