Experiments were performed to study the role of circulating lymphoid cells in the incidence of lethal graft versus host disease (GVHD) in radiation-induced fully allogeneic mouse chimeras. The incidence of GVHD was reduced significantly in BALB/c → C57BL/6 radiation chimeras if bone marrow donors were exsanguinated immediately prior to marrow harvest. Chimeras resulting from the injection of bone marrow from bled donors exhibited only donor cells in spleen, bone marrow and peripheral blood and normal levels of Thy 1+ and Ia+ cells were found in each of these lymphoid compartments. The addition of as few as 3 × 104 peripheral mononuclear cells to the marrow from exsanguinated donors uniformly led to lethal GVHD. 51Cr-labeled cell traffic studies revealed that prior exsanguination of marrow donors led to about a 70% reduction in the number of circulating mononuclear cells contaminating the bone marrow at the time of marrow harvest. This decrease in contaminating peripheral cells was calculated to be in the appropriate range to account for the decreased GVHD seen when marrow from exsanguinated donors was used. It thus appears that peripheral cells contaminating marrow can be an important factor in causing lethal GVHD in allogeneic radiation chimeras. These results raise the possibility that the fulminant GVHD seen in human marrow transplantation is in part due to the major contamination of bone marrow with peripheral blood that results from the techniques currently used for human bone marrow harvest.
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