Azathioprine for multiple sclerosis

Ilaria Casetta, G. Iuliano, G. Filippini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Azathioprine is the most widely used immunosuppressive treatment in multiple sclerosis (MS). It is an alternative to interferon beta for treating MS also because it is less expensive. Concerns about its safety, mainly a possible increased risk of malignancy, has limited its use. This systematic review aimed to determine the trade off between the benefits and risks of azathioprine in multiple sclerosis. Objectives: To compare azathioprine versus placebo. To determine the effect of azathioprine on major clinical outcomes, i.e., disability progression and relapses in patients with multiple sclerosis. Search strategy: The Multiple Sclerosis Group's Trials Register, The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL- Issue 4, 2006), Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR - Issue 4, 2006), Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effectiveness (DARE - searched 28.12.06) MEDLINE (PubMed) (1966 to December 2006), EMBASE (1980 to December 2006). Journals and reference lists were hand searched for relevant articles both to benefit and adverse effects. Regulatory agencies were additional sources of information for adverse effects. Selection criteria: All parallel group randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing azathioprine treatment of a least one year duration with placebo for patients with multiple sclerosis. Cohorts, case controls, case series and case reports were also used to assess adverse effects. Data collection and analysis: Potentially relevant references were evaluated and all data extracted by two independent authors. Main results: The five trials that met our criteria included 698 randomised patients: data from 499 (71.5%) were available for analysis of relapse frequency in patients at one year's, from 488 (70%) at two years' and from 415 (59.5%) at three years' follow-up. Azathioprine reduced the number of patients who had relapses during the first year of treatment (relative risk reduction [RRR] =20%; 95% CI = 5% to 33%), at two years' (RRR =23%; 95% CI = 12% to 33%) and three years' (RRR =18%; 95% CI = 7% to 27%) follow-up. These results were consistent in sensitivity analysis. There was no heterogeneity among the studies. Data from only three small trials with a total of 87 patients were available to calculate the number of patients who progressed during the first two to three years. There was a statistically significant benefit (RRR = 42%; 95% CI = 7% to 64%) of azathioprine therapy at three years' follow-up; this result was robust after sensitivity analyses and there was no heterogeneity among the trials. Gastrointestinal disturbances, bone marrow suppression and hepatic toxicity were greater in the azathioprine group rather than in the placebo group; they were anticipated, and, by monitoring and dosage adjustment, were easily managed. Withdrawals due to adverse effects were few, occurring mostly during the first year of azathioprine treatment and mainly due to gastrointestinal intolerance (5%). Data from the trials and from cohort and case controls studies available in the literature did not show an increase in risk of malignancy from azathioprine. A possible long-term risk of cancer from azathioprine may be related to a treatment duration above ten years and cumulative doses above 600 g. Authors' conclusions: Azathioprine is an appropriate maintenance treatment for patients with multiple sclerosis who frequently relapse and require steroids. Cumulative doses of 600 g should not be exceeded in relation to a possible increased risk of malignancy. Considering the trade off between the benefits and harms, azathioprine is a fair alternative to interferon beta for treating multiple sclerosis. A logical next step for future trials would seem the direct comparison of azathioprine and interferon beta. In fact the direct comparison between these two widely used treatments in multiple sclerosis has not been made.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberCD003982
JournalThe Cochrane database of systematic reviews
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • Azathioprine [adverse effects; *therapeutic use]
  • Humans
  • Immunosuppressive agents [adverse effects; *therapeutic use]
  • Multiple sclerosis [*drug therapy]
  • Neoplasms [chemically induced]
  • Randomized controlled trials as topic

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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