Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors and the Risk of Allograft Rejection: A Comprehensive Analysis on an Emerging Issue

Luis E. Aguirre, Maria E. Guzman, Gilberto Lopes, Judith Hurley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Background: It is well known that the state of immune tolerance induced by broad immunosuppression to prevent allograft rejection leads to an increased risk of the development of cancer. One of the most promising new areas of cancer treatment has been the development of immune checkpoint inhibitors that target the cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated antigen 4 and programmed cell death protein 1/programmed death-ligand 1 (PD-L1) pathways. As a logical consequence, growing interest in these agents translated into their implementation in patients with transplant-related malignancies. Because of overlapping and perhaps mutually exclusive mechanisms of action of transplant immunosuppression and cancer immunomodulation, it is critical to examine these interactions. Materials and Methods: We carried out a systematic search for review articles and case reports published between July 2014 and November 2017 using three engines: Usearch, PubMed, and Up-to-date. Results: Overall, there were 20 cases with 12 allograft rejections. The rejection rate associated with nivolumab was 73% (8/11) and with pembrolizumab it was 100% (2/2). The use of ipilimumab did not lead to rejection in any instance (0/4, 0%). Of the two patients treated with the sequential use of ipilimumab/nivolumab, one lost his allograft, yielding a rejection rate of 50%. The sequential use of ipilimumab/pembrolizumab led to a rejection rate of 100% (1/1, 100%). Conclusion: The use of agents that act on the PD-L1 pathway are contraindicated in the face of solid organ allografts because of unacceptably high rates of irreversible allograft rejection. It appears that the use of ipilimumab may be tolerated as the mechanism is different from that of the PD-L1 agents. Implications for Practice: Transplant rejection is a complex process that puts stress on patients and their families and can lead to tragic results. Significant advancements in the field of immunosuppression have led to the engenderment of agents devised to extend the survival of transplant recipients. The advent of immunomodulators in cancer therapy has been paradigm-shifting; however, because of their mechanism of action, their use must be carefully considered in patients with allografts and concomitant cancer. It appears that ipilimumab can be administered safely in these patients but that agents acting on the programmed death-ligand 1 pathway are contraindicated because of high rates of irreversible rejection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)394-401
Number of pages8
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2019


  • Allograft
  • Cytotoxic T-lymphocyte-associated antigen 4
  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors
  • Immunotherapy
  • Programmed cell death protein 1
  • Programmed death-ligand 1
  • Transplant rejection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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