Henry Winter
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Scientists aim to reboot patients’ immune systems to boost bone marrow transplant recovery

Henry Winter
Posted by
21 Aug 2012

A team of Edinburgh scientists are aiming to harness and reboot the body’s own defence system in order to improve the safety of bone marrow transplants for older blood cancer patients.

The team, led by Professor Clare Blackburn at the University of Edinburgh, has been awarded £250,000 by the blood cancer charity Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research for their research into the thymus gland – a part of the immune system key to transplant recovery.

The thymus gland is where T cells, a type of immune system cell, develop.  These are used by the body to fight infections, meaning both the T cells and the thymus gland are of pivotal importance in the unceasing battle between the body and invading illnesses.

Despite its importance, the thymus is one of the first organs in the body to degenerate with age and can be further impaired by pre-transplant treatments.  Together these problems prevent some older patients from being treated with bone marrow transplants.

The aim of this research is to make these transplants a safer practice in such patients, allowing greater access to the treatment.

The team previously identified a way to ‘boost’ the activity of the thymus gland and will now further this research in hope of eventually applying their findings to older patients requiring a bone marrow transplant.

Professor Blackburn, of the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, said: “It is important to swiftly reinstate patients’ immune function following a bone marrow transplant and prevent further infection and illness.  We hope our findings will benefit this area of study and allow many patients a rapid and healthy recovery.” 

The team will study how successful their method of boosting thymus gland function is by using laboratory models of the condition.  They will also see if the method sustains the newly boosted immune function.

Professor Chris Bunce, Research Director at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said: “With bone marrow transplants being an important treatment for blood cancer patients there is a significant need for the practice to be improved and made safer for older patients.  This research addresses that need and, if successful, will be highly beneficial to this group of patients.”

You can read a fascinating 'behind the scenes' look at research in Professor Blackburn's laboratory here.