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COVID-19 collaboration

Memorial, Eastern Health funded $379,900 to research vaccine response in cancer patients

By Terri Coles

A federally funded research collaboration between the Faculty of Medicine and Eastern Health will examine immune response to the COVID-19 vaccine in cancer patients.

Drs. Jacqueline Costello, Michael Grant, Rod Russell and Melanie Seal received $379,900 in federal funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to study the immune response to COVID-19 vaccination in cancer patients with both hematological cancers and solid tumours.

The research is an extension of Drs. Grant, Kayla Holder and Russell’s existing project to study immune response to suspected or confirmed COVID-19 exposure.

With the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines, this project swung to investigating vaccine responses.

“As a research group, we are excited to have this opportunity to have this study available to patients in the province,” said Dr. Seal, a medical oncologist at Eastern Health and an associate professor of oncology at Memorial.

Patient questions

The availability of effective vaccines for COVID-19 is a boon for cancer patients, who generally have reduced immune response during treatment.

However, some are concerned that reduced response means the vaccines don’t work as well for them as in the general population.

Their patients regularly ask about the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine during cancer treatment, say both Drs. Seal and Costello.

They wonder how long their immunity will last, or if they are adequately protected from the virus while receiving treatment, but research is still limited.

“For patients who enrol in the study, they actually get a unique opportunity to get their antibody levels measured.” — Dr. Jacqueline Costello

Additionally, patients who receive treatment for blood cancers via immunotherapy are immunocompromised in a way doctors can’t measure, so it’s hard to tell a patient how low their immunity might be during treatment, says Dr. Costello, who is an adult hematologist at Eastern Health and clinical assistant professor at Memorial.

“They’re already dealing with the diagnosis of cancer and having to take treatment. And then on top of that, we’ve had this pandemic. These are questions at the forefront for patients with malignancy in the province,” she said.

In June 2020 a study of cancer patients with COVID-19 found that patients with blood tumours did much worse than those with solid tumours.

“In the study, the red line was the blood cancer patients,” she said. “So ,we were excited to hear about a vaccine.”

However, some blood cancer patients still became ill if they contracted COVID-19, even after vaccination.

Research expansion

The study will include patients with either solid tumours or blood cancers who can get blood drawn every three months for two years.

Blood cancer patients have already been enrolled, and the process to enrol patients with solid-tumour cancers is underway.

The researchers are interested in enrolling a variety of patients, both those currently receiving cancer treatments and those previously treated.

Testing their blood at regular intervals during the study allows researchers to measure their immune response to vaccination and see how it changes.

The information will be useful to analyze all together, to see how different kinds of patients and different forms of treatment compare to each other. The study will also capture those who have received COVID-19 boosters and measure differences in their immune responses.

And patients receive useful information about their own health in the information they receive about their immune response to the vaccine.

Unique opportunity

The antibody testing enrolled patients get is not currently available outside of the research environment in this province, says Dr. Costello.

“For patients who enrol in the study, they actually get a unique opportunity to get their antibody levels measured to see if they have had a meaningful response to the vaccine.”

So far, about a dozen of Dr. Costello’s patients have received information about their immune response to COVID-19 vaccination through the study.

“I can counsel them in clinic when I see them for their chemotherapy appointments, and discuss what I think the results mean for them.”

This allows her patients to make decisions about things like travel or family gatherings with a more complete understanding of their personal risk level.

The researchers are excited to provide patients in the study with “real-time, in-the-middle-of-a-pandemic feedback,” said Dr. Russell.

Cancer patients and survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador who want to take part in the study can contact Dr. Grant’s office. 

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