Jan 26 2012

A $12 million, five-year grant is helping Texas Medical Center researchers improve the use of cord blood

Posted by Martin Smithmyer

A $12 million, five-year grant is helping Texas Medical Center researchers improve the use of cord blood – taken from the umbilical cord and placenta after a baby’s birth – to treat cancer patients.

The grant from the National Cancer Institute is funding cord-blood research at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and at the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital and The Methodist Hospital.

“Umbilical cord blood transplantation provides a life-saving option for hematologic cancer patients who need a blood stem-cell transplant but cannot be matched to a donor,” said Elizabeth Shpall, M.D., professor of stem-cell transplantation at MD Anderson.

Shpall is co-principal investigator on the grant along with Catherine Bollard, M.D., associate professor of pediatric hematology and oncology, immunology, and medicine at Baylor, and a member of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy.

Cord blood replenishes the different kinds of blood cells killed during the potent chemotherapy used to eliminate diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma – all forms of cancer. Even when a match is not perfect, cord blood can still be used because its immature immune cells are unlikely to attack the patient’s tissues.

Because cord blood does not have to be closely matched to the blood of the recipient, it’s possible to give cord blood to large numbers of patients, Bollard said.

“This is important for patients who cannot find a related donor or sibling,” she explained, “and especially for minority populations whose chances of finding a matched, unrelated donor on a bone-marrow transplant registry are very low. Cord blood transplantation is the only cure for many patients with cancers of the blood such as leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma.”

But co-investigator Shpall warned that there are not only advantages, but also disadvantages, to using cord blood.

“Units of cord blood are usually low-volume, which makes it difficult for the cells to grow in the patient,” she said. “That might mean that the transplant does not take.”

To expand the number of blood stem cells harvested from an umbilical cord, Shpall is working with Paul Simmons, Ph.D., on a technique that grows umbilical cord blood stem cells on a bed of supportive stem cells called mesenchymal stromal cells discovered by Simmons, who is an adjunct professor at MD Anderson and former director of the Center for Stem Cell Research at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. A clinical trial of the use of these cells in transplantation is under way.

And Bollard, with her MD Anderson colleagues, has developed a method to expand cord blood T-cells that are trained to kill the viruses that can infect patients after transplant. A clinical trial of this approach is also taking place now.

The researchers also will study the use of cord blood-derived T-cells that target leukemia and lymphoma to prevent relapse after cord blood transplantation.

“These are all major hurdles we are trying to overcome,” Bollard said, “in an effort to treat larger numbers of adult and childhood patients.”

Republished from contributions from Scott Merville at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Gale Smith at The Methodist Hospital and Christy Brunton at Texas Children’s Hospital.

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