100 coauthored papers, 10 years: Cancer transplant pioneers model 'team science'


Two close colleagues at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, world leaders in hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) who were both promoted days after COVID-19 locked down the city in 2020, were too busy battling the pandemic’s impact on patients in the summer of 2021 to notice their latest shared career milestone.

On July 29, 2021, Sergio Giralt, MD, deputy division head of the division of hematologic malignancies and Miguel-Angel Perales, MD, chief of the adult bone marrow transplant service at MSKCC, published their 100th peer-reviewed paper as coauthors. Listing hundreds of such articles on a CV is standard for top-tier physicians, but the pair had gone one better: 100 publications written together in 10 years.

Their centenary article hit scientific newsstands almost exactly a decade after their first joint paper, which appeared in September 2011, not long after they met.

Born in Cuba, Dr. Giralt grew up in Venezuela. From the age of 14, he knew that medicine was his path, and in 1984 he earned a medical degree from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, Caracas. Next came a research position at Harvard Medical School, a residency at the Good Samaritan Hospital, Cincinnati, and a fellowship at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston. Dr. Giralt arrived at MSKCC in 2010 as the new chief of the adult bone marrow transplant service. There he was introduced to a new colleague, Dr. Perales. They soon learned that in addition to expertise in hematology, they had second language in common: Spanish.

Dr. Giralt said: “We both have a Spanish background and in a certain sense, there was an affinity there. ... We both have shared experiences.”

Dr. Perales was brought up in Belgium, a European nation with three official languages: French, Dutch, and German. He speaks five tongues in all and learned Spanish from his father, who came from Spain.

Dr. Sergio A. Giralt Sergio A. Giralt MD, Deputy Division Head, Division of Hematologic Malignancies, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Courtesy MSKCC

Dr. Sergio Giralt

Fluency in Spanish enables both physicians to take care of the many New Yorkers who are more comfortable in that language – especially when navigating cancer treatment. However, both Dr. Giralt and Dr. Perales said that a second language is more than a professional tool. They described the enjoyable change of persona that happens when they switch to Spanish.

“People who are multilingual have different roles [as much as] different languages,” said Dr. Perales. “When I’m in Spanish, part of my brain is [thinking back to] summer vacations and hanging out with my cousins.”

When it comes to clinical science, however, English is the language of choice.

Global leaders in HSCT

Dr. Giralt and Dr. Perales are known worldwide in the field of allogeneic HSCT, a potentially curative treatment for an elongating list of both malignant and nonmalignant diseases.

In 1973, MSKCC conducted the first bone-marrow transplant from an unrelated donor. Fifty years on, medical oncologists in the United States conduct approximately 8,500 allogeneic transplants each year, 72% to treat acute leukemias or myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).

However, stripping the immune system with intensive chemotherapy ‘conditioning,’ then rebuilding it with non-diseased donor hematopoietic cells is a hazardous undertaking. Older patients are less likely to survive the intensive conditioning, so historically have missed out. Also, even with a good human leukocyte antigen (HLA) match, the recipient needs often brutal immunosuppression.

Since Dr. Giralt and Dr. Perales began their partnership in 2010, the goals of their work have not changed: to develop safer, lower-intensity transplantation suitable for older, more vulnerable patients and reduce fearsome posttransplant sequelae such as graft-versus-host disease (GVHD).

Dr. Giralt’s publication list spans more than 600 peer-reviewed papers, articles and book chapters, almost exclusively on HSCT. Dr. Perales has more than 300 publication credits on the topic.

The two paired up on their first paper just months after Dr. Giralt arrived at MSKCC. That article, published in Biology of Blood and Marrow Transplantation, compared umbilical cord blood for HSCT with donor blood in 367 people with a variety of hematologic malignancies, including acute and chronic leukemias, MDS, and lymphoma.

Dr. Miguel-Angel Perales Miguel-Angel Perales, MD, Chief, Adult Bone Marrow Transplant Service, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Courtesy MSKCC

Dr. Miguel-Angel Perales

The MSKCC team found that transplant-related mortality in the first 180 days was higher for the cord blood (21%), but thereafter mortality and relapse were much lower than for donated blood, with the result that 2-year progression-free survival of 55% was similar. Dr. Perales, Dr. Giralt and their coauthors concluded that the data provided “strong support” for further work on cord blood as an alternative stem-cell source.

During their first decade of collaboration, Dr. Giralt and Dr. Perales worked on any promising avenue that could improve outcomes and the experience of HSCT recipients, including reduced-intensity conditioning regimens to allow older adults to benefit from curative HSCT and donor T-cell depletion by CD34 selection, to reduce graft-versus-host disease (GVHD).

The CD34 protein is typically found on the surface of early stage and highly active stem cell types. Selecting these cell types using a range of techniques can eliminate many other potentially interfering or inactive cells. This enriches the transplant population with the most effective cells and can lower the risk of GVHD.

The 100th paper on which Dr. Giralt and Dr. Perales were coauthors was published in Blood Advances on July 27, 2021. The retrospective study examined the fate of 58 MSKCC patients with a rare form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, CLL with Richter’s transformation (CLL-RT). It was the largest such study to date of this rare disease.
M.D. Anderson Cancer Center had shown in 2006 that, despite chemotherapy, overall survival in patients with CLL-RT was approximately 8 months. HSCT improved survival dramatically (75% at 3 years; n = 7). However, with the advent of novel targeted drugs for CLL such as ibrutinib (Imbruvica), venetoclax (Venclexta), or idelalisib (Zydelig), the MSKCC team asked themselves: What was the role of reduced-intensive conditioning HSCT? Was it even safe? Among other findings, Dr. Giralt and Dr. Perales’ 100th paper showed that reduced-intensity HSCT remained a viable alternative after a CLL-RT patient progressed on a novel agent.


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