A drug called maraviroc is normally used to treat Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infections, but work at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that maraviroc redirects the trafficking of immune cells. The significance of these results are profound for transplant patients, since a drug like maraviroc can potentially reduce the incidence of graft-versus-host disease in cancer patients who have received allogeneic (from someone else) stem cell transplantation (ASCT). This research, which was conducted at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, was presented at the 53rd American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting.
Graft-versus-host disease or GvHD occurs as complication after a stem cell or bone marrow transplant. During GvHD, the newly transplanted cells recognize the recipient’s body as foreign and mount an attack against it. Acute cases of GvHD usually occur within the first 3 months after the transplant. Chronic GvHD usually starts more than 3 months after the transplant. GvHD rates vary from 30 – 40% among related bone marrow or stem cells donors and from 60 – 80% between unrelated donors and recipients. The greater the degree of immunological mismatches between the donor and the recipient, the greater the risk of GvHD. After a transplant, the recipient usually takes a battery of drugs that suppress the immune system. These drug treatments help reduce the chances or severity of GvHD.
Standard treatments for GvHD suppress the immune system. Commonly used medicines include methotrexate, cyclosporine, tacrolimus, sirolimus, ATG (Antithymocyte globulin), and alemtuzumab either alone or in combination. High-dose corticosteroids are the most effective treatment for acute GVHD. Antibodies to T cells and other medicines are given to patients who do not respond to steroids. Chronic GvHD treatments include prednisone, (a steroid) with or without cyclosporine. Other treatments include mycophenolate mofetil (CellCept), sirolimus (Rapamycin), and tacrolimus (Prograf). These treatments, if given during the course of the stem cell or bone marrow transplant, reduce but do not eliminate the risk of developing GvHD.
In the current trial, treatment with maraviroc dramatically reduced the incidence of GvHD in organs where it is most dangerous (liver, GI tract, lung, skin — without compromising the immune system and leaving patients more vulnerable to severe infections.
Assistant professor in the division of Hematology-Oncology and a member of the Hematologic Malignancies Research Program at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, Ran Reshef, commented: “There hasn’t been a change to the standard of care for GvHD since the late 1980s, so we’re very excited about these results, which exceeded our expectations. Until now, we thought that only extreme suppression of the immune system can get rid of GvHD, but in this approach we are not killing immune cells or suppressing their activity, we are just preventing them from moving into certain sensitive organs that they could harm.”
Reshef and colleagues presented results showing that maraviroc is safe and feasible in stem cell transplant patients who have received stem cells from a healthy donor. A brief course of the drug led to a 73% reduction in severe GvHD in the first six months after transplant, compared with a matched control group treated at Penn during the same time period (6% who received maraviroc developed severe GvHD vs. 22% of other patients receiving standard drug regimens).
Reshef explained, “Just like in real estate, immune responses are all about location, location, location. Cells of the immune system don’t move around the body in a random way. There is a very distinct and well-orchestrated process whereby cells express particular receptors on their surface that allows them to respond to small proteins called chemokines. The chemokines direct the immune cells to specific organs, where they are needed, or in the case of GvHD, to where they cause damage.”
Thirty-eight patients with blood cancers, including acute myeloid leukemia, myelodysplastic syndrome, lymphoma, myelofibrosis, and others, enrolled in the phase I/II trial. All patients received the standard GvHD prevention drugs tacrolimus and methotrexate, plus a 33-day course of maraviroc that began two days before transplant. In the first 100 days after transplant, none of the patients treated with maraviroc developed GvHD in the gut or liver. By contrast, 12.5% of patients in the control group developed GvHD in the gut and 8.3 percent developed it in the liver within 100 days of their transplant.
The differential impact of maraviroc on those organs indicates that the drug is working as expected, by limiting the movement of T lymphocytes to specific organs in the body. Maraviroc works by blocking the CCR5 receptor on the surfaces of lymphocytes. This prevents the lymphocytes from trafficking to certain organs. Maraviroc did not affect GvHD rates in the skin, which might mean that the CCR5 receptor is more important for sending lymphocytes into the liver and the gut than the skin.
After 180 days, the benefit of maraviroc appeared to be partially sustained in patients and the cumulative incidence of gut GvHD rose to 8.8% and the rates of liver GvHD rose only to 2.9%. The cumulative incidence of GvHD in the control group, however, remained higher, at 28.4% for gut and 14.8% for liver GvHD. Based on these data, the research team plans to try a longer treatment regimen with maraviroc to see if longer exposures to maraviroc can its protective effect.
Additionally, maraviroc treatment appeared to neither increase treatment-related toxicities nor alter the relapse rate of their underlying disease. Clearly this drug shows promise for limiting the devastating effects of GvHD in stem transplant patients.