Immunosuppressants and Cutaneous Squamous Cell Carcinoma in Organ Transplant Recipients

Key Points

  • Rapamycin allows immune cells in the skin, or memory T cells, to maintain some of their function.
  • The lighter impact that rapamycin has on the immune system may contribute to a lower risk of skin cancer while still preventing organ rejection.

Research published by Jung et al in OncoImmunology showed organ transplant recipients may reduce their risk of developing secondary skin cancer by changing their immunosuppressant medication.

University of Queensland (UQ) researchers have studied the impact of such medications on the immune system's ability to fight cancer. UQ Diamantina Institute Senior Research Fellow James Wells, PhD, said immunosuppressant medications were necessary to prevent organ rejection but may cause other problems.

“An unfortunate side effect of these medications is the greatly increased risk of developing … squamous cell carcinoma [of the skin],” he said. “There are few treatment options for these patients, some of whom endure the surgical removal of hundreds of skin tumors each year.”

Study Findings

The study investigated the specific impacts of two medications—tacrolimus and rapamycin—on the immune system.

“We discovered that rapamycin allows immune cells in the skin, or memory T cells, to maintain some of their function,” Dr. Wells said. “Memory T cells remained active in the presence of the drug and were able to penetrate the squamous cell carcinomas to fight them.”

He continued, “The lighter impact that rapamycin has on the immune system may contribute to a lower risk of skin cancer, while still preventing organ rejection. Unfortunately, prolonged rapamycin use is often associated with other unpleasant side effects, so it rarely affords a long-term solution to skin cancer.”

Dr. Wells' research will now focus on ways to reduce the skin cancer risk of organ transplant recipients, while preventing organ rejection.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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