According to the 1959 Billingham Criteria, 3 criteria must be met in order for GVHD to occur.
After bone marrow transplantation, T cells present in the graft, either as contaminants or intentionally introduced into the host, attack the tissues of the transplant recipient after perceiving host tissues as antigenically foreign. The T cells produce an excess of cytokines, including TNF alpha and interferon-gamma (IFNg). A wide range of host antigens can initiate graft-versus-host-disease, among them the human leukocyte antigens (HLAs). However, graft-versus-host disease can occur even when HLA-identical siblings are the donors. HLA-identical siblings or HLA-identical unrelated donors often have genetically different proteins (called minor histocompatibility antigens) that can be presented by MHC molecules to the recipient's T-cells, which see these antigens as foreign and so mount an immune response.
While donor T-cells are undesirable as effector cells of graft-versus-host-disease, they are valuable for engraftment by preventing the recipient's residual immune system from rejecting the bone marrow graft (host-versus-graft). Additionally, as bone marrow transplantation is frequently used to treat cancer, mainly leukemias, donor T-cells have proven to have a valuable graft-versus-tumor effect. A great deal of current research on allogeneic bone marrow transplantation involves attempts to separate the undesirable graft-vs-host-disease aspects of T-cell physiology from the desirable graft-versus-tumor effect.
This distinction is not arbitrary: acute and chronic graft-versus-host-disease appear to involve different immune cell subsets, different cytokine profiles, somewhat different host targets, and respond differently to treatment.
Acute GVHD of the GI tract can result in severe intestinal inflammation, sloughing of the mucosal membrane, severe diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. This is typically diagnosed via intestinal biopsy. Liver GVHD is measured by the bilirubin level in acute patients. Skin GVHD results in a diffuse maculopapular rash, sometimes in a lacy pattern.
Acute GVHD is staged as follows: overall grade (skin-liver-gut) with each organ staged individually from a low of 1 to a high of 4. Patients with grade IV GVHD usually have a poor prognosis. If the GVHD is severe and requires intense immunosuppression involving steroids and additional agents to get under control, the patient may develop severe infections as a result of the immunosuppression and may die of infection.
This type of GVHD is associated with transfusion of un-irradiated blood to immunocompromised recipients. It can also occur in situations where the blood donor is homozygous and the recipient is heterozygous for an HLA haplotype. It is associated with higher mortality (80-90%) due to involvement of bone marrow lymphoid tissue, however the clinical manifestations are similar to GVHD resulting from bone marrow transplantation. Transfusion-associated GVHD is rare in modern medicine. It is almost entirely preventable by controlled irradiation of blood products to inactivate the white blood cells (including lymphocytes) within.
Intravenously administered corticosteroids, such as prednisone, are the standard of care in acute GVHD and chronic GVHD. The use of these corticosteroids is designed to suppress the T-cell mediated immune onslaught on the host tissues; however in high doses this immune-suppression raises the risk of infections and cancer relapse. Therefore it is desirable to taper off the post-transplant high level steroid doses to lower levels, at which point the appearance of mild GVHD may be welcome, especially in HLA mis-matched patients, as it is typically associated with a graft-versus-tumor effect.
There are a large number of clinical trials either ongoing or recently completed in the investigation of graft-versus-host disease treatment and prevention.