Immunosuppressive agents for treating IgA nephropathy

What is the issue?
IgA nephropathy is a common kidney disease that often leads to decreased kidney function and may result ultimately in kidney failure for one-third of affected people. The cause of IgA nephropathy is not known, although most people with the disease have abnormalities in their immune system.

What did we do?
We searched for all the research trials that assessed the effect of immunosuppressive therapy in people with IgA nephropathy in September 2019. We measured the certainty we could have about the treatments using a system called "GRADE".

What did we find?
We found 58 studies involving 3933 adults and children who were treated with immunosuppressive therapy. Patients in the studies were given either steroids or other forms of therapy to reduce the actions of their immune system. The treatment they got was decided by random chance. Steroid therapy taken for 2 to 4 months appeared to slow damage to the kidney and probably prevents patients from developing kidney failure. It is really uncertain whether steroids cause side effects such as serious infection. One study was stopped early because patients who received steroid therapy had more infections than those patients who were given placebo. Other medications like cyclophosphamide, azathioprine, and mycophenolate mofetil did not clearly protect kidney function in people with IgA nephropathy.


Steroid therapy may prevent kidney failure in IgA nephropathy but the risks of serious infections are uncertain with treatment.

Authors' conclusions: 

In moderate certainty evidence, corticosteroid therapy probably prevents decline in GFR or doubling of SCr in adults and children with IgA nephropathy and proteinuria. Evidence for treatment effects of immunosuppressive agents on death, infection, and malignancy is generally sparse or low-quality. Steroid therapy has uncertain adverse effects due to a paucity of studies. Available studies are few, small, have high risk of bias and generally do not systematically identify treatment-related harms. Subgroup analyses to identify specific patient characteristics that might predict better response to therapy were not possible due to a lack of studies. There is no evidence that other immunosuppressive agents including CPA, AZA, or MMF improve clinical outcomes in IgA nephropathy.

Read the full abstract...

IgA nephropathy is the most common glomerulonephritis world-wide. IgA nephropathy causes end-stage kidney disease (ESKD) in 15% to 20% of affected patients within 10 years and in 30% to 40% of patients within 20 years from the onset of disease. This is an update of a Cochrane review first published in 2003 and updated in 2015.


To determine the benefits and harms of immunosuppression strategies for the treatment of IgA nephropathy.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Kidney and Transplant Register of Studies up to 9 September 2019 through contact with the Information Specialist using search terms relevant to this review. Studies in the Register are identified through searches of CENTRAL, MEDLINE, and EMBASE, conference proceedings, the International Clinical Trials Register (ICTRP) Search Portal and

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-RCTs of treatment for IgA nephropathy in adults and children and that compared immunosuppressive agents with placebo, no treatment, or other immunosuppressive or non-immunosuppressive agents.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors independently assessed study risk of bias and extracted data. Estimates of treatment effect were summarised using random effects meta-analysis. Treatment effects were expressed as relative risk (RR) and 95% confidence intervals (95% CI) for dichotomous outcomes and mean difference (MD) and 95% CI for continuous outcomes. Risks of bias were assessed using the Cochrane tool. Evidence certainty was evaluated using GRADE methodology.

Main results: 

Fifty-eight studies involving 3933 randomised participants were included. Six studies involving children were eligible. Disease characteristics (kidney function and level of proteinuria) were heterogeneous across studies. Studies evaluating steroid therapy generally included patients with protein excretion of 1 g/day or more. Risk of bias within the included studies was generally high or unclear for many of the assessed methodological domains.

In patients with IgA nephropathy and proteinuria > 1 g/day, steroid therapy given for generally two to four months with a tapering course probably prevents the progression to ESKD compared to placebo or standard care (8 studies; 741 participants: RR 0.39, 95% CI 0.23 to 0.65; moderate certainty evidence). Steroid therapy may induce complete remission (4 studies, 305 participants: RR 1.76, 95% CI 1.03 to 3.01; low certainty evidence), prevent doubling of serum creatinine (SCr) (7 studies, 404 participants: RR 0.43, 95% CI 0.29 to 0.65; low certainty evidence), and may lower urinary protein excretion (10 studies, 705 participants: MD -0.58 g/24 h, 95% CI -0.84 to -0.33; low certainty evidence). Steroid therapy had uncertain effects on glomerular filtration rate (GFR), death, infection and malignancy. The risk of adverse events with steroid therapy was uncertain due to heterogeneity in the type of steroid treatment used and the rarity of events.

Cytotoxic agents (azathioprine (AZA) or cyclophosphamide (CPA) alone or with concomitant steroid therapy had uncertain effects on ESKD (7 studies, 463 participants: RR 0.63, 95% CI 0.33 to 1.20; low certainty evidence), complete remission (5 studies; 381 participants: RR 1.47, 95% CI 0.94 to 2.30; very low certainty evidence), GFR (any measure), and protein excretion. Doubling of serum creatinine was not reported.

Mycophenolate mofetil (MMF) had uncertain effects on the progression to ESKD, complete remission, doubling of SCr, GFR, protein excretion, infection, and malignancy. Death was not reported.

Calcineurin inhibitors compared with placebo or standard care had uncertain effects on complete remission, SCr, GFR, protein excretion, infection, and malignancy. ESKD and death were not reported.

Mizoribine administered with renin-angiotensin system inhibitor treatment had uncertain effects on progression to ESKD, complete remission, GFR, protein excretion, infection, and malignancy. Death and SCr were not reported.

Leflunomide followed by a tapering course with oral prednisone compared to prednisone had uncertain effects on the progression to ESKD, complete remission, doubling of SCr, GFR, protein excretion, and infection. Death and malignancy were not reported.

Effects of other immunosuppressive regimens (including steroid plus non-immunosuppressive agents or mTOR inhibitors) were inconclusive primarily due to insufficient data from the individual studies in low or very low certainty evidence. The effects of treatments on death, malignancy, reduction in GFR at least of 25% and adverse events were very uncertain. Subgroup analyses to determine the impact of specific patient characteristics such as ethnicity or disease severity on treatment effectiveness were not possible.