GVHD: Our life is just another version of normal
Being diagnosed with a blood cancer at 18 was a devastating blow for Martin Leicht, but what he has achieved in the 10 years since, is testament to his quiet determination to make the most of his life.
Martin and his family had no idea what to expect when he was diagnosed in November 2004 at the end of his first year of university.
“I was studying engineering and became quite pale and fatigued. I didn’t really get suspicious until I felt a lump on my jaw,” Martin said.
“Blood tests showed that my white cell count was going crazy. The next morning my haematologist called with the news – I had acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) and would need immediate treatment.”
Martin and his family travelled from Toowoomba to Brisbane where he began his first three-month stay in hospital.
“I began chemotherapy but unfortunately my first round didn’t put me into remission so I was given a stronger dose to try to get my leukaemia under control,” he said.
“At that stage we were told I needed a bone marrow transplant.”
“That was such a relief for my parents. My dad had given up work to be with me while I was in Brisbane and mum came back forth with my sister who was still in Toowoomba at school,” he said.
Martin received his bone marrow transplant just before Christmas 2004.
He spent the rest of 2005 recovering in Toowoomba and in 2006 returned to mechanical engineering study part-time. Five years later, with a degree behind him, Martin met his wife Alysse, a teacher at Ronald McDonalad House Charities. The pair became inseparable and in May, Martin married the love of his life.
“We see our life together as just another version of ‘normal’,” Martin said.
“We face many of the same challenges that other couples face and some are unique.”
Two years after his transplant Martin began to get pains in his forearms which he discovered was the beginning of chronic graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), a complication which can result from a bone marrow or stem cell transplant from another person.
Martin developed thickening of his skin and muscle tissue throughout his body, predominantly in his forearms, hands, legs and torso , which impacts his forearms, hands, legs and torso, which impacts his mobility.
It means he has had to continue with steroid treatment and immunosuppressants to keep the condition under control.
“We are hoping the GVHD has plateaued and we’re able to keep it under control,” Martin said.
“It’s frustrating that this far down the track I am still feeling the impact of having AML.
“I still see my haematologist monthly and I fatigue easily, but try to focus on the things I can do.
“There have been many positive things that have come from this difficult journey.”
What causes GVHD?
A donor stem cell transplant is a leading treatment option for many blood cancers. The treatment involves a donor’s healthy stem cells being infused in a patient.
The donor stem cells repopulate the patient’s bone marrow, producing healthy white blood cells to fight the blood cancer.
Unfortunately, these transplanted donor immune cells can also cause GVHD by attacking the recipient’s skin and internal organs, triggering widespread inflammation, destroying normal tissue and causing organ failure.
What research is being done?
The Leukaemia Foundation has supported a range of research projects at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane focused on alleviating the risk of GVHD and improving transplant outcomes.
PhD student Melody Cheong has been working with the head of the Bone Marrow Transplantation laboratory, Professor Geoff Hill, on ways to reduce GVHD, with particular focus on understanding the cause of inflammation linked to GVHD.
Fellow PhD student Katie Lineburg is investigating the cellular processes and immune cells involved in driving this disease to help improve transplant outcomes.
Also at QIMR Berghofer, Dr Andrea Henden has been continued the work by Professor Hill’s group exploring the role that Interferons have to play in stem cell transplantation. Interferons are naturally occurring proteins produced by the body’s immune cells and have potential roles in both GVHD and in anti-leukaemia effects after tansplantation.
Read more on our research projects here.
Martin’s story appears in the very first edition of our newest magazine Blood Cancer News, our essential resource for everyone and everyone affected by a blood cancer.