Mr Nicholas Geraghty, PhD student, Mr Sam Adhikary, PhD student, A/Prof Ronald Sluyter, Head of Immunology and Cell Signalling group, Mr John Morris, Consumer, Mr Neil Pennock, Consumer Dr Debbie Watson, Head of Immunology and Genetics Research Laboratory, Mr Peter Cuthbertson, Honours student, and Dr Diane Ly, Post-doc)

A devastating disease facing transplant patients

Trace Richey and Neil Pennock. Photo supplied.

Trace Richey and Neil Pennock. Photo supplied.

Mr Neil Pennock knows first-hand the devastating impact Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD) can have on sufferers.

In 2013, his partner Mr Trace Richey was diagnosed with a severe form of the blood disorder Myelodysplastic Syndrome. Mr Richey underwent a bone marrow transplant at St Vincent’s Hospital in 2015.

He died just 44 days after the surgery, four weeks after celebrating his 50th birthday.

To see the effects of GVHD so close has definitely changed my understanding on just how important research into this disease is. With bone marrow transplants increasing both in Australia and around the world incidents of GVHD are only going to rise. It is now my mission in life to help those bone marrow transplant recipients.”

Neil Pennock

GVHD is the leading cause of non-relapse associated deaths in patients who receive donor stem cell transplants.

Symptoms may include skin rash, intestinal problems and liver dysfunction.

Since Mr Richey’s death, Neil Pennock has been an avid fundraiser for medical research into cancer treatments.

Mr Pennock is on the board of the Arrow Bone Marrow Transplant foundation and is committed to continuing his support of GVHD research at IHMRI.

“I hope to put a human face on the disease and help researchers know just how important their work is.”

Neil Pennock

Helping IHMRI researchers

Mr Pennock is now a consumer that assists UOW Research Fellow (Honorary) Dr Debbie Watson and Associate Professor Ronald Sluyter, who have research teams working on GVHD.

Mr Pennock assists with GVHD research applications, provides feedback and has recently met with the group and shared his story, which highlights the importance of consumers in research.

Dr Debbie Watson says meeting Neil and hearing his experience of GVHD gave her research new meaning.

“I was shocked by the photos of Trace that Neil showed to me just weeks after contracting GVHD. It really hit home to me how vital this research is to developing therapeutic strategies to prevent GHVD,” said Dr Watson.

Dr Watson and Associate Professor Sluyter lead research groups working to improve outcomes for people with blood cancers or other blood disorders following donor marrow transplantation (BMT).

The teams are investigating the roles of the immune system and different immune cell types and the way they communicate in causing organ damage in a preclinical model of GVHD.

It’s hoped this research will potentially lead to the identification of biomarkers and therapeutic strategies to prevent GVHD.

“Potentially this research will assist in the development of therapeutic strategies to target immune cells that cause GVHD” said Dr Watson.

John Morris is another consumer that has assisted with Dr Watson’s and Associate Professor Sluyter’s GVHD research.

Mr Morris’s commitment to supporting cancer research began after he underwent treatment for Burkitt’s lymphoma.

He spent four months in Wollongong Hospital in 2010.

Mr Morris’s involvement with the GVHD research project includes assisting with grant applications, providing advice and feedback.

He says his goal is to improve grant rate success and create more funding opportunities into the future.

“My involvement with Debbie Watson’s team is a great privilege. The opportunity to participate in important research in the field of GVHD and hopefully adjust the balance in favour of future funding is personally rewarding” John Morris

Third year PhD candidate Nicholas Geraghty is working on the GVHD project.

“Meeting affected families was a real reality check for me. Before starting my PhD, I like most people, had little prior understanding of the disease” Nicholas Geraghty

Mr Geraghty, along with 2nd year PhD student, Mr Sam Adhikary, presented their respective GVHD research at the national transplant meeting (TSANZ) in Brisbane in May this year.

Each were awarded SMAH Faculty travel grants to attend the event.

Mr Geraghty spoke about his GVHD research for the University of Wollongong’s 3MT (three minute thesis) Competition. He won the People’s Chose Award for the SMAH Faculty and was a finalist at the university wide competition in July.

The funding was initially supported by an IHMRI grant. Dr Watson is also supported by an AMP Tomorrow Fund. This research has also been supported by the University of Wollongong (the Faculty of Science and Medicine and Health, and the Centre of Medical and Molecular Bioscience.

Media contact

Louise Negline, Communications Coordinator
T: +61 2 4221 4702
M: +61 417 044 86

Top picture: Mr Nicholas Geraghty, PhD candidate; Mr Sam Adhikary, PhD candidate; Associate Professor Ronald Sluyter, Head of Immunology and Cell Signalling group; Mr John Morris, Consumer; Mr Neil Pennock, Consumer; Dr Debbie Watson, Head of Immunology and Genetics Research Laboratory; Mr Peter Cuthbertson, Honours student; and Dr Diane Ly, Post-doc. Photo supplied.

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