Background The increased incidence of skin cancers after solid organ transplantation is well recognized. Skin cancers developing in transplant recipients are more aggressive in behaviour. Therapeutic options to reduce and/or delay the development of cutaneous neoplasms are therefore of interest.
Objectives The objective of this review was to summarize the available medical literature from randomized controlled trials on the use of oral retinoids as a preventive agent for skin cancers in the solid organ transplant population.
Methods Three electronic databases were searched for relevant trials: MEDLINE (1966–October 2003), EMBASE (1980–week 44, 2003) and the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register (third quarter 2003). Randomized or quasi-randomized controlled clinical trials on subjects of any age or ethnic background who had received a solid organ transplant (cardiac, renal, liver, etc.) were evaluated. All titles and abstracts found by the search strategy were independently reviewed by two researchers for inclusion into the review.
Results Eighty-one abstracts were identified through the electronic databases for consideration. Review of the abstracts identified three eligible trials. One cross-over trial involving 23 subjects treated with acitretin 25 mg daily for 12 months reported 46 squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) developing in six subjects during acitretin treatment vs. 65 SCCs developing in 15 subjects during the drug-free period. Another trial involving 44 subjects treated with acitretin 30 mg daily or placebo for 6 months reported two of 19 subjects developing two SCCs in the treatment group vs. nine of 19 subjects developing 18 new skin cancers (15 SCCs, one Bowen's disease, two basal cell carcinomas) in the placebo group. One dose comparison trial involving 26 renal transplant recipients treated with acitretin did not find a significant difference in numbers of skin cancers developing at the doses examined. The major limitation to the use of acitretin was poor tolerance due to adverse events. Headaches, rash, musculoskeletal symptoms and hyperlipidaemia were the most common causes of withdrawal from treatment. No alterations in renal or liver function were detected during the periods of treatment or follow-up.
Conclusions The available data from a small number of randomized controlled trials suggest that acitretin may have a role in the management of solid organ transplant recipients with skin cancers. Tolerability of the drug is a major factor limiting its use. Appropriate selection of patients may help improve the risk–benefit ratio.