The thioguanine derivative, azathioprine, is a prodrug of 6-mercaptopurine that is further metabolized by various enzymes present in the liver and gut. Azathioprine and 6-mercaptopurine have been used in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, i.e. ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, for more than 30 years. However, widespread use of azathioprine or 6-mercaptopurine in inflammatory bowel disease is of more recent origin, the primary reason being a long-standing debate on the efficacy of these agents in inflammatory bowel disease. Both drugs are slow acting, which is why clinical efficacy cannot be expected until several weeks or even months of treatment have elapsed. Consequently, azathioprine and 6-mercaptopurine have no place as monotherapy in the treatment of acute relapsing inflammatory bowel disease.
Today, azathioprine and 6-mercaptopurine are the most commonly used immunomodulatory drugs in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. Their clinical effects are probably identical, although their exact mode of action is still unknown. The mode of action of azathioprine is thought to be multifactorial, including conversion to 6-mercaptopurine (which acts as a purine antimetabolite), possible blockade of thiol groups by alkylation, inhibition of several pathways in nucleic acid biosynthesis (preventing proliferation of cells involved in the determination and amplification of the immune response) and damage to DNA through the incorporation of thiopurine analogues. However, 6-thioguanine nucleotides may accumulate in toxic doses in myeloid precursor cells, resulting in life-threatening myelosuppression. Azathioprine and 6-mercaptopurine are further known to alter lymphocyte function, reduce the number of lamina propria plasma cells and affect natural killer cell function.
The purpose of this comprehensive review is to suggest guidelines for the application of azathioprine and 6-mercaptopurine in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease.