College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine

Bid to aid transplant cancer patients

Organ transplant patients who develop cancer may be helped by a treatment that uses blood cells to attack their tumour.

University researchers have generated a bank of white blood cells from healthy blood donors to treat patients with a blood cancer called post transplant lymphoproliferative disease (PTLD).

The study found that patients treated with these blood cells - called ‘killer’ T cells - remained free from the cancer for up to nine years following treatment.

Organ transplants and cancer

PTLD is associated with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a herpes virus that is carried by more than 90 per cent of the population and better known for causing glandular fever.

In most individuals the virus does not cause any illness but it can cause tumours in transplant patients.

This is because their immune systems are heavily suppressed to prevent rejection of the transplanted organ.

Up to 10 per cent of transplant patients may develop the cancer in the first few years following transplant and around 50 per cent of those will die even with standard treatment.

'Killer' T Cells

T cells are a type of white blood cell that patrol the body identifying and killing virus infected cells.

A team at the University's Centre for Infectious Diseases grew T cells in the laboratory and gave them to PTLD patients for one month.

The T cells were programmed to find and kill the virus-infected tumour cells to reduce or eradicate the tumour.

The Trial

A total of 33 PTLD patients who had not responded to standard treatments were treated in a Cancer Research UK-funded trial.

Around half the treated patients showed a good response after six months.

This latest study shows that 90 per cent of those who responded initially have remained cancer free for between four and nine years.

The long term survival rate was significantly better in the six month responder group compared to the six month non-responder group.

Our results are very encouraging and show that not only are our cells effective in the short term but that they can also induce a long term remission of PTLD in patients with more unmanageable disease.

Dr Tanzina HaqueLead researcher, now of Royal Free Hospital, UCL Medical School

The Edinburgh researchers in conjunction with the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service have obtained translational funding from the Wellcome Trust to make a new bank of ‘killer’ T cells that will become available for use on a not-for-profit basis in the next few years.

The research is published in the journal Transplantation.