Researchers receive $8M to find answers on COVID vaccines, cancer

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Ottawa researchers have been awarded more than $8 million to lead four national studies in pursuit of answers about how well COVID-19 vaccines work in people with cancer and other health conditions.

The federal government is funding the work through its COVID-19 Immunity Task Force and Vaccine Surveillance Reference Group.

“These new studies will help us protect some of the most vulnerable populations and advance vaccine science,” said Dr. Duncan Stewart, executive vice-president of research at The Ottawa Hospital.

Health conditions such as cancer, diabetes and lupus can contribute to weakened immune systems, which make people more vulnerable to viral infections, including COVID-19. Chemotherapy and other cancer treatments can also weaken a patient’s immune system.

A weakened system can result in a less robust response to vaccines.

Ottawa researchers will attempt to understand how people with cancer and immune conditions have responded to COVID-19 vaccines.

Three projects will examine how well COVID-19 vaccines work in people with blood, lung, breast, prostate and colon cancers, along with inherited and medication-related immune deficiencies. A fourth project will seek to understand how long immunity lasts once acquired through a COVID-19 vaccine or through infection by the virus.

The principal researchers include:

• Dr. Arianne Buchan, an infectious disease specialist and researcher at The Ottawa Hospital, will lead a $2.1 million national study to determine how well COVID-19 vaccines work in people with blood cancer.

Buchan is recruiting people with leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma and other blood cancers who have undergone stem cell transplants.

“Our study will provide data to help understand how our patients respond to COVID-19 vaccines and will help us protect them from infection,” said Buchan, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.

• Dr. Glenwood Goss, an oncologist and researcher at The Ottawa Hospital, will lead a $1.9 million study that will enrol 300 cancer patients in Ottawa and Vancouver, along with 150 healthy adults as a control group.

The study, Goss said, will examine whether cancer patients — people with lung, breast, prostate and colon cancer — can mount a sufficient immune response following a COVID-19 vaccination.

More than two million Canadians are currently living with cancer.

As part of the study, blood samples will be collected from participants to measure vaccine-induced immune responses and antibody production.

• Dr. Juthaporn Cowan, an infectious disease physician and researcher at The Ottawa Hospital, is leading a $2.5 million national study to investigate how people with inherited and medication-induced immune deficiencies respond to the COVID-19 vaccine.

As part of the study, researchers will seek to recruit 460 patients at 12 sites, including Ottawa, with conditions such as multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

Cowan, an assistant professor at uOttawa, said she hopes the study will allow researchers to better understand which parts of the immune system are essential in generating an immune response to COVID-19 vaccines. Such information, she said, could help in the design of future vaccines.

• Dr. Angela Crawley, a scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and an assistant professor at uOttawa, is leading a $1.7 million project to expand an earlier study, known as Stop The Spread Ottawa. Launched in October 2020, that study has already recruited more than 1,000 people who tested positive for COVID-19 or faced a high risk of exposure.

The new funding will allow researchers to expand the study and follow participants into 2022 to understand their ongoing immune system reactions to COVID-19 and to vaccines. The study will examine the impact of age and of “long-haul” COVID-19.

As part of the study, blood and saliva samples have been collected from participants each month since October 2020. Many of those involved in the study are front-line workers.

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