Preventing graft-versus-host disease

Brian BettsAs a child, Brian Betts, M.D., benefitted firsthand from the exceptional health care provided at the University of Minnesota and Children’s Hospital, where he was treated for a serious medical condition. His surgeon later became an important mentor.  

Growing up, Betts also watched his father progress through his doctorate and medical school education, residency, and fellowship.

“I have always felt most comfortable in the hospital, being around science-minded individuals, and helping others get through tough medical times,” he says. “So becoming a physician-scientist was a great choice for me.”  

Today, Betts is a faculty member in the U’s division of hematology, oncology, and transplantation, where he is researching ways to make stem cell transplantation and cellular immunotherapy safer and more effective for cancer patients. Support from Minnesota Masonic Charities is propelling his lab’s work forward.

His team’s biggest accomplishments in recent years involve ways to prevent graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a dangerous and sometimes fatal condition that occurs when blood stem cells from a donor attack the recipient’s cells. Betts’ lab found that a protein in donor white blood cells, called pSTAT3, is a therapeutic target in preventing GVHD, and could potentially be a biomarker measured in a blood test. Its presence would indicate a patient has GVHD. They also found that by blocking T cell activation proteins, JAK2 and Aurora kinase, GVHD is significantly suppressed.

Now Betts’ team is working with colleagues at Moffitt Cancer Center to conduct a clinical trial in patients to prevent GVHD; the U is expected to eventually become a site for the trial. They are testing a combination therapy of drugs that block JAK2 and provide standard immune suppression. Betts’ lab is also working to generate and test engineered T cells that prevent GVHD and solid organ tissue rejection, which can help make transplants more successful.  

“I greatly appreciate the support from Minnesota Masonic Charities, which fuels the innovation of our lab. We are able to take cellular immunotherapy to new levels of discovery, and are eager to translate our findings in clinical trials.”

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