‘Magic’ blood test could make bone marrow transplants for blood cancer safer

In collaboration with the Press Association

A blood test could help predict the risk of complication following a bone marrow transplant in some blood cancer patients, according to a new US study.

The test could help identify which patients given a transplant are likely to develop a potentially fatal complication, the researchers report in The Journal of Clinical Investigation Insight.

"The test worked in different hospitals and in different groups of patients in the US and Europe, suggesting that it could be used widely" – Professor Ronjon Chakraverty, Cancer Research UK

In doing so, the test could “allow early intervention and potentially save many lives”, said lead researcher Professor James Ferrara from Mount Sinai School of Medicine

Bone marrow transplants, in which a patient’s blood stem cells are replaced with those from a donor, are given to some patients with blood cancer to cure their disease. But around half of patients who receive the procedure develop a serious and often fatal complication called graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). 

This happens when the donated immune cells recognise the patient’s body as a threat and launch an attack against it, causing inflammation that sometimes doesn’t respond to treatment. 

For this latest study, researchers from 11 cancer centres in the US and Europe looked at blood samples from almost 1,300 bone marrow transplant patients to see if they could predict whether a patient will develop GVHD, and also their outlook.

They developed a test, called ‘MAGIC’ (Mount Sinai Acute GVHD International Consortium), looked at four different molecules in the blood. The researchers found that measuring the levels of two of these molecules – ST2 and REG3a – just one week after the transplant procedure, could help identify those at high risk of developing the complication and dying. 

Researchers at Mount Sinai are now using these results to design clinical trials looking into whether certain immunotherapy drugs, normally given at the onset of GVHD, could improve the outlook for some patients if given earlier on, after the test identifies them as high risk. 

Professor Ronjon Chakraverty, a Cancer Research UK expert on stem cell transplants, said: “This study reveals that a blood test performed just one week following a bone marrow transplant accurately identifies which patients are at the greatest risk of this life-threatening condition. 

“Importantly, the test worked in different hospitals and in different groups of patients in the US and Europe, suggesting that it could be used widely. Tests such as this could spot patients who are most at risk, and make sure they get special targeted treatment before GVHD develops.”

References

Hartwell, M. J. et al. (2017). An early-biomarker algorithm predicts lethal graft-versus-host disease and survival. JCI Insight.