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Chapel Hill, NC – Stefanie Sarantopoulos, MD, PhD, was recruited to UNC in 2009 with the help of the University Cancer Research Fund. Now she is a recipient of two grants that have helped establish her own laboratory to look into the causes of chronic Graft vs. Host Disease. Sarantopoulos is an Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology and Microbiology and Immunology and a member of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

A medical procedure called allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplantation, commonly known as a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, is the only known curative option for many patients with life-threatening blood-borne cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. According to the National Narrow Donor Program, the number of transplants performed in the United States doubled between 2005 and 2010 to more than 5200 a year. Since only identical twins have identical tissue types, doctors can often find a close match to the recipient’s tissues, but it is never perfect. In chronic Graft vs. Host Disease (GVHD), the differences between the donor bone marrow cells and the recipient’s body often cause these immune cells to recognize the recipient’s body tissues as foreign and the newly transplanted cells attack the transplant recipient’s body. Chronic GVHD can last a lifetime and affects patient survival. Symptoms can affect patient quality of life, ranging from dry eyes and dry mouth, hair loss and skin rashes to hepatitis and lung and digestive tract disorders.

A grant from the National Heart. Lung, and Blood Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health) will help Sarantopoulos and her mentors, Drs. Albert Baldwin and Jonathan Serody, look into key mechanisms that contribute to a complication called chronic GVHD, which affects between 30 and 70 percent of transplant patients. The project, which will bring more than $530,000 to UNC over 4 years, focuses on B-cells, a type of immune cell that makes antibodies. By understanding how B-cells are activated and contribute to chronic GVHD, Sarantopoulos hopes to develop potential targeted therapies.

In a second grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, Sarantopoulos will collaborate with Jonathan Serody, MD, Thomas distinguished Professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Professor of Medicine and a member of UNC Lineberger. The duo hopes to develop a therapy that will use a tumor vaccine strategy to boost the immune system’s “seek and destroy” mechanism for cancerous cells just after a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. The $443,000 grant over 3 years will help the pair complete the laboratory studies necessary to determine whether this strategy is viable and can be translated into humans.