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Graft-versus-host disease

Graft-versus-host disease
Classification & external resources
ICD-10 T86.0
ICD-9 996.85
DiseasesDB 5388
eMedicine med/926  ped/893 derm/478
MeSH D006086

Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is a common complication of allogeneic bone marrow transplantation in which functional immune cells in the transplanted marrow recognize the recipient as "foreign" and mount an immunologic attack.



After bone marrow transplantation, T cells present in the graft, either as contaminants or intentionally introduced into the host, attack the tissues of the transplant recipient after perceiving host tissues as antigenically foreign. The T cells produce an excess of cytokines, including TNF alpha and interferon-gamma (IFNg). A wide range of host antigens can initiate graft-versus-host-disease, among them the human leukocyte antigens (HLAs). However, graft-versus-host disease can occur even when HLA-identical siblings are the donors. HLA-identical siblings or HLA-identical unrelated donors often have genetically different proteins (called minor histocompatibility antigens) that can be presented by MHC molecules to the recipient's T-cells, which see these antigens as foreign and so mount an immune response.

While donor T-cells are undesirable as effector cells of graft-versus-host-disease, they are valuable for engraftment by preventing the recipient's residual immune system from rejecting the bone marrow graft (host-versus-graft). Additionally, as bone marrow transplantation is frequently used to cure cancer, mainly leukemias, donor T-cells have proven to have a valuable graft-versus-tumor effect. A great deal of current research on allogeneic bone marrow transplantation involves attempts to separate the undesirable graft-vs-host-disease aspects of T-cell physiology from the desirable graft-versus-tumor effect.


Clinically, graft-versus-host-disease is divided into acute and chronic forms.

  • The acute or fulminant form of the disease is observed within the first 100 days post-transplant.[1]
  • The chronic form of graft-versus-host-disease is defined as that which occurs after 100 days.

This distinction is not arbitrary: acute and chronic graft-versus-host-disease appear to involve different immune cell subsets, different cytokine profiles, and different types of target organ damage.

Clinical Manifestation

Classically, acute graft-versus-host-disease is characterized by selective damage to the liver, skin and mucosa, and the gastrointestinal tract. Newer research indicates that other graft-versus-host-disease target organs include the immune system (the hematopoietic system -- e.g. the bone marrow and the thymus) itself, and the lungs in the form of idiopathic pneumonitis. Chronic graft-versus-host-disease damages the above organs, but also causes changes to the connective tissue (e.g. of the skin and exocrine glands).

Acute GVHD of the GI tract can result in liters of watery diarrhea per day, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. This is typically diagnosed via intestinal biopsy. Liver GVHD is measured by the bilirubin level in acute patients. Skin GVHD results in a diffuse maculopapular rash, sometimes in a lacy pattern.

Acute GVHD is staged as follows: overall grade (skin-liver-gut) with each organ staged individually from a low of 1 to a high of 4. Patients with grade IV GVHD usually have a poor prognosis. If the GVHD is severe and requires intense immunosuppression involving steroids and additional agents to get under control, the patient may develop severe infections as a result of the immunosuppression and may die of infection.

Transfusion-Associated GvHD

This type of GvHD is associated with transfusion of un-irradiated blood to immunocompromised recipients. It can also occur in situations where the blood donor is homozygous and the recipient is heterozygous for an HLA haplotype. It is associated with higher mortality (80-90%) due to involvement of bone marrow lymphoid tissue, however the clinical manifestations are similar to GvHD resulting from bone marrow transplantation.


Graft-versus-host-disease can largely be avoided by performing a T-cell depleted bone marrow transplant. These types of transplants result in reduced target organ damage and generally less graft-versus-host-disease, but at a cost of diminished graft-versus-tumor effect, a greater risk of engraftment failure, and general immunodeficiency, resulting in a patient more susceptible to viral, bacterial, and fungal infection. Methotrexate and cyclosporin A are common drugs used for GVHD prophylaxis. In a multi-center study, disease-free survival at 3 years was not different between T cell depleted and T cell replete transplants.[2]


  • In the FOX television series Arrested Development, the character Tobias Fünke (David Cross) suffered from graft-versus-host-disease after receiving hair transplants.
  • In the episode of the television series House titled "Family", one of the characters suffered from GvHD after he received an unsuccessful 4/6 bone marrow transplant.

See also


  1. ^ Graft versus Host Disease, from the National Marrow Donor Program
  2. ^ Lancet 2005 Aug 27-Sep 2;366(9487):733-41

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Graft-versus-host_disease". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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