Open Journal of Nephrology, 2013, 3, 168-180 Published Online September 2013 (
Cyclosporine-Associated Nephrotoxicity
Maria Delia Colombo1,2*, Rena ta Pere go 2, Gilberto Bellia1
1Novartis Farma S.p.A., Origgio (VA), Italy
2Department of Dermatology, Marchesi Hospital, Inzago (MI), Italy
Email: *
Received July 11, 2013; revised August 9, 2013; accepted August 24, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Maria Delia Colombo et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution
License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Cyclosporine (CsA) has revolutionized transplant medicine and is currently one of the most important immunosuppres-
sive agents for a wide range of organ transplantations and of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, such as rheuma-
toid arthritis, uveitis, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis. Renal impairment represents the main limitation to CsA long-term
continuous therapy. However, it has been shown that nephrotoxicity is associated with longer treatment duration, larger
cumulative doses and higher daily dose of CsA. With low dose regimens (<5 mg/kg/day), stable serum creatinine levels
have been observed up to 15 - 20 years after kidney transplantation. Intermittent therapy may offer a good therapeutic
strategy to limit long-term renal dysfunction, given the fact that renal structural changes are dose- and time-dependent.
The best predictor of permanent renal damage is a persistent increase in serum creatinine level one month after treat-
ment withdrawal. In patients with autoimmune diseases, the percentage increase in serum creatinine above baseline
value during CsA therapy has been shown to predict CsA-induced nephropathy. Before CsA therapy initiation, patients
should undergo a thorough baseline evaluation including laboratory assessments, in particular electrolytes, serum
creatinine, and urea levels. Furthermore, patients should be evaluated for factors that might increase the risk of nephro-
toxicity, such as obesity, older age, hypertension, concomitant use of nephrotoxic drugs, and pre-existing renal condi-
tions. In the present paper, CsA-induced nephropathy will be reviewed in terms of pathophysiology, pathologic and
clinical findings, and strategies for prevention and management.
Keywords: Cyclosporine; Nephrotoxicity; Immunosuppression; Transplant; Creatinine
1. Introduction
Since its discovery in Sandoz laboratories in 1972, cyc-
losporine (CsA) has revolutionized transplant medicine.
CsA is currently one of the most important immunosup-
pressive agents for a wide range of organ transplantations,
including kidney, liver, heart, lung, pancreas, and intes-
tine [1]. CsA has been found to have many immunologic
properties that make it an attractive agent for immuno-
suppression: it is found to inhibit both in vitro cell-me-
diated lysis as well as lymphocyte sensitization by allo-
geneic target cells [2]. Clinically, as summarized by Ha-
riharan et al. in 2000, who reviewed 93,000 transplants
from 1988 and 1996, CsA obtained one-year graft sur-
vival rates in 94% and 88% in living related and de-
ceased donor allografts respectively [3]. More recent data
from the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS)
from 1998 to 2007 show one-year adjusted survival rates
of 96.6% and 91.6% in living related and deceased donor
allografts respectively. In its 40 years of life, CsA was
shown to be also an effective treatment option in auto-
immune and inflammatory diseases, such as rheuma-
toid arthritis, uveitis, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis
The fact CsA was nephrotoxic was discovered early
after its initial use, when Calne et al. found a significant
and unexpected nephrotoxicity that had not been observed
in animal experiments in their first attempt to use CsA
following transplantation using a dose of 25 mg/kg [9].
Currently, it is well known that renal damage may be an
important side effect of CsA therapy, but it is also known
that most persistent renal dysfunction is related to pro-
longed therapy, or doses of greater than 5 mg/kg/day,
both of which can result in structural renal changes. Fur-
thermore, it has been reported that nephrotoxicity is also
related to individual susceptibility [10]. In the present
paper, CsA-induced nephropathy will be reviewed in
terms of pathophysiology, pathologic and clinical find-
ings, and strategies for prevention and management.
*Corresponding author.
opyright © 2013 SciRes. OJNeph
M. D. Colombo ET AL. 169
2. Risk Factors for CsA Nephrotoxicity
2.1. Systemic Levels of CsA
The main issue after renal transplantation is to maintain a
reasonable balance between efficacy against rejection
and toxicity, especially nephrotoxicity. Klintmalm et al.
were the first to demonstrate a relationship between CsA
doses, plasma levels, and renal allograft interstitial fibro-
sis [11,12]. This association between CsA nephrotoxicity
and higher CsA doses (>5 mg/kg/day) was then con-
firmed by others [13]. After these findings, it became
evident that CsA has a relatively narrow therapeutic win-
dow and great care has to be given to keep dosage within
preset target ranges [14].
However, maintaining CsA concentrations within pre-
set target ranges proved to be difficult due to its high
inter-and intraindividual pharmacokinetic variability [15],
which was especially observed with the first CsA formu-
lation, Sandimmun. This variability appeared to be
largely due to significant inter- and intraindividual vari-
ability in the expression and function of the metabolizing
cytochrome P450 3A isoenzymes, mainly CYP3A4 and
CYP3A5, and of the multidrug efflux transporter P- gly-
coprotein. This was partly attributed to interactions with
other drugs, which cause either inhibition or stimulation
of expression or activity of these enzymes and transpor-
ter. After development of a new CsA emulsion, Neoral,
better absorption, less inter- and intraindividual variabil-
ity, earlier stabilization of pharmacokinetics, and dose
linearity in CsA exposure were observed compared with
the old formulation [16-18]. However, it has been sug-
gested that during chronic treatment of transplant recipe-
ents, therapeutic drug monitoring of CsA may be useful
and in fact, it is now adopted in clinical practice [19].
2.2. Local Renal Exposure to CsA
It has been demonstrated that levels of CsA in the renal
tissue are much higher than in blood [20,21]. In addition
to the degree of renal CsA exposure, there is also evi-
dence that the susceptibility to CsA nephrotoxicity is
determined by local renal factors, independent of local
CsA levels. These factors include both the age of the
recipient and of the transplanted kidney, the latter being
independently associated with chronic histologic damage
[22]. Second, local renal P-glycoprotein not only could
play a role in renal accumulation of CsA, but could also
be important for tubular epithelial cell detoxification and
protection against apoptotic stress. Third, the use of non-
steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) has been
shown to increase renal susceptibility to acute CsA ne-
phrotoxicity, with decreases in renal plasma flow and
GFR [23-26]. Finally, genetic polymorphisms in genes
involved in the pathogenesis of CsA nephrotoxicity have
been associated with the risk for chronic nephrotoxicity
Given the above evidences, it could be anticipated that
younger patients with native kidneys or recipients of
transplanted kidneys from younger donors could be less
susceptible to CsA nephrotoxicity. Moreover, great at-
tention should be paid to drug interactions: Table 1 lists
the drugs that may increase the risk of CsA-associated
nephrotoxicity. Finally, determination of a patient’s or
donor’s genotype of drug-metabolizing genes or of mol-
ecules involved in CsA nephrotoxicity, like TGF-β, could
provide a reasonable tool to determine which patients are
most susceptible for CsA nephrotoxicity.
2.3. CsA-Independent Risk of Chronic Renal
Failure Following Transplantation
Ojo et al. conducted a population-based cohort analysis to
evaluate the incidence of chronic renal failure and the
risk factors for it in 69,321 patients undergone non renal
transplantation in the United States between 1990 and
2000 [38]. The 5-year risk varied depending on the type
of organ transplanted, ranging from 7% among heart-
lung recipients to 21% in recipients of intestine trans-
plants. Other risk factors were increasing age, female sex,
hypertension, diabetes mellitus, pre-transplantation heap-
titis B infection, and postoperative acute renal failure.
These data show that after transplantation of non-renal
organs patients are at higher risk of chronic renal failure,
independently from the post-transplantation immunosup-
pressive therapy.
3. Pathophysiology of CsA Nephrotoxicity
The etiology of chronic CsA nephrotoxicity has been
studied extensively. A combination of CsA-induced
hemodynamic changes and direct toxic effects of CsA on
tubular epithelial cells is thought to play a role [19]. Renal
dysfunction can be functional or structural. Functional
impairment, which may begin soon after commencing
Table 1. Drugs that may increase the risk of CsA-associated
nephrotoxicity [115].
Amphotericin B
Trimetoprim (with or without sulphametoxazole)
Cimetidine, ranitidine
Contrast media
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M. D. Colombo ET AL.
treatment, can be subdivided into vascular dysfunction
and tubular dysfunction. Vascular dysfunction is caused
by vasoconstriction of the afferent glomerular arterioles,
leading to increased vascular resistance. This results in
decreased renal glomerular filtration rate (GFR) and re-
nal blood flow with decreased clearance of creatinine.
Tubular dysfunction is characterized by decreased mag-
nesium reabsorption, decreased uric acid excretion, de-
creased potassium and hydrogen ion secretion, and distal
tubular acidosis. Hypomagnesemia, decreased bicarbon-
ate concentration, hyperuricemia, and hyperkalemia may
also result. There is no loss of urinary concentrating
power, as is the case with other nephrotoxins.
3.1. Acute Nephrotoxicity
Vasoconstriction of the afferent arterioles was first sug-
gested by Murray et al. in 1985, which was proposed to
be due to activation of the renal sympathetic nervous
system, since a concomitant stimulation of plasma renin
activity was demonstrated [39]. These authors also noted
a reduction in the rate of decline of renal blood flow in
denervated rats. Barros et al. also demonstrated an in-
crease in vascular resistance in both afferent and efferent
arterioles with a reduction in renal plasma flow and
glomerular filtration rate (GFR), an effect that was at-
tenuated by the administration of the angiotensin-con-
verting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor captopril and the cal-
cium channel blocker verapamil [40]. In addition to its
activation of the renin-angiotensin system (RAS), CsA
has been shown to increase the vasoconstrictor factors
endothelin and tromboxane. It also demonstrated to re-
duce vasodilator factors, prostacyclin, prostaglandin E2
and nitric oxide (NO) [41,42]. Activation of the RAS by
CsA occurs by two mechanisms, a direct effect on jux-
taglomerular cells [43] and indirectly through arterial
vasoconstriction and reduced renal plasma flow. Another
pathogenic mechanism was that observed by Hoecherl et
al. who demonstrated a marked reduction of COX-2 ex-
pression and of the down- stream production of arachi-
donic acid metabolites, and a consequent vasoconstric-
tion [44].
The role of the innate immune system has also been
implicated in the nephrotoxicity of CsA. Injured tubular
epithelial cells may activate toll-like receptors (TLR) and
TNF-alfa which, in turn, stimulate secretion of chemoki-
nes that initiate phagocytic activity and immune activa-
tion [45]. This mechanism may provide a link between
innate immunity and the direct effects of CsA on renal
tubular cells.
3.2. Chronic Nephrotoxicity
Chronic nephrotoxicity is the main drawback of current
CsA immunosuppressive regimens [46]. Myers et al. in
1984 were the first demonstrating that high doses of CsA
not only induce reversible alterations in renal vascular
resistance, but may also be associated with irreversible
damage of the renal architecture [46]. In cardiac trans-
plant recipients surviving more than 12 months and
treated with CsA at very high doses (up to 17 mg/kg/day),
which are no longer used even in transplant recipients,
they observed significant reduction in GFR, renal plasma
flow, and renal blood flow. Biopsies of five CsA-treated
patients showed tubulointerstitial injury and focal
glomerular sclerosis, which seemed to correlate in inten-
sity with the degree of renal impairment47. Further evi-
dence of chronic nephrotoxicity related to high dose (>5
mg/kg/die), long-term CsA use (>2 years) was the find-
ing of impaired renal function in heart, liver, and lung
transplant recipients as well as in patients with autoim-
mune diseases [47-49].
More recently, other authors reported much more en-
couraging results following long-term use of CsA in
kidney transplant recipients. Sandrini et al. reported on
renal function in 638 cadaveric kidney transplant patients
treated with CsA for up to 15 years. At 15 years, patient
and graft survival rates were 82.7% and 56.1% respect-
tively, renal function remained stable in 266 patients
(46.6%) with preserved serum creatinine values observed
even after a 15-year treatment period [50]. Kandaswamy
et al studied the impact of continuing CsA-based immu-
nosuppression in the second decade after kidney trans-
plantation in a total of 1263 patients [10]. They observed
that not all transplanted patients on CsA developed pro-
gressive renal changes, but conversely in a subset or pa-
tients on long term CsA, serum creatinine levels were
stable up to 20 years post-transplantation. The authors’
conclusions were that identifying recipients’ predispose-
tion to CsA toxicity and individualizing immunosuppres-
sive therapy might be important in order to improve
long-term kidney function. They also noted that reduce-
tion in CsA exposure over time might preserve renal
4. Pathologic Findings
The hallmark finding in CsA nephrotoxicity is arteriolar
hyalinosis, characterized by nodular hyaline deposits in
the tunica media of afferent arterioles. Another common
finding is interstitial or so-called striped fibrosis. This is
hypothesized to be secondary to the above mentioned
vasoconstriction effects of CsA with subsequent arterial
narrowing. The subsequent tissue ischemia/hypoxia leads
to a reperfusion type injury, with the formation of reac-
tive oxygen species and free radicals, leading to cellular
injury and apoptosis [19,51].
Activation of the RAS is also implied in the patho-
genesis of CsA nephrotoxicity, not only for its vasocon-
strictive effects but also due to the action of angiotensin
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M. D. Colombo ET AL. 171
II, which has been shown to possibly induce fibrosis [19,
Nankivell et al in 2004 gave one of the most important
contributions to the documentation of the long-term
nephrotoxic effects of CsA and the associated pathologic
findings [54]. These authors examined serial kidney bi-
opsies, performed at the time of organ implantation, at
weeks 1, 2 and 4, at months 3, 6 and 12, and then yearly
for 10 years. In total 888 biopsies were obtained in 99
patients. At 10 years these authors observed lesions con-
sistent with chronic CsA toxicity in 100% of patients, but
it has to be taken into account that immunosuppression
protocols in those years were complex, with transplanted
patients usually receiving triple therapy, including CsA,
prednisone and azathioprine, so that renal damage cannot
be attributed to CsA alone [55].
Table 2 summarizes the histological lesions associated
with CsA acute and chronic use. However, the differen-
tial diagnosis between CsA-related nephrotoxicity and
other injury phenomena is very difficult, especially in
kidney transplantation. The calcineurin inhibitors nephro-
toxicity score proposed by Kambham et al. in 2007 [56]
represents a first step in the standardization of the com-
posite histological changes induced by CsA, but further
validation studies are necessary. In non-renal organ trans-
plantation the picture may be clearer and the study of
CsA nephrotoxicity in native kidneys seems to be less
troublesome [38,57].
5. CsA-Induced Nephropathy in Patients
with Autoimmune Diseases
Feutren et al. in 1992 [4] studied the incidence of and the
risk factors for CsA-induced nephropathy in patients with
various autoimmune diseases. They retrospectively
analyzed clinical and renal biopsy data from 192 patients
(152 with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, 23 with
posterior uveitis, 11 with psoriasis, 5 with Sjoegren, 1
with polychondritis), including 63 children of <15 years
of age. The duration of CsA therapy ranged from 4 to 39
Table 2. Histological lesions associated with cyclosporine
use (modified from Naesens et al. [19]).
Acute CsA
Acute arteriolopathy = renal dysfunction
without histological alterations
Tubular vacuolization
Thrombotic microangiopathy
Chronic CsA
Interstitial fibrosis and tubular atrophy
Medial arteriolar hyalinosis
Glomerular capsular fibrosis
Global glomerulosclerosis
Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis
Juxtaglomerular apparatus hyperplasia
Tubular microcalcification
months and in most patients CsA doses were higher than
currently recommended (8.2 ± 2.8 mg/kg/day) and were
increased during the first months of therapy. Renal
biopsies were performed in all patients and CsA-induced
nephropathy was defined as the presence of moderate or
more severe alterations of the tubulointerstitial space, the
glomerular arterioles or both. Forty-one of the 192 pa-
tients had evidence of CsA-induced nephropathy: 25 had
diabetes, 14 had uveitis, and 1 each had polychondritis
and Sjoegren’s syndrome. Interstitial fibrosis with tu-
bular atrophy were the predominant morphologic lesions
in CsA-induced nephropathy. The percent increase in
serum creatinine above baseline values was the best
predictor of nephropathy. The impairment of renal
function did not seem to be a direct consequence of the
morphologic alterations, since it was reversible in most
patients after a reduction in the dose or discontinuation of
CsA therapy, even when morphologic lesions were
present. The dose of CsA, the type of underlying disease,
and the patient’s age were additional risk factors for
nephropathy. The incidence of nephropathy was lower in
children than in adults, probably because the clearance of
CsA is greater in children [58]. In the authors’ opinion,
the results of this study suggest that CsA-induced ne-
phropathy may not be the result of long-term and cumu-
lative toxic effects on arterioles and tubules, but rather a
consequence of a brief insult brought about by the ad-
ministration of excessive doses of CsA (> 10 mg/kg/day),
which were rather frequent in early nineties. This ana-
lysis suggests that in patients with autoimmune and in-
flammatory disease and normal renal function, the likeli-
hood of the development of CsA-induced nephropathy
can be minimized by using doses 5 mg/kg/day and
avoiding increases in serum creatinine concentrations
greater than 30% above the patient’s baseline value by
appropriate dose.
Several studies have been conducted specifically in
psoriasis patients treated with CsA. Nine studies evalu-
ated changes in renal structure, assessed in kidney biopsy
specimens, together with the variation in GFR, in pa-
tients with psoriasis treated with CsA [59,67]. Different
grading and scoring systems were used to evaluate CsA
nephrotoxicity, making it difficult to combine the results.
Biopsy studies included a total of 104 patients receiving
CsA for a period ranging from 1 to 10 years at doses
commonly ranging between 1.9 and 5 mg/kg/day, with
some patients receiving up to 7.5 mg/kg/day. These stu-
dies showed slight to moderate interstitial fibrosis after 1
year of CsA in some subjects, and after 3 to 4 years, in-
terstitial fibrosis was moderate to severe [59,61-64]. The
frequency of glomerular sclerosis in biopsies increased
from 12.5% at 3 years to 26% at 10 years [60,66]. Tubu-
lar atrophy has also been described. Renal arteriolar ab-
normalities, consisting of either necrosis of smooth-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OJNeph
M. D. Colombo ET AL.
muscle cells and nodular protein deposits in the wall of
afferent glomerular arterioles or arteriolar intima hya-
linosis may also be seen [68]. The percentage of increase
in serum creatinine above 30% of baseline was found to
be a predictor of structural kidney changes. Moreover,
the severity of recurrent acute nephrotoxicity was shown
to correlate with chronic histological changes (r = 0.8, p
= 0.0003) [64]. Increases in serum creatinine were re-
versible 1 month to 10 years [65,66,69] after stopping
CsA therapy. It seems that structural kidney damage can
be expected in patients in whom serum creatinine does
not decrease after cessation of CsA therapy. Young et al.
[62] showed that older patients may be more vulnerable
to CsA-induced renal injury and that CsA-associated hy-
pertension was associated with a greater degree of pro-
gressive renal interstitial fibrosis on serial biopsies. Other
six studies described the incidence of increases in serum
creatinine by more than 30% above the baseline value in
psoriasis patients [4,70-74]. Overall, more than 50% of
the patients had a significant increase in serum creatinine
(>30% of baseline) if treatment was prolonged for 2
years. Comparing the incidence of in- creases in serum
creatinine >30% in patients receiving continuous or in-
termittent CsA treatment no significant difference was
found (OR 1.35, p = 0.66). In conclusion, in psoriasis
patients nephrotoxicity was associated with longer use,
larger cumulative dose, higher daily dose and the occur-
rence of acute increases in serum creatinine. Slight to
moderate interstitial fibrosis was observed in patients
treated for at least 1 - 2 years, while glomerular sclerosis
or severe interstitial fibrosis were seen in some cases
after 3 years or more. The functional signification and
the reversibility of the structural changes have not been
fully characterized in the available studies.
Regarding rheumatoid arthritis (RA), following the es-
timation of potential risk factors for the development of
CsA-induced nephropathy in autoimmune diseases4, dos-
ing recommendations for the use of CsA in RA were
established, stating that the starting dose should be 2.5 -
3.5 mg/kg/day, the maximum daily dose should not ex-
ceed 5 mg/kg/day and that the dose should be reduced
whenever serum creatinine increases by > 30% [75,76].
The 1994 International Consensus Report on the treat-
ment of RA by CsA concluded that CsA-induced neph-
ropathy can be avoided when these rules are observed.
Subsequently, data from the Kidney Biopsy Registry on
60 first and 14 second renal biopsies performed in RA
patients treated with CsA for up to 87 months were re-
viewed by Rodriguez et al. in order to describe the bi-
opsy findings in all evaluable RA patients, collect infor-
mation about the long-term follow-up of renal function
and discuss the risk factors for the development of
nephrotoxicity [5]. Of the 22 patients who started CsA at
dosages <4 mg/kg/day and did not exceed 5 mg/kg/day,
none developed CsA-associated nephropathy. Continu-
ous assessment of renal function did not show any evi-
dence of deterioration over time in patients maintained
on long-term, low-dose CsA.
A single-center prospective cohort study was con-
ducted to assess the long-term renal tolerance of a low-
dose CsA treatment in patients affected by sight-threat-
ening posterior idiopathic uveitis, having healthy kidneys
before CsA therapy [6]. Forty-one patients were included
in the study undergoing a mean CsA treatment duration
of 44.9 ± 3.6 months and receiving no other nephrotoxic
drugs. Mean CsA daily dosage was gradually tapered
from 4.3 ± 1.6 mg/kg/day to 1.8 ± 0.9 mg/kg/day over 5
years. Renal effects were evaluated by creatinine clear-
ance, GFR and effective renal plasma flow; additionally
11 patients underwent kidney biopsies before and after 2
years of CsA treatment. The authors suggest that in order
to obtain the expected benefits to patients with uveitis,
CsA should be used at the lowest effective dose, possibly
3 mg/kg/day, so that CsA-associated nephrotoxicity
might be prevented.
A large cohort of 285 recently diagnosed type 1 dia-
betic patients having received CsA for a mean of 20
months was monitored for 13 years and compared with a
parallel group of 100 similar patients treated with insulin
alone. The CsA-treated patients showed a transient in-
crease in creatininemia during the first 18 months of
treatment, associated with a transient increase in renal
vascular resistance, both of which disappeared later, with
values remaining then normal [77]. The authors conclude
that low-dose CsA combined with tight and careful moni-
toring should not result in long-term renal dysfunction.
6. Prevention of CsA Nephrotoxicity
Despite the above mentioned evidences of CsA-asso-
ciated renal toxicity, the exclusion of CsA from the
immunosuppressive regimens following organ trans-
plantation does not allow to preserve the allograft func-
tion, due to the inadequate rejection prophylaxis obtained
with other immunosuppressive regimens [78-81]. There-
fore, different strategies aimed at prevent- ing renal da-
mage during long-term CsA treatment have been deve-
loped. For example, the week-end therapy was evaluated
in the PREWENT study, which assessed the impact on
efficacy and safety of a two consecutive days a week
regimen in psoriasis patients, no difference in the inci-
dence of adverse effects was observed between placebo
and CsA [82].
6.1. CsA Minimization
There is increasing interest in CsA minimization proto-
cols, in which the doses of CsA are adjusted to lower
target levels, both in de novo immunosuppressive proto-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OJNeph
M. D. Colombo ET AL. 173
cols both from time of transplantation and for rescue
therapy after detection of renal histologic damage or
dysfunction [80]. These CsA-sparing regimens appear to
be relatively safe [79-81]. By minimizing CsA levels,
nephrotoxicity might be partially avoided, but it has be-
come clear that the increased risk of allograft rejection
could annihilate these positive effects. It will be impor-
tant to develop and apply new tools for clinical immu-
nologic monitoring in order to avoid that minimization
strategies will result in under-immunosuppression with
the risk of chronic rejection.
6.2. Calcium Antagonists
Because vasoconstriction of the afferent arterioles
appears to play a pivotal role in acute and chronic CsA
nephrotoxicity, many authors have studied the preventive
effects of vasodilatory agents. The calcium antagonist
nitrendipine and later lacidipine were shown to prevent
the fall in renal plasma flow and GFR associated with
CsA administration [83-85]. In a randomized trial in
renal transplant recipients, patients treated with the com-
bination of CsA and nifedipine had better renal function
with the same degree of blood pressure control [86]. A
similar effect was shown by lacidipine in another ran-
domized trial [87].
Likewise, in heart transplantation, treatment with nife-
dipine normalized BP and improved renal function [88].
More recently, another randomized trial with amlodipine
confirmed these positive effects of calcium antagonists
on CsA nephrotoxicity again in heart transplant reci-
pients [89]. In contrast, a long-term follow-up study did
not find a protective effect of calcium channel blockers
in preventing CsA nephrotoxicity [90], but it has to be
pointed out that the type of calcium antagonist is not
specified in this study.
6.3. RAS Inhibition
Given the pivotal role of RAS activation in the patho-
genesis of CsA nephrotoxicity, it can be expected that
RAS inhibition will be useful in preventing its deve-
lopment. In human studies, ACE inhibitors showed to
reduce CsA nephrotoxicity [91] and to improve the
cardiovascular alterations observed in renal transplant
recipients [92]. On the other hand, results with the angio-
tensin-receptor blocker (ARB) losartan are currently
contradictory [93,94] and it is therefore not clear whether
combination with ARB could effectively slow the pro-
gression of CsA-associated renal toxicity. Similarly
inconsistent are the results of the comparison between
nifedipine and lisinopril [95,96].
6.4. Other Pharmacological Approaches
Vasodilatory prostanoids, like misoprostol, did not pre-
vent CsA nephrotoxicity both in transplant recipients and
in rheumatoid arthritis patients [97,98]. Despite promis-
ing results in rats, the nitric oxide donor L-arginine
showed no effect on CsA nephrotoxicity prevention in
humans [99].
Other therapeutic approaches are promising, such as
anti-TGF-β antibodies [100,101], antioxidants [102-105],
statins [106] and magnesium supplementation [107,108],
but no human studies are yet available with these agents.
7. Management of CsA Nephrotoxicity
A protocol for the management of nephrotoxicity asso-
ciated with long term CsA administration has been pro-
posed by Griffith et al. in their international consensus
statement on CsA in psoriasis clinical practice [7]. Based
on the observation that CsA nephropathy is strictly
related to drug dose (>5 mg/kg/day) and treatment
duration [60,70,109], these authors propose that the risk
of renal toxicity during CsA treatment is reduced by the
use of intermittent, short courses of the drug. The drug-
free days should allow renal recovery and restoration of
normal renal function [109]. Renal safety during short
course CsA therapy has been shown in studies where
only a minority of patients (4%, 17% and 10% - 27%)
[72,110-112] experienced an elevation in serum creati-
nine, which was typically transient and commonly re-
turned to baseline within 4 weeks following dose reduc-
tion or treatment cessation [72].
According to Griffiths et al. [7], the chance of devel-
oping renal impairment during CsA therapy should be
minimized by screening patients at baseline for any risk
factors of renal toxicity: hypertension, advanced age,
pre-existing renal conditions, and abnormalities in ab-
sorption of CsA. Concomitant medications and weight
may represent additional risk factors [4]. Most impor-
tantly, the dose of CsA should only exceptionally exceed
5 mg/kg/day and the duration should be only as long as is
necessary to achieve clearance or near-clearance of the
disease. Further management guidelines for monitoring
renal safety during CsA therapy proposed by Griffiths et
al are summarized in Figure 1.
8. Conclusions
Renal impairment represents the main limitation to CsA
long-term continuous therapy. However, it has been
shown that nephrotoxicity is associated with longer
treatment duration, larger cumulative doses and higher
daily dose of CsA. Its prevalence with doses 5 mg/
kg/day is low. Renal structural changes including slight
to moderate interstitial fibrosis were mainly observed in
patients treated for 2 years consecutively with high
dosages, significant lesions such as glomerular sclerosis
or severe interstitial fibrosis seen after 3 years or more.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OJNeph
M. D. Colombo ET AL.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. OJNeph
Figure 1. Management of renal toxicity during CsA therapy proposed by Griffiths et al. [7].
With low dose regimens, stable serum creatinine levels
have been observed up to 15 - 20 years after kidney
transplantation [10,50]. Intermittent therapy may offer a
good therapeutic strategy to limit long-term renal dys-
function, given the fact that renal structural changes are
dose- and time-dependent. Besides, the conventional
CsA dose must be adapted to the ideal and not the real
weight in obese patients to limit the risk of nephrotoxi-
The best predictor of permanent renal damage is a per-
sistent increase in serum creatinine level one month after
treatment withdrawal. The percentage increase in serum
creatinine above baseline value during CsA therapy has
been shown to predict CsA-induced nephropathy in pa-
tients with autoimmune diseases [4]. Thus, patients must
be examined and have serum creatinine levels measured
monthly, in order to monitor increases >30% of baseline
value, which may precede histological lesions and should
prompt dose reduction.
Initiation of CsA therapy requires a thorough baseline
evaluation including laboratory assessments with full
blood counts, electrolytes, serum creatinine, urea, liver
enzymes, cholesterol and triglycerides [113]. Further-
more, patients should be evaluated for factors that might
increase the risk of nephrotoxicity. These risk factors
include obesity [66], older age [60], hypertension, con-
comitant use of nephrotoxic drugs [114], and pre-existing
renal conditions.
In general, if CsA is administered at a dose of 5
mg/kg/day or less and patients’ serum creatinine levels
are carefully monitored to ensure that they do not in-
crease to more than 30% above baseline, renal side ef-
fects will be fully reversible after discontinuation of the
In summary, CsA has with no doubt revolutionized
transplant medication and has proven to be effective in
autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. Despite the dis-
covery of acute and chronic nephrotoxicity, its use con-
tinues to be a mainstay in immunosuppression, and CsA
remains irreplaceable despite the enormous efforts oth-
erwise. Available data indicate that low-dose CsA regi-
mens (2.5 - 5 mg/kg/die) would provide an interesting
balance between efficacy and toxicity.
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