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Developing a risk score for graft-versus host disease in stem cell transplants

Graft versus host disease is a dangerous complication of stem or bone marrow transplant. Professor Paul Moss wants to understand more about the disease so we predict who might develop it.

The challenge

Stem cell transplants are valuable treatments for people with blood cancer, providing an entirely new, healthy blood system from a donor that can kill off the cancerous blood cancer cells. But sometimes the donor cells can also start attacking healthy tissues. This is called graft-versus-host disease (GvHD), which can be life-threatening. GvHD develops within two weeks of a stem cell transplant, but we currently don’t know what happens in the body during this time.

The project

A previous Blood Cancer UK funded research project led by Professor Moss found that two types of immune cells, called NK cells and T cells, play an important role in the first two weeks following stem cell transplant. The team found that the numbers of these cells can help predict if GvHD will develop, or if the blood cancer will return after transplant.

The team are now carrying out a detailed study of donor blood cells two weeks after they have been transplanted. They are looking for cells that can kill blood cancer cells and want to find a way to use these if the initial stem cell transplant doesn’t work. They are also looking at donor blood cells that have caused GvHD in the skin to find out how tissue damage develops.

The future

In the future, the team plan to develop a ‘risk score’ that will predict the likelihood of GvHD developing following stem cell transplants, which will help medical professionals decide the best course of treatment for each person.