BACKGROUND: In vitro studies suggest interactions between mesalazine (mesalamine) and thiopurines by thiopurine S-methyltransferase (TPMT) inhibition, influencing the balance of hepatotoxic 6-methylmercaptopurine ribonucleotide and immunosuppressive tioguanine (thioguanine) metabolites. AIM: To examine the in vivo pharmacokinetic interaction between mesalazine and mercaptopurine. METHODS: A prospective study was performed in quiescent inflammatory bowel disease patients using the combination of mercaptopurine and mesalazine. Laboratory parameters, 6-methylmercaptopurine ribonucleotide and tioguanine levels and thiopurine S-methyltransferase activity in erythrocytes were measured at stable medication, after mesalazine discontinuation and mesalazine reintroduction, further mercaptopurine was continued. RESULTS: Seventeen patients were participated. Mean mercaptopurine dose was 0.78 mg/kg/day and median of mesalazine dose was 3000 mg/day. After mesalazine discontinuation, mean tioguanine levels changed significantly from 262 to 209 pmol/8 x 10(8) red blood cell, increasing to 270 after reintroduction. Mean 6-methylmercaptopurine ribonucleotide levels were 1422, 2149 and 1503 pmol/8 x 10(8) red blood cell respectively. Mean 6-methylmercaptopurine ribonucleotide/tioguanine ratio increased significantly from 6.3 at baseline to 11.2. Mean baseline thiopurine S-methyltransferase activity was 0.58 pmol/10(6) red blood cell/h and stable. All patients had wild-type thiopurine S-methyltransferase genotypes however, leucocyte counts were stable. DISCUSSION: A significantly higher tioguanine levels and improving 6-methylmercaptopurine ribonucleotide/tioguanine ratio were found during mesalazine/mercaptopurine combination. Theoretically, mesalazine inhibits thiopurine S-methyltransferase activity. In vivo thiopurine S-methyltransferase activity did not change, however. CONCLUSION: Mesalazine has synergistic effects on mercaptopurine therapy, but the mechanism is unclear. Combining these drugs may be further indication for mesalazine in inflammatory bowel disease treatment.