Southampton Scientists Solving Complications in Bone Marrow Transplants

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The charity Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research has given a team of University of Southampton scientists a £270,000 grant for a three-year project investigating methods of improving transplant operations.

The team is led by Professor of Immunology Aymen Al-Shamkhani, and is seeking ways to prevent life-threatening side effects that often occur in successful bone marrow transplant cases.  Transplants are often the last chance of a cure for patients suffering from a wide range of blood cancers.

Donor blood marrow is invaluable in patients: in helping to replenish a healthy blood supply, healing damage caused by chemotherapy, and increasing concentration of T-cells, specialised white blood cells that are used to fight infection and alien cells, which hunt down any malignant cells that survived the chemotherapy program.  However, in cases where the donor and recipient are not an exact genetic match, the new T-cells identify some healthy cells as malignant and attack the host, which can lead to long-term health problems and even death.  This is called graft-vs-host-disease, or GVHD.

One way of counteracting this is to remove the T-cells from the donor marrow before the transplant and insert them later through a transfusion, but this allows for a higher chance of the blood cancer relapsing.  The team hopes to get around this by investigating ways of getting the T-cells to only target cancer cells, increasing their effectiveness and reducing the risk of GVHD.

Professor Al-Shamkhani said of the program:

Recent research has provided some indication of ways in which GVHD can be prevented, although often the delayed introduction of the T-cells has led to relapse. By gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms of the disease and the way T-cells fight blood cancer, we hope to be able to design treatments that can deliver the best possible chances of survival.

Since GVHD can occur in a number of transplant operations, not being limited to bone marrow, the long-term benefits of this program could be huge for the medical profession.

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