Disease relapse is a significant cause of treatment failure after allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HCT). In the setting of reduced-intensity conditioning (RIC), a graft-versus-leukemia (GVL) effect is critical for successful outcomes in patients with advanced myeloid malignancies. A GVL effect has been attributed in part to donor-derived alloreactive natural killer (NK) cells, which are regulated by interaction of KIRs with their HLA-class I ligands. Several models of NK reactivity (missing KIR ligand, centromeric haplotype-B content, non-tolerized KIR2DS1) have been associated with improved outcomes following HLA-matched, HLA-mismatched, related, and unrelated donor HCT, particularly for AML patients given myeloablative conditioning. The effect of KIR-HLA combinations on outcomes after RIC HCT, however, is not known. We retrospectively analyzed donor-recipient KIR/HLA genotypes from 929 URD HCTs facilitated by the National Marrow Donor Program for patients with AML (n=624) or MDS (n=305) treated with RIC between 1990 and 2007. 664 donor-recipient pairs were 10/10 HLA-matched and 265 were 9/10 HLA-matched. 332 (37%) patients received ATG and 73 (8%) received alemtuzumab. P-values less than 0.01 were considered significant. We hypothesized that donor-recipient KIR-HLA interactions may be associated with improved post-transplant outcomes following RIC HCT for AML and MDS. Patients lacking the HLA-Bw4 ligand for donor inhibitory KIR3DL1 experienced lower relapse following HCT at 1 year (27 vs 36%, p=0.002) and 5 years (31 vs 42%, p=0.003) compared to patients with the Bw4 ligand (Figure). The lower risk for relapse was confirmed in multivariate analysis (HR 0.71, p=0.005). However, there was no significant association of Bw4 ligand with disease-free survival (HR 0.84, p=0.05) and overall survival (HR=0.97, p=0.70). Risk for acute GVHD was higher among patients lacking KIR ligands after adjusting for other clinical factors. In particular, patients lacking HLA-C2 for donor KIR2DL1 experienced higher grade 2-4 (HR 1.3, p=0.005) and 3-4 acute GVHD (HR 1.5, p=0.002), and patients lacking multiple KIR ligands experienced higher grade 3-4 acute GVHD (HR 1.5, p=0.007). The analysis was then restricted to AML patients, the patient population with greatest reported KIR-HLA effects. Patients whose donors were KIR2DS1+ and HLA-C2C2 (n=33) had higher transplant-related mortality (TRM) (HR, 2.4, p=0.002) compared to all other patients. There was no significant effect of KIR2DS1 with HLA on relapse. In a multivariate analysis, lack of HLA-C2 in AML patients was associated with higher grade 2-4 (HR 1.4, p=0.002) and 3-4 acute GVHD (HR 1.5, p=0.01), and risk for grade 3-4 acute GVHD was higher in patients lacking multiple KIR ligands (HR 1.6, p=0.005). There were no significant associations between donor homozygosity for the centromeric B-haplotype (cenBB) or overall B-haplotype KIR content and RIC HCT outcomes.

Overall, these results suggest that in the RIC HCT setting, lack of Bw4 ligand for KIR3DL1 is associated with a lower risk of relapse for AML/MDS. This observation corroborates previous findings in myeloablative HCT transplants. Furthermore, tolerance of donor KIR2DS1 by HLA-C2C2 was associated with worse outcome, as manifested by higher TRM, in AML patients. In contrast, it appears that in RIC HCT homozygosity for the centromeric B-haplotype does not have a significant role in leukemia relapse. The associations of KIR ligands with acute GVHD were not previously observed suggesting that NK cell alloreactivity depends on multiple variables, including RIC. Further elucidation of the biology of NK cell alloreactivity in the RIC setting may provide guidance for future approaches to help optimize conditions for generating GVL reactions without GVHD and less TRM in this transplant population.

No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.