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New study seeks to understand the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine in cancer patients

By The OSUCCC-James Team |May 03, 2021

Dave Hill was “healthy as a horse,” so when he went to his doctor about what he thought may be a pinched nerve from working too hard at the gym, the last thing he expected was to leave with a diagnosis of stage III/IV follicular lymphoma.
“An MRI showed my lymph nodes were the size of softballs. When my doctor called, he said it was very likely I had cancer,” recalls Dave.
He began extensive chemotherapy at his local hospital in July 2018. By January 2019, however, the disease had transformed into diffuse large B-cell lymphoma— which required a far different treatment approach.
His doctor referred him to Kami Maddocks, MD, at the OSUCCC – James, where a subspecialized team of lymphoma experts did a robust workup of tests to determine the best course of action for his unique cancer. Dave underwent another six-month chemotherapy regimen in 2019. While the treatment was effective in hitting the pause button on his aggressive cancer growth, because his disease had transformed so quickly from follicular to diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, Maddocks recommended an autologous bone marrow transplant.
When cancer forms in the bone marrow, healthy stem cells—which serve as the basis of all healthy blood cells in the body—are crowded out by cancer cells. This leads to an increased risk of infection, blood clotting challenges and other issues. To treat this, cancer cells are destroyed with chemotherapy. Stem cells are removed from the patient and treated, and patients then receive very aggressive inpatient chemotherapy before their treated stem cells are infused back into their body to generate healthy new blood cells.
“This was really hard to accept but, ultimately, I trust my team at the OSUCCC – James so I took their advice and had the bone marrow transplant in September 2019,” says Dave. Now 15 months into remission, he is happy to pay it forward to help support cancer research at the OSUCCC – James in any way he can. Most recently that meant enrolling in a research study to determine how SARS-CoV-2—commonly known as COVID-19—impacts the immune system of cancer patients.
The study, known as SIIREN (Study of Infections and Immune REspoNse) is being led by Peter Shields, MD, deputy director of the OSUCCC – James, and Zihai Li, MD, PhD, director of the Pelotonia Institute for Immuno-Oncology (PIIO).
The SIIREN study aims to advance the scientific community’s overall understanding of how effective the vaccine is for preventing COVID-19 infection, determine if the vaccine is less effective in cancer patients receiving certain therapies, and how long the immunity lasts. This study is supported by funds from the OSUCCC – James and Pelotonia.
OSUCCC – James researchers note that there is no peer reviewed published data available on how cancer therapy affects the efficacy of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine in cancer patients because patients in active therapy were excluded from vaccine trials. Data for patients who were not in active therapy from major trials has not yet been reported; however, it is widely recommended that all cancer patients be vaccinated.
Dave says he is happy to give a few extra vials of blood and fill out some questionnaires if it helps other people.
“The James saved my life. Anytime and anyway I can, I want to help,” he says. He, his wife Donna and son JD are involved in the Buckeye Cruise for Cancer, which since its inception in 2008 has raised more than $25 million for cancer research at the OSUCCC – James.
Dave had just entered remission and was excited to begin living life freely again when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“People living with cancer— especially those whose immune systems are temporarily wiped out from bone marrow transplant—are necessarily super hyper about infection precautions,” says Dave. “The pandemic just lengthened the necessity of extremely cautious living. I’m so glad to finally have the opportunity to get the COVID vaccine. I encourage everyone else to do so as soon as they qualify— for their protection and the protection of others.”
Ohio State patients who are currently in treatment or have been treated for cancer at the OSUCCC – James may qualify for the COVID-19 study.

Read about the latest update on the SIIREN Study relating to the Omicron variant

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