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Azathioprine is well absorbed following oral administration. Maximum serum radioactivity occurs at 1 to 2 hours after oral 35S-azathioprine and decays with a half-life of 5 hours. This is not an estimate of the half-life of azathioprine itself, but is the decay rate for all 35S-containing metabolites of the drug. Because of extensive metabolism, only a fraction of the radioactivity is present as azathioprine. Usual doses produce blood levels of azathioprine, and of mercaptopurine derived from it, which are low ( < 1 mcg/mL). Blood levels are of little predictive value for therapy since the magnitude and duration of clinical effects correlate with thiopurine nucleotide levels in tissues rather than with plasma drug levels. Azathioprine and mercaptopurine are moderately bound to serum proteins (30%) and are partially dialyzable. See OVERDOSAGE.
Azathioprine is metabolized to 6-mercaptopurine (6-MP). Both compounds are rapidly eliminated from blood and are oxidized or methylated in erythrocytes and liver; no azathioprine or mercaptopurine is detectable in urine after 8 hours. Activation of 6-mercaptopurine occurs via hypoxanthine-guanine phosphoribosyltransferase (HGPRT) and a series of multi-enzymatic processes involving kinases to form 6-thioguanine nucleotides (6-TGNs) as major metabolites (See Metabolism Scheme in Figure 1). The cytotoxicity of azathioprine is due, in part, to the incorporation of 6-TGN into DNA.
6-MP undergoes two major inactivation routes (Figure 1). One is thiol methylation, which is catalyzed by the enzyme thiopurine S-methyltransferase (TPMT), to form the inactive metabolite methyl-6-MP (6-MeMP). TPMT activity is controlled by a genetic polymorphism.1,2,3 For Caucasians and African Americans, approximately 10% of the population inherit one non-functional TPMT allele (heterozygous) conferring intermediate TPMT activity, and 0.3% inherit two TPMT non-functional alleles (homozygous) for low or absent TPMT activity. Non-functional alleles are less common in Asians. TPMT activity correlates inversely with 6-TGN levels in erythrocytes and presumably other hematopoietic tissues, since these cells have negligible xanthine oxidase (involved in the other inactivation pathway) activities, leaving TPMT methylation as the only inactivation pathway. Patients with intermediate TPMT activity may be at increased risk of myelotoxicity if receiving conventional doses of IMURAN. Patients with low or absent TPMT activity are at an increased risk of developing severe, life-threatening myelotoxicity if receiving conventional doses of IMURAN.4-9 TPMT genotyping or phenotyping (red blood cell TPMT activity) can help identify patients who are at an increased risk for developing IMURAN toxicity.2,3,7,8,9 Accurate phenotyping (red blood cell TPMT activity) results are not possible in patients who have received recent blood transfusions. See WARNINGS, PRECAUTIONS: DRUG INTERACTIONS, PRECAUTIONS: Laboratory Tests and ADVERSE REACTIONS sections.
Figure 1. Metabolism pathway of azathioprine: competing pathways result in inactivation by TPMT or XO, or incorporation of cytotoxic nucleotides into DNA.
GMPS: Guanosine monophosphate synthetase; HGPRT: Hypoxanthine-guanine-phosphoribosyl-transferase; IMPD: Inosine monophosphate dehydrogenase; MeMP: Methylmercaptopurine; MeMPN: Methylmercaptopurine nucleotide; TGN: Thioguanine nucleotides; TIMP: Thioinosine monophosphate; TPMT: Thiopurine S-methyltransferase; TU Thiouric acid; XO: Xanthine oxidase (Adapted from Pharmacogenomics 2002; 3:89-98; and Cancer Res 2001; 61:5810-5816.)
Another inactivation pathway is oxidation, which is catalyzed by xanthine oxidase (XO) to form 6-thiouric acid. The inhibition of xanthine oxidase in patients receiving allopurinol (ZYLOPRIM®) is the basis for the azathioprine dosage reduction required in these patients (see PRECAUTIONS: DRUG INTERACTIONS). Proportions of metabolites are different in individual patients, and this presumably accounts for variable magnitude and duration of drug effects. Renal clearance is probably not important in predicting biological effectiveness or toxicities, although dose reduction is practiced in patients with poor renal function.
The use of azathioprine for inhibition of renal homograft rejection is well established, the mechanism(s) for this action are somewhat obscure. The drug suppresses hypersensitivities of the cell-mediated type and causes variable alterations in antibody production. Suppression of T-cell effects, including ablation of T-cell suppression, is dependent on the temporal relationship to antigenic stimulus or engraftment. This agent has little effect on established graft rejections or secondary responses.
Alterations in specific immune responses or immunologic functions in transplant recipients are difficult to relate specifically to immunosuppression by azathioprine. These patients have subnormal responses to vaccines, low numbers of T-cells, and abnormal phagocytosis by peripheral blood cells, but their mitogenic responses, serum immunoglobulins, and secondary antibody responses are usually normal.
The mechanisms whereby azathioprine affects autoimmune diseases are not known. Azathioprine is immunosuppressive, delayed hypersensitivity and cellular cytotoxicity tests being suppressed to a greater degree than are antibody responses. In the rat model of adjuvant arthritis, azathioprine has been shown to inhibit the lymph node hyperplasia, which precedes the onset of the signs of the disease. Both the immunosuppressive and therapeutic effects in animal models are dose-related. Azathioprine is considered a slow-acting drug and effects may persist after the drug has been discontinued.
1. Lennard L. The clinical pharmacology of 6-mercaptopurine. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 1992;43:329-339.
2. Weinshilboum R. Thiopurine pharmacogenetics: clinical and molecular studies of thiopurine methyltransferase. Drug Metab Dispos. 2001;29:601-605.
3. McLeod HL, Siva C. The thiopurine S-methyltransferase gene locus --implications for clinical pharmacogenomics. Pharmacogenomics. 2002;3:89-98.
4. Anstey A, Lennard L, Mayou SC, et al. Pancytopenia related to azathioprine – an enzyme deficiency caused by a common genetic polymorphism: a review. JR Soc Med. 1992; 85:752-756.
5. Stolk JN, Beorbooms AM, de Abreu RA, et al. Reduced thiopurine methyltransferase activity and development of side effects of azathioprine treatment in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Rheum. 1998; 41:18581866.
6. Data on file, Prometheus Laboratories Inc.
7. Yates CR, Krynetski EY, Loennechen T, et al. Molecular diagnosis of thiopurine S-methyltransferase deficiency: genetic basis for azathioprine and mercaptopurine intolerance. Ann Intern Med. 1997; 126:608-614.
8. Black AJ, McLeod HL, Capell HA, et al. Thiopurine methyltransferase genotype predicts therapy-limiting severe toxicity from azathioprine. Ann Intern Med. 1998; 129:716-718.
9. Clunie GP, Lennard L. Relevance of thiopurine methyltransferase status in rheumatology patients receiving azathioprine. Rheumatology. 2004; 43:13-18.
Last reviewed on RxList: 2/18/2014
This monograph has been modified to include the generic and brand name in many instances.
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