Transplant patients, patients with immune disorders and cancer patients are among the vulnerable groups for whom COVID-19 can be especially dangerous. In addition, the pandemic has a seriously detrimental effect on the social lives of vulnerable patients, as they have isolated themselves even more than others for fear of contracting COVID-19. An efficacious and safe vaccine is therefore extremely important for these vulnerable people.
At the same time, however, the currently available vaccines have mainly been studied in relatively healthy adults. Specific at-risk groups are not included in these studies, or only to a very limited extent. As a result, there is insufficient knowledge about the immune response of the vaccine in patients who are known with a compromised immune system due to a congenital disease, or resulting from medication after a transplant or chemotherapy or immunotherapy for cancer.
COVID-19 research programmes
ZOnMw supports six research projects into the effect of COVID-19 vaccines in vulnerable groups. Three research projects are coordinated at the UMCG.
Efficacy in lung transplant patients
A research group led by medical microbiologist Corette Van Leer-Buter and lung transplant specialist Erik Verschuuren will study the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination in three groups of lung transplant patients. They will study whether the COVID-19 vaccine is as efficacious in these groups of patients as in people who have not undergone a lung transplant. For this, the researchers work in collaboration with Erasmus MC.
The three groups of patients are a group of patients who have already undergone a lung transplant and have not yet had COVID, a group that is now on the waiting list for a lung transplant, and a group that already underwent a lung transplant and has already had COVID.
For first group, it will be studied before and after vaccination whether they show an immune response and COVID-19-specific immune cells. This is also measured within the group who are on the waiting list, and it is checked whether the immune response is maintained after the lung transplant. In patients who already underwent a lung transplant and have had COVID-19, it is studied whether they have already established an effective immune response against COVID-19 after the infection and whether this further improves with the vaccination.
With the results of this study, the treatment of lung transplant patients in the context of the coronavirus can be further defined and secured. The outcomes will also be meaningful for other transplant patients.
The project will receive a ZonMw grant of 0.7 million euro.
Immune system response in kidney patients
A research group led by Jan-Stephan Sanders in collaboration with Ron Gansevoort, internist-nephrologists, is studying the response of the immune system to COVID-19 vaccination in patients with renal failure, in dialysis patients and in kidney transplant patients taking immunosuppressants. Furthermore, they are studying the efficacy and side effects of vaccines in a large group of kidney transplant patients and dialysis patients. Together, these studies will provide valuable information on the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccination in vulnerable patient groups.
The research group is a consortium in which the kidney disease departments of all Dutch UMCs take part. The study is supported by the Nederlandse Federatie van Nefrologie), patient association NVN and the Nierstichting.
The project will receive a ZonMw grant of 3.2 million euro.
Immune response in cancer patients
A research group led by professor of medical oncology Liesbeth de Vries will study whether cancer patients who receive chemotherapy, immunotherapy or a combination of these, have a similar immune response to people without cancer after COVID-19 vaccination.
In this study, patients with a tumour in an organ or tissue who are undergoing chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or a combination of these, will receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Blood tests are performed to monitor the immune response, and side effects are carefully recorded. If the study shows that certain patients do not benefit from this vaccine, other measures must be taken for them in the future.
For this final study, UMCG researchers are teaming up with researchers at Erasmus MC, NKI-AvL, RIVM and IKNL, in consultation with the Nederlandse Federatie van Kankerpatiënten (NFK). The first results of the study are expected in the course of 2021.
The project will receive a ZonMw grant of almost 3.3 million euro.