WEDNESDAY, Nov. 30, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Preliminary research suggests that a drug typically used to kickstart the immune system may help cancer patients who receive stem cell transplants and then develop a potentially deadly side effect.
The drug appears to work by preventing the donor's immune system cells from overreacting to their new home and causing systemic inflammation.
Researchers found that daily low-dose injections of interleukin-2 appeared to help some patients by treating the side effect, known as graft-versus-host disease (GVHD).
Stem cell transplants can treat blood cancers such as leukemia. "More than half of patients who successfully undergo hematopoietic stem cell transplants [in which the blood-making tissue in the bone marrow is wiped out with chemotherapy and replaced with blood-forming stem cells from a donor] develop chronic GVHD," study author Dr. John Koreth, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said in an institute news release. "The conventional treatment, glucocorticoids, are limited in their effectiveness and can produce significant side effects."
GVHD is "a big problem," said Dr. Gary Schiller, director of the Hematological Malignancies/Stem Cell Transplantation Unit at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Schiller was not involved with the study.
In the study, 12 of 23 patients who took the drug for eight weeks showed improvement in symptoms related to GVHD, including skin rash and other skin problems, hepatitis and inflamed lungs. The condition didn't worsen while the patients took the drug.
The study is the first phase of three stages of research that drug treatments must undergo before the federal government approves them to treat specific conditions. That means the findings are preliminary and may not be replicated in future research.
Schiller said the findings make sense. However, the treatment "has no impact, to my knowledge, on curing cancer. It only has an impact on decreasing the complications of the cancer cure."
The study, published in the Dec. 1 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, was funded by several research grants and awards.
For more about stem cells, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.