For those who have faced a leukaemia diagnosis and undergone a stem cell transplant in the hope of a cure, news that they have gone on to develop another cruel condition is the stuff of nightmares. But today the Leukaemia Foundation has announced funding for research harnessing high tech techniques including use of a genetically-modified “suicide gene” to prevent and treat deadly graft versus host disease – or GVHD.

One of the most significant contributors to transplant-related deaths, GVHD affects 50 to 70 per cent of stem cell transplant recipients in Australia and occurs when donated cells (the graft) deem the recipient’s body cells (the host) to be foreign and attack them.

About 20 per cent of stem cell transplant recipients develop severe acute GVHD that does not respond to conventional treatment, with more than half dying.

Chronic GVHD significantly compromises a person’s quality of life, causing severe abdominal pain, mouth ulcers, muscle or joint pain and extreme damage to vital organs such as lungs and liver.

The Leukaemia Foundation will contribute $1 million over five years to the Centre for Blood Transplant and Cell Therapy for its multi-disciplinary work into GVHD, which spans haematology, immunology, microbiology and genomics.

“The reality is that most patients say they would rather not live than spend the rest of their lives with this awful disease,” CBTCT’s Principle Investigator Professor David Gottlieb said.  

“This investment will contribute to generating new knowledge in the fields of transplant immunology and cell therapy and improve patient outcomes nationally.”

Within its precision medicine approach, the CBTCT aims to discover biomarkers with diagnostic, prognostic and predictive power. It will also deploy chimeric antigen receptor T-cells therapy and genetically-modified T-cells with so-called suicide genes that can power patients’ immune systems to target leukaemia cells and force them to self-destruct.

The Leukaemia Foundation’s CEO Bill Petch said the funding boost was the first in a series to be announced this year that will support the world class work of Australian researchers in the race to beat blood diseases including leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma.

“This funding is part of the Leukaemia Foundation’s new high impact research strategy and is committed to supporting medical research that will drive rapid advancements in treatments,” Petch said.

“As Australia’s leading blood cancer organisation, the Leukaemia Foundation cannot continue to allow our loved ones to suffer and die from GVHD. We’re taking this major step to search for better prevention and treatment in hopes for a future that is free from blood cancer.”

The equivalent of one person every 41 minutes is diagnosed with a blood cancer in Australia with a life lost every two hours. The third most common cause of cancer death in the country, it kills more people than breast cancer or melanoma.

The GVHD research and clinical trials will be conducted at Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, the Royal Melbourne Hospital and Melbourne’s The Alfred Hospital, with involvement from stem cell transplant units in Adelaide and Perth.

The scientific partners joining the efforts are the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, University of Sydney, University of Melbourne and Monash University in Australia, and the University of Minnesota and New York’s Icahn Centre School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the US.

The CBTCT project has also received a $2.5 million grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

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