ONCOLOGY

Andrew Harris, M.D., is fighting graft vs. host disease at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital for the second time. The first time, he was a teenage patient who received a bone marrow transplant from his sister. Today he is a pediatric oncologist.

The Good Fight

A lifetime battle against graft vs. host disease

issue 18 | spring/summer 2013

Andrew Harris was a physically fit, 19-year-old college student and captain of his semi-professional soccer team. So he was surprised when he found himself having to stop to catch his breath with just a little exertion.

With his shocking diagnosis — acute myeloid leukemia — he began what has become a lifetime battle against the disease. The Ohio native checked into C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan, where his treatment began. After chemotherapy treatments did not work, Harris learned he needed a bone marrow transplant. His sister donated the bone marrow, but Harris soon had to tackle another roadblock: graft vs. host disease, in which the transplanted immune cells attacked his body's cells.

"But all through it, I thought, if I survive this, I want to come back and do something with my life to make this better," says Harris.

HARRIS JOINS THE TEAM

He was true to his word. Harris got his M.D. and now works on the pediatric cancer team at the same hospital where he was treated, with the same doctors who gave him his bone marrow transplant in 1998.

He's studying the disease he beat: graft vs. host disease, a leading cause of death for kids who have had bone marrow transplants. In summer 2012, the Hyundai Hope on Wheels program provided Harris with a $250,000 grant to study graft vs. host disease in children who have had bone marrow transplants. "We want to see if we can stop this disease in its tracks," says Harris, who today is father to three children and remains an avid soccer player.

"Without this grant, this study would not happen. It is the first national study looking at whether we can predict which kids are likely to get graft vs. host disease."

A COMPLICATION TOO COMMON

Graft vs. host disease often develops in bone marrow transplant patients, and it is deadly.

About half of the people who get bone marrow transplants get graft vs. host disease, and about 30-to-40 percent of them don't respond well to therapy. Unfortunately, some of those patients die. Those who get immunosuppression drug therapy can face side effects from other life-threatening diseases.

At U-M, Harris and his research partners have collected a biorepository of more than 2,000 blood samples with matched clinical data. By studying the blood biomarkers, they have developed a promising working model for predicting which children are most likely to develop graft vs. host disease. Harris hopes to move this effort to a clinical trial soon, possibly with a pre-emptive trial at U-M.

A MATHEMATICAL MODEL

Harris is also working toward a universal mathematical model that can work at other centers. He hopes to collect samples from around the world, and is working on that effort through the Children's Oncology Group, the world's largest organization devoted exclusively to childhood and adolescent cancer research. He is also working on establishing a new international consortium dedicated to GVHD research. Just recently, researchers from Thailand visited C.S. Mott Children's Hospital to learn about how to get involved with the research.

The challenge is that hospitals perform bone marrow transplants differently or use post-transplant drugs differently, all of which affect the blood levels and proteins used to predict the graft vs. host disease, Harris says.

Gaining the largest, most diverse sample set possible will help create that universal test that can be used in real time in a clinical setting. "We hope this research will help us develop the tests that can prevent and more effectively treat graft vs. host disease, making bone marrow transplantation safer and more effective for patients who need this therapy," Harris says. "We've been pleased with our success so far and are hopeful that better testing can be developed."

Also In This Article:

Find out why Andrew Harris, M.D., was nominated as Man of the Year for the LLS by one of his young patients.