- New research indicates that about 1 in 4 people with blood cancer don’t develop antibodies to the coronavirus after getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
- People with these cancers tell Healthline that they’re concerned about the lack of antibody production in light of the new surge of COVID-19 cases.
- Experts say people with blood cancers should still get vaccinated as well as stay diligent on safety protocols, such as mask wearing and physical distancing.
It’s been 18 years since Peter DeNardis was diagnosed with Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia, a rare type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that’s characterized by abnormal white blood cells that infiltrate the blood system and bone marrow.
DeNardis, 61, a husband and father of three from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was not expected to live for more than 6 years.
He’s beaten the odds and become his own advocate. However, because of COVID-19, DeNardis knows he has to be more diligent and cautious than ever.
Last month, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society announced the results of a study showing that 25 percent of people with blood cancer in the United States were not getting any antibody production from COVID-19 vaccines.
The study, published in the journal Cancer Cell, noted that common immunosuppressive cancer treatments, such as the monoclonal antibody treatment Rituxan and CAR-T cell immunotherapies, can have a major effect on the body’s ability to make antibodies.
Experts tell Healthline that this finding suggests that people with blood cancer (lymphomas, leukemias, and other cancers) are among the most vulnerable of all people with cancer to the coronavirus.
“I got two shots of Moderna, but I got nothing in terms of antibodies,” DeNardis told Healthline. “I just did the booster last week. I will know the results in a few weeks.”
DeNardis and other people with blood cancer interviewed for this story said the recent study has galvanized the national blood cancer patient community.
Janie Gumpert, 74, who lives in Sacramento, California, and has four children and 10 grandchildren all living nearby, was diagnosed in 2009 with follicular non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
During her recent cancer recurrence, she learned that she did not produce any antibodies from two treatments with the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I took the antibody test and it was negative for antibodies,” Gumpert told Healthline. “I had the booster shot last week. We’re hoping to get some antibodies from that. My last treatment with Rituxan was in October. I’m just trying to stay optimistic.”
Dr. Gwen Nichols, chief medical officer of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, told Healthline that nearly 250,000 people with blood cancer in the United States will not have detectable antibodies following COVID-19 vaccination.
“Although some blood cancer patients will not mount a full antibody response compared to healthy individuals, vaccines are safe and offer protection to the majority of blood cancer patients,” Nichols said.
“Not everyone will be protected, and blood cancer patients are at increased risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19,” she added.
Nichols said her organization is encouraging people with blood cancer to take every measure to protect themselves from COVID-19 by “getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, social distancing, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces.”
According to the new study, the absence of antibodies, called seronegativity, was found in people with mantle cell lymphoma (56 percent), marginal zone lymphoma (38 percent), chronic lymphocytic leukemia (36 percent), Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia (26 percent), follicular lymphoma (22 percent), and diffuse large B cell lymphoma (21 percent).
The seronegative rate was 9 percent, 12 percent, and nearly 3 percent in people with acute myeloid leukemia, acute lymphocytic leukemia, and chronic myeloid leukemia, respectively.
Only 5 percent of people with multiple myeloma were seronegative.
In the study, researchers concluded that people with blood cancer can develop antibodies with a COVID-19 vaccine starting 6 months after treatment with an anti-CD20-containing therapy such as Rituxan.
Dr. Larry Saltzman, a longtime family physician and the executive research director at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society since 2014, is the principal investigator of the society’s national patient registry, which was an essential part of the new study.
Saltzman’s interest in COVID-19 and blood cancer is not just professional.
In 2010, he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. His most recent treatment was CAR-T, which put him back in remission.
Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“I didn’t have time to enjoy the remission,” Saltzman told Healthline. “It’s one thing to be a physician who works with blood cancer patients. But when you become a patient yourself, it gives you a new perspective.”
“I try and ask myself now if what I am doing is meaningful,” he added. “I check in with myself on a recurring basis.”
Meanwhile, DeNardis said that when he was first being treated with monthly immunoglobulin therapy to boost his immune system, he had severe reactions.
“I researched my options, found a different form of therapy, and convinced my hematologist to try it,” he said.
But with the COVID-19 vaccines, DeNardis said he doesn’t have that luxury.
“It’s too new and not enough is known yet,” he said.
“So, I have to rely on what’s known at this point in time, hope for the best, and, like other blood cancer patients, hope that studies like those conducted by [the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society] will help find better treatments to help patients,” he added.