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Last updated: February 12, 2020


Immunosuppressants use heterogeneous mechanisms of action to suppress the body's cell-mediated and humoral immune response. They may be used as transplant rejection prophylaxis or to treat autoimmune disorders such as lupus, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Commonly used immunosuppressants include cyclosporine A, tacrolimus, glucocorticoids, methotrexate, and biological agents (like rituximab). A common side effect of immunosuppressants is an increased susceptibility to infection and malignancy.

Glucocorticoids are discussed in detail in another article.


Immunosuppressant class Common drugs Mechanism of action Suppression of cell-mediated immune response Suppression of humoral immune response Main clinical uses
Glucocorticoids Prednisolone, hydrocortisone, dexamethasone
  • Inhibition of intracellular NF-κB → Multiple inflammatory and immune mediators are inhibited.
  • Acute effect (occurs within minutes) → While the mechanism is not entirely clear, a membrane stabilizing effect is hypothesized.
  • Long-term effects (in hours) → direct influence on gene expression
  • Transplant rejection prophylaxis
  • To suppress various allergic, inflammatory, and autoimmune reactions

Calcineurin inhibitors (calcineurin = calcium- and calmodulin-dependent serine-threonine phosphatase)

Cyclosporine A
Tacrolimus (also FK-506 or fujimycin)
mTOR inhibitors Sirolimus (also known as rapamycin) (✓)
Purine analog

Azathioprine (mercaptopurine)

Protein drugs Antibodies
  • Specific binding to relevant structure in the immune cascade (detailed explanation below)
Other biological proteins
IMDH/IMPDH inhibitors Mycophenolate mofetil
Other cytostatic and antiproliferative agents Methotrexate
Cyclophosphamide (✓)

✓ = Definite suppression

(✓) = Probable suppression (inconclusive research currently)

– = No suppression


Biological agents used in immunotherapy

  • Biological agents are recombinant proteins that intervene in immunological processes.
  • Used in autoimmune diseases and malignancies
  • Although complex and costly, they can significantly improve the success of treatment in some cases.
Antibody Type Target Indication


Chimeric TNF-α inhibition


Etanercept Fusion protein




Rituximab Chimeric CD20
Cetuximab Chimeric Epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR inhibitor)
Alemtuzumab Humanized CD52
Natalizumab Humanized Alpha-4 integrin
Omalizumab Humanized IgE
Abciximab Chimeric Antagonist of GP IIb/IIIa receptors
Muromonab-CD3 Mouse antibody CD3 from T cells
Basiliximab Chimeric Alpha chain (CD25 antigen) of the IL-2 receptor of T cells
Daclizumab Humanized
Trastuzumab Humanized HER2/neu
Bevacizumab Humanized VEGF
Eculizumab Humanized Complement protein C5
Ustekinumab Human IL-12, IL-23
Tocilizumab Humanized IL-6 receptor

Adverse effects

Calcineurin inhibitors

Cyclosporine A


Many side effects of tacrolimus are similar to cyclosporine A, but tacrolimus does not cause gingival hyperplasia or hypertrichosis!

Tacrolimus and cyclosporine A should not be combined because together they could have nephro- and neurotoxic effects!

Purine analog (Azathioprine/Mercaptopurine)

Allopurinol causes toxic accumulation of azathioprine! In cases in which concomitant treatment is unavoidable, a dose reduction of azathioprine is necessary!

mTOR inhibitors (Sirolimus, Everolimus)

Mycophenolate mofetil


Salvage therapy (leucovorin rescue therapy)

Biologics (e.g., daclizumab)

Both calcineurin inhibitors (cyclosporine and tacrolimus) are highly nephrotoxic.

Perform testing for latent tuberculosis before initiating anti-TNF-α treatment!


We list the most important adverse effects. The selection is not exhaustive.


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