NEWS | October 24, 2014

Anti-cancer drug found effective against common stem cell transplant complication


Researchers at UC Davis have found that the drug bortezomib effectively treats chronic graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a common and debilitating side effect from allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplants. The trial showed that bortezomib provides better outcomes than existing treatments and does not impair the immune response against residual cancer cells, or the graft-versus-tumor effect (GVT).

“Bortezomib helped a group of patients who desperately needed a treatment, having failed multiple different therapies,” said UC Davis hematologist and associate professor Mehrdad Abedi, lead author on the paper. “The drug fights chronic graft-versus host disease, and unlike other GVHD therapies such as steroid, cyclosporine or mycophenolate, it treats chronic GVHD without dampening the graft-versus-tumor effect, which can be critically important to help patients avoid relapse. In fact, because bortezomib is an anti-cancer drug, it potentially attacks cancer cells in its own right.”

The trial results were published in October in the journal Blood.

Chronic GVHD strikes patients who have received stem cell transplants from donors, commonly called allogeneic transplants. Although the transplants are close matches, they are not identical, and donor cells can attack the recipient, damaging skin, lungs, kidneys and other organs, which can be life threatening.

Developed by Millennium Pharmaceuticals, bortezomib has been used to treat multiple myeloma, leukemia and lymphoma. The drug also has been studied against acute GVHD, making it a promising option against the chronic version of the disease.

The researchers first studied bortezomib in mice, in which the drug delivered excellent results.

The investigation, in collaboration with William Murphy, professor and acting chair of the Department of Dermatology and a co-senior author, found that bortezomib suppresses the donor immune cells that cause GVHD.

“We then tested this concept in patients with chronic GVHD in collaboration with members of our bone marrow transplant team, hematologist-oncologists Carol Richman and Joseph Tuscano,” Abedi said. “Almost all the patients who tolerated and remained on the treatment responded. In some cases, individual responses were quite dramatic. We were able to stop their other immunosuppressive medications and keep the patients under control with just weekly injections of bortezomib.”

Abedi added that one patient had severe hemolytic anemia that did not respond to several lines of therapy.

“After receiving bortezomib, the patient’s symptoms improved, and we were able to take her completely off steroid and other immunosuppressive medications,” he said. “Another person had multiple ulcers, which completely healed. These were patients who had been on all different kinds of medications and had no response.”

Research is continuing on bortezomib against chronic GVHD. Abedi and colleagues are now looking at a potential oral version of the drug and a similar agent, which would alleviate the need for weekly injections and could have fewer side effects.

Other authors included: Chien-Chun Steven Pai, Mingyi Chen, Annie Mirsoian, Steven K. Grossenbacher, Joseph Tellez, Erik Ames and Jared Jagdeo at the UC Davis School of Medicine; Kai Sun at the Institute of Hematology, Zhengzhou University People’s Hospital; and Bruce R. Blazar at the Division of Blood and Marrow Transplantation, University of Minnesota.

This research was funded by National Cancer Institute grant R01CA102282 and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases grants P01 AI056299, P01 CA142106 and P01 AI 056299. The study also received funding from Millennium.

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center
UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated center serving the Central Valley and inland Northern California, a region of more than 6 million people. Its specialists provide compassionate, comprehensive care for more than 10,000 adults and children every year, and access to more than 150 clinical trials at any given time. Its innovative research program engages more than 280 scientists at UC Davis, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Jackson Laboratory (JAX West), whose scientific partnerships advance discovery of new tools to diagnose and treat cancer. Through the Cancer Care Network, UC Davis collaborates with a number of hospitals and clinical centers throughout the Central Valley and Northern California regions to offer the latest cancer care. Its community-based outreach and education programs address disparities in cancer outcomes across diverse populations. For more information, visit