She lost brother to graft-versus-host disease; now she fights back

August 9, 2013 | by Nicole White

Rosie Mae Henson is continuing a fight she feels her brother John should have won. John successfully conquered his cancer with a bone marrow transplant, but died a year later from graft-versus-host disease in which the new donor cells attack the transplant recipient’s body.

Rachel Henson, a recent UC-Berkley graduate, completed research at City of Hope's Roberts Summer Student Academy. She chose to study graft versus host disease, which claimed the life of her brother in 2010. Rosie Mae Henson, a recent UC-Berkeley graduate, completed research at City of Hope's Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy. She chose to study graft-versus-host disease, which claimed the life of her brother in 2010.

Henson, a 22-year-old UC Berkeley graduate, spent the past 10 weeks in a City of Hope research lab studying potential treatments and preventive measures for graft-versus-host disease, or GVHD, as part of the Eugene and Ruth Roberts Summer Student Academy.

Unlike high school or college classes, in which  the course of study is determined by the instructor and institution, students at City of Hope’s summer program select their own research projects according to their area of interest. Then they spend 10 weeks working full-time as a member of a biomedical research team, getting a $4,000 stipend in return. Students not only share their research findings with each other in weekly seminars, they also attend workshops that, among other things, explore biomedical ethics and teach them to create research posters.

Some of those projects, like Henson’s, become the basis of continuing research.

“Even though he beat his cancer, he was unable to beat the graft-versus-host disease,” she said. “I promised I would fight this disease for him, and I am staying true to that promise.”

This year’s academy  included more than 75 high school and college students from across the country, chosen from a pool of 1,500 applicants. The students share a hunger for science and a commitment to research that could help patients fighting cancer, diabetes, HIV and other diseases.

Henson worked with De-fu Zeng, M.D., associate professor of the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation. Her work focused on CD4 antibodies and a means of blocking them. During a transplant, host tissues are damaged, prompting the immune system’s antigen-presenting cells to sample the environment, as if to investigate the problem. As a result these cells often present host tissue to the patient’s new CD4 T cells, which come from donor tissue. These donor CD4 T cells interpret the host tissue as being foreign to the body, and send a signal to the immune system to attack the host tissue.

The goal of the research is to block these CD4 T cells – call them off before they trigger the immune response.

Henson worked with Zeng and. in a mouse model, they used drugs to inhibit the CD4 T cells, avoiding the interaction with the antigen-presenting cells, allowing the mice to show some recovery from acute graft-versus-host disease.

Zeng is now working to develop an anti-human CD4 monoclonal antibody, and said he expects to see clinical trials in the next two years.

“It’s important for students to have this kind of experience and the opportunity to work on this kind of projects,” Zeng said in a Pasadena Star News story.

Henson said she’s excited to be part of launching research that could help patients like her brother, who beat their cancer but have a tough fight with its complications. Planning to continue the fight, she's now in the process of applying to medical schools.

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