BACKGROUND: The novel agent sirolimus (SRL; Rapamune; rapamycin) inhibits the immune response by a mechanism distinct from those of calcineurin antagonists or antimetabolites. This randomized, controlled, multicenter, single blind, phase II trial examined the combination of SRL, steroids, and full versus reduced doses of cyclosporine (CsA) for prophylaxis of acute renal allograft rejection. METHODS: A total of 149 recipients of mismatched cadaveric- or living-donor primary renal allografts were randomized into six groups. Three groups received placebo or 1 or 3 mg/m2/day SRL, as well as steroids and full-dose CsA (Sandimmune). Three groups received steroids, reduced-dose CsA (target trough level 50% of full-dose range), and 1, 3, or 5 mg/m2/day SRL. RESULTS: The incidence of biopsy-proven acute rejection episodes within the first 6 months after transplant was reduced from 32.0% in the control group to 8.5% in patients receiving SRL (1 or 3 mg/m2/day) and full-dose Sandimmune CsA (P=0.018). Similar low rates of acute rejection episodes were observed among non-African-Americans, but not African-Americans, treated with SRL and reduced-dose Sandimmune CsA. Despite the augmented immunosuppression, 1-year patient and graft survival rates did not differ significantly across groups. Adverse effects attributable to CsA, including hypertension and new-onset diabetes mellitus, were not exacerbated by SRL. Except for an increased incidence of pneumonia among patients receiving full-dose CsA and 3 mg/m2/day SRL, the incidences of opportunistic infections were similar in all treatment groups. Although SRL produced more frequent, but reversible, hematological and lipid abnormalities, it had no apparent nephrotoxic effects to exacerbate CsA-induced renal dysfunction. CONCLUSIONS: SRL in combination with CsA and steroids not only lowers the incidence of biopsy-proven acute renal allograft rejection episodes, but also may permit CsA sparing, at least among Caucasian patients, without an increased risk of rejection.