Immunotherapy Appears Safe for Cancer Patients with COVID-19

Immunotherapy doesn’t worsen complications for patients with both COVID-19 and cancer, according to a preliminary study that was presented at the American Association for Cancer Research Virtual Meeting.

“Many COVID-19 complications result from an overactive immune response, leading to an increased production of proteins called cytokines,” said Layne Weatherford, PhD, UC postdoctoral fellow in a press release. “Increased production of these proteins can cause issues like respiratory failure. Patients with cancer are more susceptible to COVID-19 infection as well as severe complications from it.

“Many patients with cancer are treated with immunotherapy, which activates the immune system against cancer to destroy it. In patients with both COVID-19 and cancer, our team thought that immunotherapy might increase the immune system response, which could already be overactive because of the COVID-19 infection.”

In this study, researchers are using blood samples from patients with cancer taken from the UC COVID-19 biorepository. Kris Hudock, MD, assistant professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at the UC College of Medicine, oversees. “We are examining how immune checkpoint inhibitors, drugs that allow immune cells to respond more strongly, in combination with other treatments, like chemotherapy or radiation, affect the immune cells of COVID-19 patients and patients with both COVID-19 and cancer,” she says.


The researchers added that this early data show an anti-diabetic drug, metformin, can reduce production of these proteins by immune cells of COVID-19 patients. “These are promising, initial findings,” Wise-Draper said. “Additional research is needed, but our results show that we might be able to treat COVID-19 complications with metformin or a similar drug one day.”