Front Immunol 8 (-) 717 [2017-06-19; online 2017-06-19]
Chronic graft-versus-host disease (cGVHD) is a debilitating complication arising in around half of all patients treated with an allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Even though treatment of severe cGVHD has improved during recent years, it remains one of the main causes of morbidity and mortality in affected patients. Biomarkers in blood that could aid in the diagnosis and classification of cGVHD severity are needed for the development of novel treatment strategies that can alleviate symptoms and reduce the need for painful and sometimes complicated tissue biopsies. Methods that comprehensively profile complex biological systems such as the immune system can reveal unanticipated markers when used with the appropriate methods of data analysis. Here, we used mass cytometry, flow cytometry, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, and multiplex assays to systematically profile immune cell populations in 68 patients with varying grades of cGVHD. We identified multiple subpopulations across T, B, and NK-cell lineages that distinguished patients with cGVHD from those without cGVHD and which were associated in varying ways with severity of cGVHD. Specifically, initial flow cytometry demonstrated that patients with more severe cGVHD had lower mucosal-associated T cell frequencies, with a concomitant higher level of CD38 expression on T cells. Mass cytometry could identify unique subpopulations specific for cGVHD severity albeit with some seemingly conflicting results. For instance, patients with severe cGVHD had an increased frequency of activated B cells compared to patients with moderate cGVHD while activated B cells were found at a reduced frequency in patients with mild cGVHD compared to patients without cGVHD. Moreover, results indicate it may be possible to validate mass cytometry results with clinically viable, smaller flow cytometry panels. Finally, no differences in levels of blood soluble markers could be identified, with the exception for the semi-soluble combined marker B-cell activating factor/B cell ratio, which was increased in patients with mild cGVHD compared to patients without cGVHD. These findings suggest that interdependencies between such perturbed subpopulations of cells play a role in cGVHD pathogenesis and can serve as future diagnostic and therapeutic targets.