Rare marrow cells tackle deadly immune reaction

From Atlanta, at a meeting of the American Society of Hematology

Blood-making stem cells taken from a healthy person’s bone marrow can give patients a fighting chance against aggressive blood cancers, but the treatment may also attack the patient’s tissues.

In an attempt to counter this usually lethal complication, known as graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), Katarina LeBlanc of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and her colleagues transfused a second kind of marrow-derived cell into 16 patients with GVHD. These cells, known as mesenchymal stem cells, normally give rise to bone, cartilage, and fat cells, but “they also have an ability to turn the immune system off, to dampen inflammation,” LeBlanc says.

Two people died before the treatment could be evaluated. Of the rest, six recovered from GVHD and four improved.

To prepare each patient’s treatment, the European team extracted a few of the rare cells from the marrow of a healthy and genetically similar person, such as a sibling. The researchers then cultivated the cells in the lab for about a month, until they had about 1 million cells per patient.

Mesenchymal stem cells might be useful in treating autoimmune diseases as well as GVHD, adds LeBlanc.

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