Background: Recent clinical data have demonstrated the success of allogeneic stem cell transplantation using HLA-mismatched unrelated human umbilical cord blood (CB). The incidence and severity of acute graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) in these mainly pediatric transplants is low. The immunological mechanisms by which CB transplants may result in reduced GVHD is not completely clear. In this study, the functional cellular alloreactivity of CB cells was investigated, by measuring the frequency of alloreactive helper and cytotoxic T lymphocyte precursors (HTLp and CTLp, respectively) in CB and detecting the ability of CB cells to induce graft-versus-host (GVH) type alloreactivity in vitro.
Methods: A human skin explant model was used to measure GVH type alloreactivity in vitro. A combined limiting dilution assay was carried out in parallel to determine alloreactive HTLp and CTLp frequencies. The cellular alloreactivity was compared between cord and HLA-haploidentical parental blood cells against the same HLA-mismatched unrelated stimulator.
Results: The results demonstrated that alloreactive CTLp frequency in CB mononuclear cells (CBMCs) was significantly lower (mean, 1:35,694, range, 1:1,667-<1:500,000) than that in adult peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) (mean, 1:5,333, range, 1:544-1:47,619). Alloreactive HTLp frequencies, however, were comparable for CBMCs and PBMCs (mean, 1:7,586, range, 1:1,359-1:200,000; and mean, 1:5,976, range, 1:385-1:50,000, respectively). A significantly decreased ability to induce in vitro GVH type alloreactivity was observed for CBMCs and that was strongly associated with low alloreactive CTLp frequencies (P=0.001).
Conclusions: The present study provides the first clear in vitro evidence to suggest that CBMCs are less able than PBMCs to induce skin GVH type alloreactivity in HLA-mismatched pairs. The severity of in vitro GVH type alloreactivity (graded as I-IV) was strongly associated with the levels of alloreactive CTLp frequencies. The low cellular alloreactivity of CBMCs detected in vitro suggests that in a proportion of cases HLA-mismatched unrelated CB may not give rise to severe GVHD in vivo after transplantation.