Graft-versus-Host Disease

The interesting thing about GVHD is that it is so dynamic, which is why it's challenging for both the person going through it and those of us who are trying to help treat it." Erin Kopp, Nurse Practitioner

Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is a long-term side effect that occurs in about half of allogeneic stem cell transplant patients. It occurs when the donor’s cells, called T lymphocytes, do not recognize the recipient’s cells and attack them.

GVHD can range from mild to severe. Mild GVHD can be helpful because it has anti-cancer effects and patients with mild GVHD tend to have the best outcomes.

GVHD can be acute and/or chronic. Acute GVHD is most likely to develop during the 100 days after transplant. Symptoms tend to appear quickly in the first three months. Chronic GVHD (cGVHD) is most likely to develop 100 days after transplant. Symptoms show up slowly, between two and 24 months after transplant. Treatment of cGVHD can take two to three years and, in most cases, patients recover after five years. In some cases, symptoms will show quickly (acute) and last for several years (chronic).


Why does it happen?

The chance of getting GVHD depends on the histo-compatible (HLA) matching, age and gender of the donor and recipient. GVHD can develop in patients who get an allogeneic stem cell transplant from an unrelated donor or HLA-matched siblings and parents. Medications, called immunosuppressants, are given before, during and after transplant to prevent, suppress and minimize the degree of GVHD.  

If you have symptoms that are challenging to manage, ask your primary care physician for a referral to the City of Hope GVHD clinic.