Study sheds light on COVID-19 immunity in cancer patients

Cancer patients can make strong immune response against COVID-19 – but this can be impaired in those with blood cancer

Coronavirus vaccine

A multi-institutional team of researchers including those from King’s College Hospital and the PRUH has found that people with solid cancer (such as lung cancer) who had COVID-19 were still able to mount a strong, effective immune response to the infection comparable to those without cancer. However, in many cases, people with blood cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma mounted a delayed or ineffective immune response, resulting in prolonged infection.

Led at KCH by Haematological research team leader Dr Piers Patten, researchers for the clinical trial SOAP (Sars-Cov-2 for Cancer Patients) analysed the blood of 76 cancer patients - 41 who had COVID-19 and 35 who did not have the virus. Of the patients with COVID-19, 23 had solid tumours and 18 had blood cancers. Results, published this week in the journal Cancer Cell, showed that those with solid tumours generally displayed a fast, strong and effective immune response to the virus that was similar to those without cancer. They also tended to clear the infection in a similar time. However, many people with blood cancers produced low numbers or even no antibodies to the virus and were more likely to have a prolonged infection – lasting up to ten weeks for some patients.

These results have considerable implications for the treatment and advice given to people with cancer during the pandemic, for example this could impact who is advised to shield and who should take extra precautions. Additionally, with vaccines for COVID-19 starting to be delivered across the nation, this study sheds some light on how people with cancer may respond to the vaccine and who may need to be prioritised. Indeed, the next phase of the SOAP study will involve analysing the immune response of cancer patients to the vaccine.

Dr Patten said: “While reassuring for many cancer patients, there are several implications of this study for a subset of patients with blood cancers. Our findings may begin to explain why these patients appear to have poorer outcomes with COVID-19 and support the rationale for taking all precautions necessary when treating these patients during the pandemic. Equally, it must be remembered that many blood cancer patients will still generate a robust immune response and clear the infection.”