Sensitivity of Whole-Blood T Lymphocytes in Individual Patients to Tacrolimus (FK 506): Impact of Interleukin-2 mRNA Expression as Surrogate Measure of Immunosuppressive Effect

Christoph Härtel, Nina Schumacher, Lutz Fricke, Brigitte Ebel, Holger Kirchner, Michael Müller-Steinhardt*

*Corresponding author for this work
45 Citations (Scopus)


Background: To optimize immunosuppressive treatment in individual transplant patients, functional measurements of the effects of tacrolimus (FK 506) are of clinical importance. Previous investigations have demonstrated the occurrence of tacrolimus-resistant production of interleukin-2 (IL-2) in vitro, which may explain in part why rejection episodes are still a frequent problem despite attainment of therapeutic blood concentrations and HLA matching. However, an adequate surrogate marker to define the tacrolimus response in individual patients has not been established. Methods: We investigated the immunosuppressive effects of tacrolimus on anti-CD3/anti-CD28 T-cell costimulation in a human whole-blood assay, analyzing T-cell proliferation, activation marker expression (CD25, CD69), IL-2 protein expression, and cytokine mRNA expression in vitro (n = 11 healthy individuals). We also quantified IL-2 mRNA expression in patients undergoing tacrolimus (n = 4) or cyclosporin A (CsA; n = 4) monotherapy before ex vivo living-donor kidney transplantation. Results: T-cell proliferation; CD25, CD69, and IL-2 concentrations; and IL-4 mRNA were significantly decreased in vitro. In contrast, cytokine mRNA profiles revealed variable tacrolimus sensitivity. Whole-blood samples from 3 of 11 healthy individuals demonstrated marked suppression of IL-2 mRNA expression (>50%) when tacrolimus was administered in vitro. When CsA was added to whole-blood cultures, the influence on IL-2 mRNA expression was comparable to that of tacrolimus in 9 of 11 individuals. Two individuals responded conversely, indicating that differences in the in vitro response to tacrolimus and CsA among individuals may be attributable to potential heterogeneity in the involvement of the CD28 pathway. Kinetic profiles of IL-2 mRNA expression also revealed individually distinct degrees of calcineurin inhibitor sensitivity in patients undergoing tacrolimus or CsA monotherapy before living-donor kidney transplantation. Conclusions: Our results suggest an individual degree of calcineurin inhibitor sensitivity of activated whole-blood lymphocytes based on IL-2 mRNA expression. Our approach is potentially valuable for identifying transplant patients in whom IL-2 mRNA expression is unaffected or even enhanced after initiation of immunosuppressive therapy. Such individuals may be less sensitive to the immunosuppressive agent and therefore at increased risk of transplant rejection. Prospective studies are necessary to determine the correlation of IL-2 mRNA expression with the clinical risk of transplant rejection.

Original languageEnglish
JournalClinical Chemistry
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)141-151
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 01.2004

Research Areas and Centers

  • Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)


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