Research is a vital component to the world-class cancer care available at John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center. Research elevates John Theurer Cancer Center from a regional leader to a center for world-class cancer care. Basic research studies are conducted to learn more about the molecular structure and activities of cancer cells. Translational and clinical research studies test new medications, treatment methods, devices, and treatment regimens for their safety and efficacy.

At John Theurer Cancer Center, basic research studies by cancer researcher Robert Korngold, Ph.D. are centering on the basic biology of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a common and potentially fatal side effect of stem cell transplantation. GVHD can develop after allogeneic stem cell transplantation. It occurs when T cells – a type of disease-fighting white blood cell – that are transferred along with the donated stem cells stage an immune response to the “foreign” antigens expressed on tissues of most organs in the patient’s body. The T cells attack the patient’s body and can cause problems of the skin, gastrointestinal tract, liver, eyes, and oral mucosa.

At John Theurer Cancer Center, Dr. Korngold and his team are among the leading researchers in the country in GVHD. They are conducting studies to learn more about how GVHD occurs and what can be done to eliminate or diminish its risk in stem cell transplant patients. They are responsible for some of the major discoveries in this field in the past 25 years, including the finding in 1979 by Dr. Korngold that T cells cause GVHD. This groundbreaking research and other studies have led to improvements in the stem cell transplantation process. Dr. Korngold is also investigating how the power of disease-fighting T cells can be harnessed to attack cancerous leukemic and myeloma cells. This project involves using a technique called V-beta spectratyping to identify which T cells may damage patients with GVHD and which T cells may actually help patients by fighting cancerous leukemic and myeloma cells. Dr. Korngold has already successfully used V-beta spectratyping in mouse models to analyze the beneficial T cell response on leukemic cells. They are now completing these studies and also investigating the T cell response on multiple myeloma cells, with an eye toward translating this pre-clinical research with mouse models and cultured human cells into clinical studies with humans afflicted with leukemia and multiple myeloma. Being able to differentiate between T cells that harm patients and those that help patients may some day assist scientists in tempering the GVHD response by donated T cells and may result in “designer” allogeneic stem cell transplants for each specific type of cancer and individual patient who needs to be treated. Their research is funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and its National Heart, Lung, and Institute and the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.

An innovative therapy for GVHD is under investigation in clinical trials by Michele L. Donato, M.D., medical director of the blood and marrow collection facility. Dr. Donato is studying the use of photopheresis to treat autoimmune disorders, including GVHD in patients who have undergone stem cell transplantation. Photopheresis involves isolating T cells from the patient’s body, treating them with medications, and then exposing them to ultraviolet light. These engineered T cells are then reinfused back into the patient’s body. The treated T cells temper the immune system, without weakening it, and prevent it from being too aggressive toward the donated stem cells.

There are a large number of clinical trials taking place at John Theurer Cancer Center that are investigating ways to improve the stem cell transplantation process, including the use of reduced-intensity “mini” transplants for older patients and those too frail to undergo the rigors of standard stem cell transplantation. If you are scheduled to undergo a stem cell transplant, ask your physician about participating in one of these clinical trials. You can find a complete list of our clinical trials here.