Azathioprine, mercaptopurine, methotrexate, ciclosporin and tacrolimus all have their respective niches in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease. These immunomodulators are potent and effective medications; however, they potentially have serious toxicity. To maximize benefit and minimize risk, clinicians must understand the mechanism of action, appropriate indications, range of toxicity and proper dosing of these medications. Furthermore, once initiating therapy, patients need to be monitored appropriately for evidence of efficacy and toxicity.
This review includes the rationale behind recommendations for the management and monitoring of patients using immunomodulators. For the purine antagonists – azathioprine and mercaptopurine – the evidence for utility of thiopurine methyltransferase testing and mercaptopurine metabolite monitoring is addressed. The roles of liver biopsy and screening for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase mutations in patients taking methotrexate are reviewed. With appropriate monitoring, the calcineurin inhibitors – ciclosporin and tacrolimus – can be used safely and effectively.
Immunomodulators are important agents for the treatment of Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, and prescribing clinicians should be comfortable recognizing both their value and their limitations.