GVHD Research at Fred Hutch

About Graft-vs.-host disease (GVHD)

GVHD is a frequent and sometimes serious complication of bone marrow and stem cell transplants, which are used to treat some cancers of the blood and immune system.

GVHD symptoms can range from a mild rash to serious and life-threatening damage to the skin and internal organs. The condition occurs when transplanted immune cells from a donor react against the tissue of a transplant recipient.

Decades of research at Fred Hutch have led to new approaches that can lower the risk of GVHD and decrease its severity. Yet despite these advances, nearly 60 percent of transplant recipients still face GVHD. About 20 to 30 percent of these cases are serious enough to endanger survival or cause lasting disability.

Today, transplants are still the best option for many patients, but they still carry strong risks. Fred Hutch is working to make them safer and more effective.

The Nils Berggren GVHD Prevention and Treatment Endowment Fund at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center supports scientists working to understand, prevent, and stop graft-vs.-host disease.

Fred Hutch Researchers are Aggressively Pursuing GVHD

With support from the Nils Berggren Fund and other sources, scientists at Fred Hutch are working across disciplines and divisions to stop both acute and chronic GVHD so that powerful treatments can save lives. For example:

  • For nearly 30 years, Dr. Effie Wang Petersdorf has been at the forefront of research on how genetic factors influence the success of transplants. Her research has identified parts of a genome that are responsible for triggering GVHD with the goal of finding treatments to mitigate their effects. Learn more.
  • Dr. Mary Flowers is overseeing two clinical trials for treatment of a type of chronic GVHD that affects the skin and eyes after transplantation with donated stem cells. Learn more.
  • Dr. Geoffrey Hill created a first-of-its kind animal model for GVHD that has allowed his team to unravel the signals between immune cells that cause chronic forms of the disease. His globally recognized research is providing more clarity on the progression of GVHD and on ways to fight it. Learn more.
  • Dr. Stephanie Lee directs Fred Hutch’s Long-Term Follow-Up program and the multi-institute GVHD Consortium. Among other efforts, her research is helping to separate the mechanisms of stem cell and bone marrow transplants that fight cancer from those that can cause GVHD — helping to reduce risk without compromising the treatments’ tumor-fighting ability. Learn more.
  • Dr. Steven Pergam’s own experiences with cancer treatment inform his work as a leading expert in infection control. As part of his work, he studies how each person’s unique microbiome (the ecosystem of bacteria in the body), combined with diet, can affect response to GVHD treatment. Learn more.
  • Dr. Marie Bleakley is researching a breakthrough approach that removes certain GVHD-causing immune cells from donated stems cells before transplantation. Now in clinical trials, this innovative approach has the potential to dramatically improve safety and survival. Learn more.

Nils’ Story

Nils Berggren battled GVHD from March 2013, when he received a lymphoma-beating stem cell transplant, until his death in February 2014 at age 14. Nils died from the devastating effects of GVHD, which can include chronic and acute inflammation of tissues in most organs. Despite his suffering, he kept his spirits up and inspired thousands of people around the world. Most of all, Nils wanted to help his doctors better understand this terrible and potentially deadly disease. The Nils Berggren GVHD Prevention and Treatment Endowment Fund strives to accomplish Nils' dream by funding the powerful science at Fred Hutch that is necessary to prevent and end this disease.

About Fred Hutch

The mission of Fred Hutch is the elimination of cancer and related diseases as causes of human suffering and death. The Hutch conducts research of the highest standards to improve prevention and treatment of cancer and related diseases. 

Additional GVHD Resources