Anti-Apoptotic Molecule BCL2 Is a Therapeutic Target in Steroid-Refractory Graft-Versus-Host Disease

J Invest Dermatol. 2020 Nov;140(11):2188-2198. doi: 10.1016/j.jid.2020.02.029. Epub 2020 Apr 2.


Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is the leading cause of mortality after hematopoietic stem cell transplantation and primarily affects barrier organs such as the skin. One-third of cases are refractory to steroid treatment resulting in poor outcomes and the need for novel therapies. Longitudinal analysis of T-cell transcriptomes in patients before the appearance of GVHD symptoms revealed the upregulation of anti-apoptotic regulator B-cell lymphoma 2 (BCL2) at GVHD initiation. To determine the potential of BCL2 inhibition in active GVHD, we analyzed tissues of 88 patients with acute or chronic GVHD. BCL2 RNA was elevated in multiple organs affected by GVHD and expression correlated with transplant-related mortality and steroid-refractory GVHD. BCL2-expressing lymphocytes were present in skin lesions and peripheral blood of patients with acute and chronic GVHD. Inhibition of BCL2 increased the CD4 to CD8 ratio in allogeneic T cells in vitro and induced apoptosis of T cells from patients with steroid-pretreated chronic GVHD ex vivo. In addition, the higher ratio of regulatory to nonregulatory T cells upon blockage of BCL2 could add to the anti-inflammatory effect of BCL2 blockage. Collectively, our results highlight BCL2 as an important factor for GVHD development and introduce BCL2 inhibition as previously unreported and urgently needed targeted therapy in the treatment of steroid-refractory GVHD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / therapeutic use*
  • Adult
  • Apoptosis
  • Graft vs Host Disease / drug therapy*
  • Graft vs Host Disease / etiology
  • Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Prognosis
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / genetics
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2 / physiology
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Transcription, Genetic


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • BCL2 protein, human
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-bcl-2