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Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation

Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) is the transplantation of blood stem cells derived from the bone marrow (that is, bone marrow transplantation) or blood. Stem cell transplantation is a medical procedure in the fields of hematology and oncology, most often performed for people with diseases of the blood, bone marrow, or certain types of cancer.

Stem cell transplantation was pioneered using bone-marrow-derived stem cells by a team at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center from the 1950s through the 1970s led by E. Donnall Thomas, whose work was later recognized with a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Thomas' work showed that bone marrow cells infused intravenously could repopulate the bone marrow and produce new blood cells. His work also reduced the likelihood of developing a life-threatening complication called Graft-versus-host disease.

With the availability of the stem cell growth factors GM-CSF and G-CSF, most hematopoietic stem cell transplantation procedures are now performed using stem cells collected from the peripheral blood, rather than from the bone marrow. Collecting stem cells provides a bigger graft, and does not require that the donor be subjected to general anesthesia to collect the graft.

Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation remains a risky procedure with many possible complications; it has always been reserved for patients with life-threatening diseases.


Indications for stem cell transplantation

Many recipients of HSCTs are leukemia patients who would benefit from treatment with high doses of chemotherapy or total body irradiation. Other conditions treated with stem cell transplants include sickle-cell disease, myelodysplastic syndrome, neuroblastoma, lymphoma, Ewing's Sarcoma, Desmoplastic small round cell tumor, Hodgkin's disease, and multiple myeloma. More recently non-myeloablative, or so-called "mini transplant," procedures have been developed that require smaller doses of preparative chemo and radiation. Mini transplants remain in the experimental domain of medicine as of May, 2007.

Graft Types/Donors/HSC Sources & Storage

Graft types:

Autologous Graft
Allogeneic Graft

Unrelated (also commonly known as Matched Unrelated Donor or MUD)
Cord Blood

Autologous HSCT involves isolation of haematopoietic stems cells (HSC) from the patient and storage of the harvested cells in a freezer. The patient is then treated with high-dose chemotherapy with or without radiotherapy in the form of total body irradiation to eradicate the patient's malignant cell population at the cost of also eliminating the patient's bone marrow stem cells, then return of the patient's own stored stem cells to their body. Autologous transplants have the advantage of a lower risk of graft rejection and infection, since the recovery of immune function is rapid. The incidence of a patient experiencing graft-versus-host disease is close to none as the donor and recipient are the same individual.

Allogeneic HSCT involves two people, one is the (healthy) donor and one is the (patient) recipient. Allogeneic HSC donors must have a tissue (HLA) type that matches the recipient. Matching is performed on the basis of variability at three or more loci of the (HLA) gene, and a perfect match at these loci is preferred. Even if there is a good match at these critical alleles, the recipient will require immunosuppressive medications to mitigate graft-versus-host disease. Allogeneic transplant donors may be related (usually a closely HLA matched sibling) or unrelated(donor who is not related and found to have very close degree of HLA matching ) . Allogeneic transplants are also performed using umbilical cord blood as the source of stem cells.

Donor selection To avoid rejection of the transplanted stem cells or severe graft-versus-host disease, the donor should have the same human leukocyte antigens (HLA) as the recipient. About 25 to 30 percent of potential HSCT recipients have an HLA-identical sibling. Even so-called "perfect matches" may have mismatched minor alleles that contribute to graft-versus-host disease.

Sources of HSC Peripheral blood stem cells are now the most common source of stem cells for HSCT. They are collected from the blood through a process known as apheresis. The donor's blood is withdrawn through a sterile needle in one arm and passed through a machine that removes white blood cells. The red blood cells are returned to the donor. The peripheral stem cell yield is boosted with daily subcutaneous injections of Granulocyte-colony stimulating factor, which mobilizes stem cells from the donor's bone marrow into the peripheral circulation.

Umbilical cord blood is obtained when parents elect to harvest and store the blood from a newborn's umbilical cord and placenta after birth. Cord blood has a higher concentration of HSC than is normally found in adult blood.

Storage of HSC Unlike other organs, bone marrow cells can be frozen for prolonged time periods (cryopreserved) without damaging too many cells. This is necessary for autologous HSC because the cells must be harvested months in advance of the transplant treatment. In the case of allogeneic transplants fresh HSC are preferred in order to avoid cell loss that might occur during the freezing and thawing process. Allogeneic cord blood is stored frozen at a cord blood bank because it is only obtainable at the time of childbirth. To cryopreserve HSC a preservative, DMSO, must be added and the cells must be cooled very slowly in a control rate freezer to prevent osmotic cellular injury during ice crystal formation. HSC may be stored for years in a cryofreezer which typically utilizes liquid nitrogen because it is non-toxic and it is very cold (boiling point -196°C.)

Conditioning regimens

The chemotherapy or irradiation given immediately prior to a transplant is called the conditioning or preparative regimen. The purpose is to help eradicate the patient's disease prior to the infusion of HSC and to suppress immune reactions. The bone marrow can be ablated at doses that cause minimal injury to other tissues. In allogeneic transplants a combination of cyclophosphamide with busulfan or total body irradiation is commonly employed. This treatment also has an immunosuppressive effect which prevents rejection of the HSC by the recipient's immune system. Autologous transplants may also use these conditioning regimens but many other chemotherapy combinations can be used depending on the type of disease.

Non-myeloablative' allogeneic HSCT is a newer treatment approach which uses lower doses of chemotherapy and radiation which are too low to eradicate all of the bone marrow cells of a recipient. Instead, non-myeloablative transplants exploit the graft versus tumor effect for their benefit. They do require high doses of immunosuppressive agents in the early stages of treatment. This leads to a state of mixed chimerism early after transplant where both recipient and donor HSC coexist in the bone marrow space. Decreasing doses of immunosuppressive therapy then allows donor T-cells to eradicate the remaining recipient HSC and to induce graft-versus-host disease and the graft versus tumor effect.

Non-myeloablative (or "mini") allogeneic transplants, because of their gentler conditioning regimens, are associated with a lower risk of transplant-related mortality and therefore allow patients who are considered too high-risk for conventional allogeneic HSCT to undergo potentially curative therapy for their disease. These new transplant strategies are experimental, for the most part, and available at academic research centers.


After several weeks of growth in the bone marrow, expansion of HSC and their progeny is sufficient to normalize the blood cell counts and reinitiate the immune system. The offspring of donor-derived hematopoietic stem cells have been documented to populate many different organs of the recipient, including the heart, liver, and muscle, and these cells were have been suggested to have the abilities of regenerating injured tisue in these organs, however recent research have shown that such lineage infidelities does not occur as a normal phenomenon.

Side effects and complications

HSCT is associated with a fairly high mortality in the recipient (10% or higher), which limits its use to conditions that are themselves life-threatening. Major causes of complications are veno-occlusive disease, mucositis, infection (sepsis) and graft-versus-host disease.

Veno-Occlusive Disease- Severe liver injury is termed hepatic veno-occlusive disease (VOD). Elevated levels of bilirubin, hepatomegaly and fluid retention are clinical hallmarks of this condition. There is now a greater appreciation of the generalized cellular injury and obstruction in hepatic vein sinuses, and it has thus been referred to as sinusoidal obstruction syndrome (SOS). Severe cases are associated with a high mortality. Anticoagulants or defibrotide may be effective in reducing the severity of VOD but may also increase bleeding complications. Ursodiol has been shown to help prevent VOD, presumably by helping the flow of bile.

Mucositis- The injury of the mucosal lining of the mouth and throat and is a common regimen-related toxicity following ablative HSCT regimens. It is usually not life-threatening but is very painful, and prevents eating and drinking. Mucositis is treated with pain medications plus intravenous infusions to prevent dehydration and malnutrition.

Infection- Bone marrow transplantation usually requires that the recipient's own bone marrow is destroyed ("myeloablation"). Prior to "engraftment" patients may go for several weeks without appreciable numbers of white blood cells to help fight infection. This puts a patient at risk of infections, sepsis and septic shock despite prophylactic antibiotics. The immunosuppressive agents employed in allogeneic transplants for the prevention or treatment of graft-versus-host disease further increase the risk of opportunistic infection. Immunosuppressive drugs are given for a minimum of 6-months after a transplantation, or much longer if required for the treatment of graft-versus-host disease. Transplant patients lose their acquired immunity, for example immunity to childhood diseases such as measles or polio. For this reason transplant patients must be re-vaccinated with childhood vaccines once they are off of immunosuppressive medications.

Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) An inflammatory disease that is unique to allogeneic transplantation. It is an attack of the "new" bone marrow's immune cells against the recipient's tissues. This can occur even if the donor and recipient are HLA-identical because the immune system can still recognize other differences between their tissues. It is aptly named graft-versus-host disease because bone marrow transplantation is the only transplant procedure in which the transplanted cells must accept the body rather than the body accepting the new cells. Acute graft-versus-host disease typically occurs in the first 3 months after transplantation and may involve the skin, intestine, or the liver. Corticosteroids such as prednisone are a standard treatment. Chronic graft-versus-host disease may also develop after allogeneic transplant and is the major source of late complications. In addition to inflammation, chronic graft-versus-host disease may lead to the development of fibrosis, or scar tissue, similar to scleroderma or other autoimmune diseases and may cause functional disablity, and the need for prolonged immunosuppressive therapy. Graft-versus-host disease is usually mediated by T cells when they react to foreign peptides presented on the MHC of the host. Removal of these T cells before donation can lessen the risk of this disease.

Graft versus tumor effect The beneficial aspect of the Graft-versus-Host phenomenon is known as the "graft versus tumor" or "graft versus leukemia" effect. For example, leukemia patients with chronic graft-versus-host disease after an allogeneic transplant have a lower risk of leukemia relapse. This is due to a therapeutic immune reaction of the grafted donor lymphocytes, more specifically, the Natural Killer cells, against the diseased bone marrow of the recipient. This lower rate of relapse accounts for the increased success rate of allogeneic transplants compared to transplants from identical twins, and indicates that allogeneic HSCT is a form of immunotherapy. GVT is the major benefit of transplants which do not employ high dose chemotherapy or radiation.

Conditions treated with bone marrow or HSC transplantation




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  • Barker JN, et al. (December 2005). "Transplantation of 2 partially HLA-matched umbilical cord blood units to enhance engraftment in adults with hematologic malignancy". Blood 105(3): 1343-1347.Fulltext. PMID 15466923.

See also

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