Every three minutes, someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma, or myeloma — which are cancers of the blood, bone marrow and lymph nodes.
Treatments for blood cancers often require hematopoietic stem cell transplants but such cells can launch a potentially deadly immunological attack on the patient’s organs called graft-vs-host disease (GVHD). With the help of a $2.75 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, UCF College of Medicine researcher Hung Nguyen is examining how diet — particularly fat — affects GVHD in transplant patients.
The disease comes in two forms. Acute GVHD usually occurs shortly after the transplant and can cause liver and digestive issues, a painful rash and even organ failure. Chronic GVHD can manifest months or years after the procedure. Symptoms vary among patients and can range from mild, such as dry eyes and fatigue, to irreversible organ damage. The condition can quickly advance from mild to severe in some chronic patients.
“Although life expectancy for patients with these cancers has increased with the help of donor stem cell transplantation, it’s not without risk,” says Nguyen. “When the donor cells perceive the recipients’ organs as foreign, chronic graft-versus-host disease develops.”
Previous studies have shown that diets containing high levels of long chain fatty acids such as fat, olive oil, soybean oil, etc. have been known to increase infections, length of hospital stays, respiratory distress syndrome and systemic inflammation in GVHD patients. Because of that, Nguyen is taking a closer look at the role of fatty acids in inflammation and transplant rejection.
His team will study how medium chain fatty acid foods — such as coconut oil and avocados — affect the metabolism of donor cells of patients with chronic GVHD. He believes that a dietary approach to treatment could reduce or prevent the inflammatory reaction and lessen the patient’s need for corticosteroids, which have had limited success at preventing permanent organ damage.
“The goal of our current research project is to understand how medium chain fatty acid metabolism influences GVHD severity and mortality,” he said.
Blood cancers make up about 10% of the nation’s diagnosed cancers each year.
Nguyen’s highly competitive R01 grant provides funding for five years from the NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. He is collaborating with Stephanie Lee at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle and Nosha Farhadfar at the University of Florida.