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Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Oct 7;(4):CD000545. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000545.pub2.

Azathioprine or 6-mercaptopurine for induction of remission in Crohn's disease.

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Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Calgary, Health Sciences Centre, 3330 Hospital Dr NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, T2N 4N1.



The results from controlled clinical trials investigating the efficacy of azathioprine and 6-mercaptopurine for the treatment of active Crohn's disease were conflicting and controversial. A meta-analysis was performed to assess the effectiveness of these drugs for the induction of remission in active Crohn's disease.


To determine the effectiveness of azathioprine and 6-mercaptopurine in inducing remission of active Crohn's disease.


Studies were selected using the MEDLINE database (1966 to July 2009), abstracts from major gastrointestinal meetings and references from published articles and review. The Cochrane Trials Register and the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Review Group Trials Register were also searched. This search strategy was updated using the MEDLINE, EMBASE and the International Pharmaceutical Abstracts databases as well as the Cochrane Register of Controlled Trials and the Cochrane IBD/FBD group Specialized Trials Register.


Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of oral azathioprine or 6-mercaptopurine involving adult patients (> 18 years) with active Crohn's disease were selected for inclusion.


Data were extracted by three independent observers based on the intention to treat principle. Each study was given a quality score based on predetermined criteria. Extracted data were converted to 2X2 tables (response versus no response and antimetabolite versus placebo) and then synthesized into a summary test statistic using the pooled odds ratio and 95% confidence intervals as described by Cochran and Mantel and Haenszel.


Eight randomized placebo controlled trials of azathioprine and 6-mercaptopurine therapy in adult patients were identified: five dealt with active disease and three had multiple therapeutic arms. The odds ratio (OR) of a response to azathioprine or 6-mercaptopurine therapy compared with placebo in active Crohn's disease was 2.43 (95% CI 1.62 to 3.64). This corresponded to a number needed to treat (NNT) of about 5 to observe an effect of therapy in one patient. When the two trials using 6-mercaptopurine in active disease were excluded from the analysis, the OR was 2.06 (95% CI 1.25 to 3.39). Treatment > 17 weeks increased the OR to 2.61 (95% CI 1.69 to 4.03). A steroid sparing effect was seen with an OR of 3.69 (95% CI 2.12 - 6.42), corresponding to a NNTof about 3 to observe steroid sparing in one patient. Adverse events requiring withdrawal from a trial, principally allergy, leukopenia, pancreatitis, and nausea were increased with active therapy with an odds ratio of 3.44 (95% CI 1.52 to 7.77). The NNT to observe one adverse event in one patient treated with azathioprine or 6-mercaptopurine was 14.


Azathioprine and 6-mercaptopurine are effective therapy for inducing remission in active Crohn's disease. The OR of response increases after > 17 weeks of therapy, suggesting that there is a minimum length of time for a trial of azathioprine or 6-mercaptopurine therapy. Adverse events were more common among patients on active therapy.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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