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Allistair Abraham

Q&A with leading blood and marrow transplantation specialist

Allistair Abraham

Children’s National Health System is proud to be the home of some of the world’s leading hematology experts, including Allistair Abraham, M.D., blood and marrow transplantation specialist within the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, who was recently selected to participate in the American Society of Hematology-Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program (ASH-AMFDP). Designed to increase the number of underrepresented minority scholars in the field of hematology, the ASH-AMFDP has awarded Dr. Abraham $420,000 that includes an annual stipend and research grant over the next four years. Here, Dr. Abraham tells us more about his research and what it means for the future of patients with sickle cell disease.

Q: What does this award mean to you?
A: This award comes at a critical time in my early career as I learn how to become an independent grant-funded researcher. It gives me an opportunity to dedicate 70 percent of my time to research for the next four years, during which I will hone my research skills and have access to highly accomplished mentors at Children’s National and from the ASH-AMFDP faculty.

Q: Your research for this grant focuses on improving curative hematopoietic stem cell transplantation for sickle cell disease. Why do they need to be improved?

A: Sickle cell disease causes significant health problems for children, which can worsen as they become adults, and even shorten their lifespan. Curative therapies to date are limited for many patients since most do not have a suitably matched donor for a curative bone marrow transplant. Many of us in the field hope we can provide a safe option for as many patients as possible so they can be cured in childhood and not have to face the negative impacts of the disease as they grow older.

Q: You will also be evaluating virus-specific T-cell (VST) recovery after transplantation. What will this mean for patients?

A: As we explore more transplant donor options such as unrelated donors and mismatched family donors, we have observed delayed immune system recovery. Viral infections are particularly problematic, as they can be life-threatening and respond poorly to available medications. Ultimately, a recovered immune system would address the infection problem. We hope to generate immune cells that are protective against viruses from the transplant donor and give them to patients as part of their transplant procedure.

Q: How do you envision your research improving the future of treatment for sickle cell patients?

A: My hope is that we get closer to having a safer transplant option for most patients who, despite optimal therapy, continue to suffer from complications of sickle cell disease. Ideally, these transplants would not only be widely available, but the treatment would also be simplified to the point where most of the therapy could take place in an outpatient setting.

Q:  Why did you decide to work in this field?

A:  Sickle cell disease has lagged behind other disorders in terms of new treatment strategies for quite some time. I experienced this as a medical trainee and struggled when parents would ask me to “do something” for their child when most of the time all I could offer was pain medication. In the last five years or so, there has been more focus on sickle cell disease from the field and the community, so now is the time to work toward developing a widely available cure.

American Society of Hematology logo

Leading blood disorder experts from Children’s National convene in Atlanta for 59th American Society of Hematology annual meeting

In early December 2017, more than 25,000 attendees from around the world, including several experts from Children’s National Health System, convened in Atlanta for the American Society of Hematology’s annual meeting and exposition, the world’s premiere hematology event. For four days, physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals attended sessions, listened to speakers and collaborated with each other, focusing on enhancing care and treatment options for patients with blood disorders and complications, including leukemia, sickle cell disease and transplants.

As nationally recognized leaders in the field, the Children’s National team led educational sessions and gave keynote speeches highlighting groundbreaking work underway at the hospital, which sparked engaging and productive conversations among attendees. Highlights from the team include:

  • Catherine Bollard, M.D., M.B.Ch.B., Director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research, educating global experts on cellular immunotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Kirsten Williams, M.D., bone and marrow transplant specialist, presenting novel work utilizing TAA-specific T cells for hematologic malignancies with Dr. Bollard, the sponsor of this first-in-man immunotherapy; moderating sessions on immunotherapy and late complications and survivorship after hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT).
  • Allistair Abraham, M.D., blood and marrow transplantation specialist, moderating a session on hemoglobinopathies.
  • David Jacobsohn, M.D., ScM, Division Chief of Blood and Marrow Transplantation, moderating a session on allogeneic transplantation results.
  • Naomi Luban, M.D., hematologist and laboratory medicine specialist, introducing a plenary speaker on the application of CRISPR/Cas 9 technology for development of diagnostic reagents for diagnosis of alloimmunization from stem cells.

Additional presentations from the Children’s National team included an oral abstract on the hospital’s work to improve hydroxyurea treatment for sickle cell disease by pediatric resident Sarah Kappa, M.D., who also received an ASH Abstract Achievement Award; another key session on hemoglobinopathies moderated by Andrew Campbell, M.D., director of the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Disease Program; an abstract on the clinical use of CMV- specific T-cells derived from CMV-native donors, presented by Patrick Hanley, Ph.D.; a leukemia study presented by Anne Angiolillo, M.D., oncologist; and a presentation about pain measurement tools in sickle cell disease by Deepika Darbari, M.D., hematologist.

Visit the ASH website to learn more about the conference attendees and their research.

Children’s National Health System advances sickle cell disease cure through Doris Duke Charitable Foundation grant

Sickle-Cell-Blood-Cells

An innovative Children’s National Health System project aimed at improving the only proven cure for sickle cell disease – hematopoietic cell transplantation – will receive more than $550,000 in funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s inaugural Sickle Cell Disease/Advancing Cures Awards, which provides grants to advance curative approaches for sickle cell disease. The study, a three-year, multi-center trial that will study a low intensity, chemotherapy-free transplantation approach to cure children with sickle cell disease using a matched related donor, is led by Allistair Abraham, M.D., blood and marrow transplantation specialist, and Robert Nickel, M.D., hematologist, and is one of seven projects receiving approximately $6 million total through the awards.

While transplantation using a matched sibling donor today has a high cure rate (>90 percent) for sickle cell disease, traditional transplant approaches have many risks and side effects in both the short and long term. The study will examine if a chemotherapy-free approach can lead to a successful transplant without resulting in graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). GVHD is one of the most challenging complications of a transplant, in which the transplant immune cells attack the patient’s body. The researchers anticipate that this new transplant approach will be so well tolerated that patients’ quality of life will be maintained and improved throughout the process, with most of the care administered in a clinic setting.

“This approach has proven to be effective for adults with sickle cell disease, so we are grateful for the opportunity to begin this important trial for children thanks to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation,” says Dr. Abraham. “Children with sickle cell disease are in need of innovative treatments, and we look forward to finding more solutions that improve the quality of life for these patients.”

“Advancing treatment for sickle cell patients to the point where they can live free of the disease is our top priority,” says Dr. Nickel, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “This funding is critical to our study and it will accelerate the timeline to achieve the goal of a well-tolerated and safe cure for children with sickle cell disease.”

Matthew Hsieh, M.D., who helped pioneer this work at the National Institute of Health in adults, and Greg Guilcher, M.D., who has used this transplant approach in children, are key collaborators on the project.

The study is projected to begin in December 2018 and continue for three years. The Comprehensive Sickle Cell Disease Program at Children’s National is among the largest in the country, treating more than 1,400 children and young adults with all types of sickle cell disease. Children’s National also offers the largest, most comprehensive blood disorders team in the Washington, D.C., area.

Advances in T-cell immunotherapy at ISCT

Healthy Human T Cell

T-cell immunotherapy, which has the potential to deliver safer, more effective treatments for cancer and life-threatening infections, is considered one of the most promising cell therapies today. Each year, medical experts from around the world – including leaders in the field at Children’s National Health System – gather at the International Society for Cellular Therapy (ISCT) Conference to move the needle on cell therapy through several days of innovation, collaboration and presentations.

Dr. Catherine Bollard, Children’s National chief of allergy and immunology and current president of ISCT, kicked off the week with a presentation on how specific approaches and strategies have contributed to the success of T-cell immunotherapy, a ground-breaking therapy in this fast-moving field.

Later in the week, Dr. Kirsten Williams, a blood and marrow transplant specialist, presented encouraging new findings, demonstrating that T-cell therapy could be an effective treatment for leukemia and lymphoma patients who relapse after undergoing a bone marrow transplant. Results from her phase 1 study showed that four out of nine patients achieved complete remission. Other medical options for the patients involved – those who relapsed between 2 and 12 months post-transplant – are very limited. Looking to the future, this developing therapy, while still in early stages, could be a promising solution.

Other highlights include:

  • Both Allistair Abraham, blood and marrow transplantation specialist, and Dr. Michael Keller, immunologist, presented oral abstracts, the former titled “Successful Engraftment but High Viral Reactivation After Reduced Intensity Unrelated Umbilical Cord Blood Transplantation for Sickle Cell Disease” and the latter “Adoptive T Cell Immunotherapy Restores Targeted Antiviral Immunity in Immunodeficient Patients.
  • Patrick Hanley engaged attendees with his talk, “Challenges of Incorporating T-Cell Potency Assays in Early Phase Clinical Trials,” and his poster presentation “Cost Effectiveness of Manufacturing Antigen-Specific T-Cells in an Academic GMP Facility.” He also co-chaired a session titled “Early Stage Professionals Session 1 – Advanced Strategic Innovations for Cell and Gene Therapies.”
  • To round out this impressive group, Shabnum Piyush Patel gave a talk on genetically modifying HIV-specific T-cells to enhance their anti-viral capacity; the team plans to use these HIV-specific T-cells post-transplant in HIV-positive patients with hematologic malignancies to control their viral rebound.

This exciting team is leading the way in immunology and immunotherapy, as evidenced by the work they shared at the ISCT conference and their ongoing commitment to improving treatments and outcomes for patients at Children’s National and across the country. To learn more about the team, visit the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders site.