Pharmacogenomic studies of the anticancer and immunosuppressive thiopurines mercaptopurine and azathioprine

Ahmed F. Hawwa, Jeff S. Millership, Paul S. Collier, Koen Vandenbroeck, Anthony McCarthy, Sid Dempsey, Carole Cairns, John Collins, Colin Rodgers, James C. McElnay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


• 6-Mercaptopurine (6-MP) and azathioprine (AZA) are both inactive prodrugs that require intracellular activation into the active 6-thioguanine nucleotides (6-TGNs).
• This metabolic process undergoes three different competitive pathways that are catalysed by three different enzymes; xanthine oxidase (XO), thiopurine methyltransferase (TPMT) and inosine triphosphatase (ITPA), all of which exhibit genetic polymorphisms.
• Although the impact of genetic variation in the TPMT gene on treatment outcome and toxicity has been demonstrated, the role of other polymorphisms remains less well known.

• New information on the allelic variation of these three enzymes (XO, TPMT and ITPA) and their influence on 6-MP/AZA metabolism and toxicity.
• Confirmation of the association of TPMT polymorphism with haematological toxicity.
• Identified potential genetic characteristics that may contribute to higher risk of adverse events (such as ITPA IVS2+21A→C mutation).

AIMS - To examine the allelic variation of three enzymes involved in 6-mercaptopurine/azathioprine (6-MP/AZA) metabolism and evaluate the influence of these polymorphisms on toxicity, haematological parameters and metabolite levels in patients with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
METHODS - Clinical data and blood samples were collected from 19 ALL paediatric patients and 35 IBD patients who were receiving 6-MP/AZA therapy. All patients were screened for seven genetic polymorphisms in three enzymes involved in mercaptopurine metabolism [xanthine oxidase, inosine triphosphatase (C94→A and IVS2+21A→C) and thiopurine methyltransferase]. Erythrocyte and plasma metabolite concentrations were also determined. The associations between the various genotypes and myelotoxicity, haematological parameters and metabolite concentrations were determined.
RESULTS - Thiopurine methyltransferase variant alleles were associated with a preferential metabolism away from 6-methylmercaptopurine nucleotides (P = 0.008 in ALL patients, P = 0.038 in IBD patients) favouring 6-thioguanine nucleotides (6-TGNs) (P = 0.021 in ALL patients). Interestingly, carriers of inosine triphosphatase IVS2+21A→C variants among ALL and IBD patients had significantly higher concentrations of the active cytotoxic metabolites, 6-TGNs (P = 0.008 in ALL patients, P = 0.047 in IBD patients). The study confirmed the association of thiopurine methyltransferase heterozygosity with leucopenia and neutropenia in ALL patients and reported a significant association between inosine triphosphatase IVS2+21A→C variants with thrombocytopenia (P = 0.012).
CONCLUSIONS - Pharmacogenetic polymorphisms in the 6-MP pathway may help identify patients at risk for associated toxicities and may serve as a guide for dose individualization.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)517-528
Number of pages12
JournalBritish Journal of Clinical Pharmacology
Issue number4
Early online date28 Jun 2008
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2008


  • 6-mercaptopurine
  • acute lymphoblastic leukaemia
  • azathioprine
  • inflammatory bowel disease; pharmacogenetics


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