Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is a major cause of morbidity and mortality following allogeneic bone marrow transplantation (BMT). Because GVHD is frequently refractory to treatment, the early identification of high-risk patients could have significant clinical value. To identify such patients, we examined early immunologic recovery in 136 patients with hematologic malignancies who received anti-T12 (CD6)-purged allogeneic bone marrow over a 9-year period. The majority of patients received marrow from HLA-matched sibling donors after ablation with cyclophosphamide and total body irradiation. No patients received any immune suppressive medications for GVHD prophylaxis. The fraction and absolute numbers of peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) expressing the CD3, CD4, CD8, and CD56 surface antigens were determined weekly by immunofluorescence analysis in patients beginning 8 to 14 days (week 2) after marrow infusion. Results in patients who did or did not subsequently develop GVHD post-BMT were compared. Within 2 weeks of marrow infusion, patients who developed grades 2–4 GVHD had significantly higher percentages and absolute numbers of CD8+ T cells and a lower fraction of CD56+ natural killer (NK) cells than individuals who remained free of GVHD. Thirty-five percent of patients whose PBL were greater than 25% CD8+ in the second posttransplant week developed GVHD, compared with only 3% of patients who had < or = 25% CD8+ cells (odds ratio 37.8; 95% confidence interval [CI] 4.1 to 397). A subgroup of patients at very high risk for GVHD could be identified based on the combined frequency of CD8+ T cells and NK cells in blood. Seventy-five percent of patients with greater than 25% CD8+ cells and < or = 45% CD56+ cells during week 2 post-BMT developed GVHD, compared with only 11% of the remaining patients (odds ratio 24.9; 95% CI, 5.3 to 117.0). None of the 23 patients with both less than 25% CD8+ cells and greater than 45% CD56+ cells in the second posttransplant week developed grades 2–4 GVHD. Our findings indicate that CD8+ T cells play an important role in the pathogenesis of GVHD in humans. Analysis of immune reconstitution early after BMT is useful in predicting the onset of GVHD and can help direct the implementation of treatment strategies before the appearance of clinical manifestations. Such interventions may decrease the morbidity and mortality associated with allogeneic BMT and ultimately improve overall survival.

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