Background: Photopheresis is an immunoregulatory technique in which lymphocytes are reinfused after exposure to a photoactive compound (methoxsalen) and ultraviolet A light. We performed a preliminary study to assess the safety and efficacy of photopheresis in the prevention of acute rejection of cardiac allografts.
Methods: A total of 60 consecutive eligible recipients of primary cardiac transplants were randomly assigned to standard triple-drug immunosuppressive therapy (cyclosporine, azathioprine, and prednisone) alone or in conjunction with photopheresis. The photopheresis group received a total of 24 photopheresis treatments, each pair of treatments given on two consecutive days, during the first six months after transplantation. The regimen for maintenance immunosuppression, the definition and treatment of rejection episodes, the use of prophylactic antibiotics, and the schedule for cardiac biopsies were standardized among all 12 study centers. All the cardiac-biopsy samples were graded in a blinded manner at a central pathology laboratory. Plasma from the subgroup of 34 patients (57 percent) who were enrolled at the nine U.S. centers was analyzed by polymerase-chain-reaction amplification for cytomegalovirus DNA.
Results: After six months of follow-up, the mean (+/-SD) number of episodes of acute rejection per patient was 1.44+/-1.0 in the standard-therapy group, as compared with 0.91+/-1.0 in the photopheresis group (P=0.04). Significantly more patients in the photopheresis group had one rejection episode or none (27 of 33) than in the standard-therapy group (14 of 27), and significantly fewer patients in the photopheresis group had two or more rejection episodes (6 of 33) than in the standard-therapy group (13 of 27, P=0.02). There was no significant difference in the time to a first episode of rejection, the incidence of rejection associated with hemodynamic compromise, or survival at 6 and 12 months. Although there were no significant differences in the rates or types of infection, cytomegalovirus DNA was detected significantly less frequently in the photopheresis group than in the standard-therapy group (P=0.04).
Conclusions: In this pilot study, the addition of photopheresis to triple-drug immunosuppressive therapy significantly decreased the risk of cardiac rejection without increasing the incidence of infection.