The use of autologous stem cell transplants to treat blood cancer may age patients’ immune cells by up to 30 years, a new study indicates.
Researchers in the US found clues that suggest the treatment, which relies on a patient’s own stem cells, leads to a “marked increase” in the molecular age of white blood cells.
A team at the University of North Carolina tracked a molecular marker previously shown to increase in the disease-fighting cells as people age.
A spokesperson said in a statement: “[Patients who had undergone the treatment] had elevated levels of expression of messenger RNA (mRNA), a type of genetic code used to make proteins, for this age-related marker.
“Strikingly, [the scientists] found expression levels increased to a degree comparable to an additional 30 years of chronological age.”
Autologous stem cell transplants use a reverse of a patient’s own stem cells to regenerate healthy, non-cancerous blood cells.
The scientists also found a higher expression of mRNA coding in patients who received stem-cells from donors, known as allogenic transplants. But the increase was less marked.
“We know that transplant is life-prolonging, and in many cases, it’s life-saving, for many patients with blood cancers and other disorders,” said the study’s lead author William Wood, MD, an associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine Division of Hematology and Oncology.
“At the same time, we’re increasingly recognizing that survivors of transplant are at risk for long-term health problems, and so there is interest in determining what markers may exist to help predict risk for long-term health problems, or even in helping choose which patients are best candidates for transplantation.”
The scientists hope their findings will pave the way for research into how the age marker can help doctors “better quantify a patient’s potential risk and benefit associated with a stem cell transplant”.
Wood added: “A measure of biological age could help us to identify appropriate older candidates who might have previously been excluded from transplant.
“On the other hand, there are other, potentially younger patients who may be less physiologically fit because of prior treatment or comorbid illness, for whom transplant carries increased risks.”
The scientists suggested that autologous stem cell transplants age certain T-cells due to a combination of chemotherapy prior to the transplant and the forced regeneration of bone marrow that comes with the procedure.
It’s estimated that 230,000 people are currently living with blood cancer in the UK, yet many people don’t know the symptoms.
Reta Brownlow, head of patient services at Bloodwise, told the HuffPost UK Lifestyle:
“The most common signs and symptoms are severe tiredness, overwhelming fatigue, night sweats or fevers, bruising or bleeding, persistent infections that don’t seem to go away, weight loss when you’re not trying to lose weight, painless lumps in your neck and bone pain.”
She said it can be difficult to spot because the symptoms could be linked to conditions such as flu, but that anyone experiencing these symptoms without an obvious cause should seek medical advice.
Brownlow offered the example of someone who isn’t menopausal having nightsweats.
Read HuffPost UK Lifestyle’s blood cancer explainer here.
Anyone concerned about blood cancer should talk to a health care professional or call the Bloodwise helpline on 0808 2080888.