You are here

New Cell Treatment Shows Promise in Curing a Deadly Side Effect of Stem Cell Transplants

A new study appearing in STEM CELLS Translational Medicine demonstrates the promise of a type of cell found in the placenta in helping those suffering from painful and life-threatening severe acute graft-versus-host disease (GvHD). GvHD occurs in up to 70 percent of patients who have undergone a stem cell transplant to treat a disease such as leukemia, using cells other than their own. GvHD develops because the donor's immune cells attack the patient's normal cells.

While steroids are used to prevent or lessen the effects of GvHD, some patients don’t respond to them and researchers are continually seeking new and better ways to treatGvHD. More than a decade ago, a team from Karolinska Institute, near Stockholm, Sweden, looked at mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) as a possible solution. Despite promising initial results, long-term overall survival of the patients tested was no better than those in the control group.

In this latest study, the same team of researchers, led by Olle Ringdén, M.D., Ph.D., wanted to see if decidua stromal cells (DSCs) might offer relief. These cells differ from the mesenchymal stromal cells used in the earlier study as they are collected from the placenta rather than bone marrow.

“There were a couple of things that led us to be curious about this,” Dr. Ringdén said. “First, placenta plays an important role in helping the mother’s body tolerate the developing fetus and, second, placenta has been used in Africa for 100 years to successfully treat burn injuries. This speaks somewhat to its effectiveness and safety. We also found that placenta-derived DSCs are immunosuppressive in vitro and in vivo, which led us to wonder if they might cure severe acute GvHD,” he added.

To test their theory, the team conducted a small clinical trial involving 38 patients who were in danger of dying from GvHD, including 25 who were not responding to steroid treatments. One group of 17 patients was given higher doses of the DSCs, but fewer overall treatments than a second group of 21 patients. One year later, the second group had a 76 percent survival rate versus the first group’s 47 percent. Both DSC-treated groups did much better than a control group of patients receiving bone marrow-derived MSCs, whose survival rate was 20 percent. Even the patients who didn’t respond to steroids seemed to respond to the DSCs – their one-year survival rate was 31 percent for those in Group 1 and 73 percent in Group 2.

“Collectively, we think these data demonstrate that DSCs are a promising treatment for severe acute GvHD. But it was a small patient group, so to further assess safety and efficacy a larger, prospective trial will be necessary,” Dr. Ringdén said. “If an effective therapy for severe acute GvHD is indeed found and validated, it will increase the usefulness of stem cell transplantation with a possible broadening of indications.”

“These findings are especially exciting because there has been no effective therapy for severe acute graft-versus-host disease,” said Anthony Atala, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of STEM CELLS Translational Medicine and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “Of course, additional, larger studies will be needed, but these early results are certainly promising.”

The full article, “Placenta-derived decidua stromal cells for treatment of severe acute graft-versus-host disease,” can be accessed at


About STEM CELLS Translational Medicine: STEM CELLS Translational Medicine (SCTM), published by AlphaMed Press, is a monthly peer-reviewed publication dedicated to significantly advancing the clinical utilization of stem cell molecular and cellular biology. By bridging stem cell research and clinical trials, SCTM will help move applications of these critical investigations closer to accepted best practices. SCTM is the the official journal partner of Regenerative Medicine Foundation.

About AlphaMed Press: Established in 1983, AlphaMed Press with offices in Durham, NC, San Francisco, CA, and Belfast, Northern Ireland, publishes two other internationally renowned peer-reviewed journals: STEM CELLS® (, celebrating its 36th year, is the world's first journal devoted to this fast paced field of research. The Oncologist® (, also a monthly peer-reviewed publication, entering its 23rd year, is devoted to community and hospital-based oncologists and physicians entrusted with cancer patient care. All three journals are premier periodicals with globally recognized editorial boards dedicated to advancing knowledge and education in their focused disciplines.

About Wiley: Wiley, a global company, helps people and organizations develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. Our online scientific, technical, medical and scholarly journals, combined with our digital learning, assessment and certification solutions, help universities, learned societies, businesses, governments and individuals increase the academic and professional impact of their work. For more than 200 years, we have delivered consistent performance to our stakeholders. The company's website can be accessed at