University of Utah to Investigate Blood Disorders

By Lois M. Collins
Deseret Morning News

The University of Utah will receive more than $2 million over five years to investigate the causes of several incurable blood disorders.

The money is part of a $19.6 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to the Myeloproliferative Disorders Research Consortium, a group of researchers from eight institutions in the United States, Italy and Germany.

Dr. Josef T. Prchal, professor of internal medicine in the School of Medicine's Division of Hematology, leads the U.'s efforts.

Overproduction of red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells cause the myeloproliferative disorders. They can cause blood clots, increasing the risk of stroke or heart attack; bone-marrow failure; or acute leukemia. The research is focusing on the molecular basis of three incurable disorders: polycythemia vera (too many red blood cells), essential thrombocythemia (excess platelets) and idiopathic myelofibrosis, Prchal said.

Idiopathic myelofibrosis results when abnormal stem cells in the bone marrow wreak havoc on blood production in certain tissues, causing problems like an enlarged spleen, bone-marrow scarring and anemia.

All three of the blood diseases are relatively uncommon, making it hard for researchers to see enough cases to learn much about them or amass good, objective data, Prchal said, so the tendency is to treat them "very nonspecifically." By combining their efforts, the researchers can study many more cases and perhaps begin to understand how they happen and how to treat the disorders. "We want this to lead to specific treatments," he said.

The U.'s role includes using patient samples and cell lines to study the molecular basis of the disorders and then "prove that we can manipulate this in the test tube to find treatments that only affect the abnormal blood cells." The researchers hope to find ways to prevent the strokes and other complications, improve survival and decrease complications from the disorders.

Prchal will oversee the U.'s research project and its clinical trials at the Huntsman Cancer Hospital, University Hospital and the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center. He will also be "sub-investigator" in two projects led by other centers and will do some of the blood-sample studies aimed at finding new drug treatments for all the consortium institutions.

The U. team plans to have two clinics a week to see patients who have one of the conditions, but Prchal emphasized they're not trying to take the place of the care those patients receive from their own hematologists and oncologists.

Other U. team members include Dr. Charles J. Parker, professor of internal medicine in the Division of Hematology; Dr. Scott Samuelson, senior clinical fellow in hematology; and Diane Bowen, physicians assistant and clinical coordinator for the U. studies.

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