Vaccine responses studied in patients with impaired immune systems

Senior woman getting a vaccine from her doctor in her home during a house visit during the COVID-19 pandemic

A new UK study will seek to understand the immune response to COVID-19 vaccinations in patients with certain immunosuppressed conditions, including cancer.

The OCTAVE trial, which is funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), is a collaborative research project involving groups in:

  • University of Glasgow
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Oxford
  • University of Liverpool
  • Imperial College London
  • Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

Researchers will build on years of experience in understanding the immune system in the context of chronic conditions. This will help to better determine the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in these clinically at-risk patient groups.

People may be at increased risk of the more severe complications of COVID-19 infection if they have:

  • cancer
  • inflammatory arthritis
  • diseases of the kidney or liver
  • a stem cell transplant.

As a result, the rollout of vaccines is especially welcome for these vulnerable groups.

Current evidence

The treatment that patients with underlying medical conditions receive as part of their care may weaken the immune system.

Current evidence shows that people with these medical conditions may not obtain optimal protection from established vaccines.

Patients with significant underlying diseases were generally excluded from COVID-19 vaccine studies to date. It is now important to confirm that the COVID-19 vaccines work well in such conditions.

The OCTAVE study will investigate the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines being used in the UK in 2021, in up to 5,000 people within these patient populations.

Research will use a variety of state-of-the-art immune tests performed on blood samples taken before and/or after COVID-19 vaccination. It will determine patients’ COVID-19 immune response and therefore the likelihood that vaccines will fully protect these groups from SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Urgent need for more research

Researchers have begun recruiting patients at sites across the UK. They will compare results from the study group against control groups of healthy people, without these underlying diseases, who also received COVID-19 vaccines.

The OCTAVE study will evaluate patients who receive COVID-19 vaccines as part of the national vaccination programme.

Professor Iain McInnes, Head of the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences at the University of Glasgow who leads the OCTAVE study, said:

We urgently need to understand if patient populations with chronic conditions such as cancer, inflammatory arthritis and kidney and liver disease are likely to be well-protected by current COVID-19 vaccines.

The OCTAVE study will give us invaluable new data to help us answer questions of this kind from our patients and their families.

How best to vaccinate at-risk groups

Scientists do not yet know how long COVID-19 vaccines provide immunity for, and there may be an ongoing vaccination requirement against the disease for years to come. This may be especially so in people with weakened immune systems, due to drug treatments and underlying disease.

Results from the OCTAVE study will help to inform how best to vaccinate patients with chronic conditions and protect them from SAAR-CoV-2 infection.

The OCTAVE study is sponsored by the University of Birmingham and is being run by the university’s Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit (CRCTU).

Professor Fiona Watt, Executive Chair of MRC, said:

This study is investigating the response to the new COVID-19 vaccines in people whose immune systems make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 and other infections. This will help ensure that those more at risk from infection receive the best protection possible.

University of Birmingham Professor Pam Kearns, Director of the CRCTU, said:

We are pleased to be supporting this important nationally collaborative study that will inform the best use of the COVID-19 vaccines to protect these vulnerable patients.

For more information, and to register your interest in the study, please email:

Top image:  Credit: FatCamera/GettyImages

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