BACKGROUND: A study was performed by 17 different U.S. liver transplantation centers to determine the safety and efficacy of conversion from cyclosporine to tacrolimus for chronic allograft rejection. METHODS: Ninety-one patients were converted to tacrolimus a mean of 319 days after liver transplantation. The indication for conversion was ongoing chronic rejection confirmed by biochemical and histologic criteria. Patients were followed for a mean of 251 days until the end of the study. RESULTS: Sixty-four patients (70.3%) were alive with their initial hepatic allograft at the conclusion of the study period and were defined as the responder group. Twenty-seven patients (29.7%) failed to respond to treatment, and 20 of them required a second liver graft. The actuarial graft survival for the total patient group was 69.9% and 48.5% at 1 and 2 years, respectively. The actuarial patient survival at 1 and 2 years was 84.4% and 81.2%, respectively. Two significant positive prognostic factors were identified. Patients with a total bilirubin of < or = 10 mg/dl at the time of conversion had a significantly better graft and patient survival than patients converted with a total bilirubin > 10 mg/dl (P=0.00002 and P=0.00125, respectively). The time between liver transplantation and conversion also affected graft and patient survival. Patients converted to tacrolimus < or = 90 days after transplantation had a 1-year actuarial graft and patient survival of 51.9% and 65.9%, respectively, compared with 73.2% and 87.7% for those converted > 90 days after transplantation. The mean total bilirubin level for the responder group was 7.1 mg/dl at the time of conversion and decreased significantly to a mean of 3.4 mg/dl at the end of the study (P=0.0018). Thirteen patients (14.3%) died during the study. Sepsis was the major contributing cause of death in most of these patients. CONCLUSIONS: Our results suggest that conversion to tacrolimus for chronic rejection after orthotopic liver transplantation represents an effective therapeutic option. Conversion to tacrolimus before development of elevated total bilirubin levels showed a significant impact on long-term outcome.