Mainz researchers work to improve the treatment for chemotherapy-resistant leukemias

German Research Foundation supports Clinical Research Unit at Mainz University to the tune of EUR 3 million


Leukemias do not necessarily have to be fatal. Modern medicine uses healthy stem cells from a donor in the technique known as allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT). Ideally, the donor's lymphocytes, received during the transplantation will destroy any remaining leukemia cells. However, they often attack the body's healthy cells at the same time. The German Research Foundation (DFG) will be providing funding for a further three years for a research association that has been in existence at the Mainz University Medical Center since 2007, the Clinical Research Unit 183 on Optimized Allogeneic Lymphocyte Therapy. The researchers' aim is to prevent the donor's lymphocytes attacking the body's healthy cells during future transplantations.

"Allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation is currently the only available treatment that offers patients a realistic chance of recovery from chemotherapy-resistant leukemias. If we are successful in optimizing this treatment and are able to largely stop the donor's lymphocytes attacking the recipient's healthy cells in their skin or intestines for example, then this would be a major advance in fighting leukemia," said Professor Wolfgang Herr, Director of the Stem Cell Transplantation program at the Department of Internal Medicine III at the Mainz University Medical Center, who also heads the Clinical Research Unit 183 on Optimized Allogeneic Lymphocyte Therapy.

When a donor's lymphocytes are transferred during stem cell transplantation, this is often accompanied by a so-called graft versus leukemia (GvL) effect. This effect is crucial for reducing the risk of the recurrence of leukemia. In the allogeneic stem cell technique, what happens is that the leukemia patient's own hematopoietic cells are first destroyed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. During the subsequent transplantation of hematopoietic stem cells, a new hematopoietic system is then supplied from a donor with matching tissue characteristics. The lymphocytes produced by the donor's immune system then recognize and destroy the leukemia cells still present in the patient's body. At the same time, the so-called graft versus host disease (GvHD) often develops when the donor's lymphocytes are transplanted. This effect means that the donor's lymphocytes attack the healthy tissues of the patient's weakened body.

"Our primary aim is to improve donor lymphocyte therapy to the point that the occurrence of GvHD can be practically ruled out. In addition, we want to improve the patient's immunity to infection through the graft versus infection (GvI) effect," emphasized Herr.

The Chief Scientific Director of the Mainz University Medical Center, Professor Reinhard Urban, is convinced that the team led by Professor Wolfgang Herr will be able to achieve significant progress in the field of leukemia treatment: "I share the view of the German Research Foundation that it will be readily possible to apply the highly relevant research results to clinical practice." Moreover, according to Urban, the trail-blazing efforts of the Clinical Research Unit 183 are also relevant to other fields of transplantation and tumor immunology.