Study shows different immune response in cancer patients to COVID-19

Study shows different immune response in cancer patients to COVID-19
© iStock-Warchi

Cancer patients have shown different responses to the COVID-19 virus depending on the type of cancer they have.

In a study, carried out by Cancer Research UK, people with solid tumours showed the same response to COVID-19 as those without cancer, however, those patients with blood cancer varied in their ability to respond to the virus, with many unable to shake it off for up to 90 days after the first signs of infection – around five times longer than average.

Cancer Research UK highlights that the study gives reassurance to many people with cancer, but also shows that patients cannot be grouped together when it comes to delivering cancer care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Martin Ledwick, head information nurse at Cancer Research UK, said: “People with cancer and their families might feel especially worried about the virus, as certain types of cancer and its treatment can lower the ability to fight infection. This study starts to give some reassurance for those with solid tumours but backs the evidence that people with blood cancers may be more vulnerable.  Anyone undergoing cancer treatment should continue to follow the advice of their doctors during the pandemic to protect themselves from catching the virus.”

Immune responses to COVID-19

For the study, the blood of 76 cancer patients was analysed, 41 of them with COVID-19, and 35 without. The samples were compared to the blood of people who did not have cancer, and who had already been recruited to the previously published COVID-IP study led by Professor Adrian Hayday. Of the 41 people with cancer, 23 had solid tumours, and 18 had blood cancer.

The team, led by Dr Sheeba Irshad, a Cancer Research UK clinician scientist based at King’s College London, in collaboration with Professor Hayday and Dr Piers Patten, wanted to discover whether or not the immune response to COVID-19 in cancer patients differs to those without cancer and what the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the immune system is for people with cancer.

Immune responses to the virus in patients with solid tumours, were like those of people without cancer, even where patients were in the advanced stages of cancer and were undergoing active anti-cancer treatments. The immune response to COVID-19 in people with certain types of blood cancer was similar but “milder” in the active/early phases of the disease and became stronger over time resembling immune changes often seen in chronic infections. This was especially true for cancers affecting B cells: a type of immune cell that plays an important role in immune memory.

Dr Irshad said: “Whilst we need to maintain caution, our study provides some confidence and reassurance to care providers that many of our patients with solid cancers will mount a good immune response against the virus, develop antibodies that last and hopefully resume their cancer treatment as soon as possible.

“These conclusions imply that many patients despite being on immunosuppressive therapies will respond satisfactorily to COVID-19 vaccines.  For patients with blood cancers, especially those with B-cell malignancies, this may not hold true even in the era of COVID-19 vaccines. Our work suggests that they may be susceptible to persistent infection despite developing antibodies, so the next stage of our study will focus on monitoring their response to the vaccines. At present the best way to protect them may be to vaccinate all the carers to achieve herd immunity in the clinic.”

The next phase of the SOAP study will be monitoring the immune responses of cancer patients to the COVID-19 vaccine.

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