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Groundbreaking research could lead to better outcomes for post-transplant patients

Most patients with serious blood diseases such as leukemia or aplastic anemia need a bone marrow transplant to make a full recovery. But those lifesaving treatments also can be life threatening. Up to 20 percent of allogeneic (donor-match) bone marrow transplant patients die of infectious complications.

"High-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplants destroy the underlying disease, but they also destroy the immune system," said Erhan Gokmen, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC). "The recovery of the immune system is delayed for up to several years after transplant."

Dr. Gokmen is working on identifying strategies to increase the speed of immune recovery. The National Marrow Donor Program awarded him a $240,000 grant to study B cell reconstitution after transplantation. His work eventually could lead to a simple treatment, such as a vaccination for donors prior to transplant, to enable the bone marrow patients to better fight off infection.

B cells are part of the body's "adaptive immune system," meaning they provide a more specific and a higher-level protection against infections. "We are trying to determine how the B cells regenerate during immune recovery so we can determine ways to make that recovery occur faster," Dr. Gokmen said. "Once we understand and identify the mechanisms of B cell recovery, we will be able to design therapeutic strategies to boost the body's immune system after a transplant."

Dr. Gokmen is one of the only physicians in the country working with B cell recovery. He expects to have the preliminary results of his work in about a year.

An estimated 20,000 transplants are performed in North America annually.

Contact: Amanda Gallagher or Aileen Salinas