Labs and Research

Gut microbiome treatments for GvHD show early promise

January 2, 2024

Over half of all stem cell transplant patients will experience some form of graft versus host disease (GvHD), a condition where donated cells start mistakenly attacking the patient’s body, which can be deadly in some cases. Finding new ways to reduce severe GvHD is a major aim for many researchers who are seeking to improve outcomes for patients.

Ongoing clinical trials are currently exploring the potential of ‘faecal microbiota transfer,’ also known as faecal, stool or poo transplants, as a way of fighting gastrointestinal GvHD.

Scientists have known for a long time that the bacteria in your gut, and specifically the mixture of good vs bad bacteria, can have a huge impact on your health. Since these bacteria can massively impact the function of your immune system, it’s no wonder they’re important in stem cell transplants too.

Previous research has shown that a patients’ particular composition of gut bacteria, known as their ‘microbiome,’ can significantly affect the severity of gastrointestinal GvHD after a stem cell transplant, and can even affect survival rates. Doctors have been increasingly concerned about this considering a stem cell transplant often involves high-strength medicines that dramatically impact the communities of bacteria in the gut.

There have been various approaches to developing new techniques to avoid harming patients’ gut bacteria, but one of the most promising has been faecal transplants. For this, patients are given a carefully curated batch of healthy bacteria from a group of donors, which ideally start to grow in the patient’s gut, helping to control their new immune system so they’re less likely to develop severe GvHD.

Currently, several of these faecal transplants are in clinical trials, with promising results so far. We’ll have to wait a while longer until we can confirm that this kind of treatment is safe and effective, but all the evidence so far suggests that patients with healthier gut microbiomes are likely to have better outcomes.

“It’s exciting to imagine a future where clinicians can use innovative methods to protect and restore the gut microbiome to help manage gastrointestinal GvHD after stem cell transplant. We’re closely watching the results of these clinical trials and hope we will see more safe and effective GvHD treatments becoming available to patients.” – Yasmin Sheikh, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Anthony Nolan

Read a news report on one of these ongoing clinical trials here, or learn more about GvHD if you’re a patient or family member here.