Charity to fund major study investigating underlying biology of COVID-19

Thanks to major funding from The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, researchers at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and Francis Crick Institute, are launching a five-year study with over 1200 cancer patients, analysing the impact of COVID-19 and how cancer treatment interacts with the virus. We find out more about the study from Chief Investigator, Dr Samra Turajlic, Consultant Medical Oncologist at The Royal Marsden.

What led to this research?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, clinicians have had to explore new approaches to treatment, balancing the need for life-saving care with the risk COVID-19 presents to cancer patients, a particularly vulnerable group who often may have a weakened immune system. With the virus likely to impact cancer patients for several years, we need to shed light on interactions between a patient’s immunity, COVID-19, the cancer, and cancer treatment. We also need to investigate the impact of the virus in healthcare workers, especially those facing the most vulnerable patients such as those receiving bone marrow transplant and those involved in the Cancer Hub activity.


How will you do this?

Approximately 1200 cancer patients across all tumour types will be followed up for five years. In addition to online questionnaires where they disclose the physical and psychological impact of cancer and treatment, clinical teams will collect data relating to cancer and anti-cancer interventions, and also fluid samples, e.g. blood for different analysis of the immune system. We’ll compare cancer outcomes and safety of treatment in those with and without the virus. Over 1000 healthcare staff will also be monitored for 12 months with healthcare outcomes and blood samples to monitor their immune response.  

Why is this important?

Our oncology community is really dealing with two pandemics – cancer and COVID-19. Currently there is little evidence that helps to understand the impact of the virus on our patients, whether they are exhibiting symptoms or not. Critically we must carefully consider which cancer treatments are safe to administer in the pandemic and beyond. There is also a lack of solid evidence about the risk to healthcare workers generally, but specifically those caring for the most vulnerable patients, and the nature of immunity they develop after repeated exposure to the virus.

What would you hope to be the impact?

“It’s very important that we start informing the wider cancer community, both on patients but also inform policies on healthcare worker management especially in the cancer patient environment.”

This is a substantial but necessary effort with potential for national and international impact. she adds. What is clear is that we face challenging decisions for some time, but thanks to funding from The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity to carry out this study, we hope we can better protect cancer patients and staff, and optimise the clinical decisions being made well into the future.

When will you have the results?

Whilst the study is long-term, we will aim to provide interim data six months after the study has commenced to help inform immediate clinical decision-making, with an overall aim of minimising risk of severe infection and maximising cancer control.

The Royal Marsden and ICR have launched several critical research studies such as this at unprecedented speed, with The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity now needing to raise over £500,000 over the coming weeks to ensure support for the research studies can continue.

The study will also be supported by the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at The Royal Marsden and Institute of Cancer Research, London.

National and international impact

Professor David Cunningham, Consultant Medical Oncologist at The Royal Marsden and Director of the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at The Royal Marsden and Institute of Cancer Research said: “We are uniquely placed to look at COVID-19 in a cancer setting, investigating the pandemic’s impact across a wide range of patients. These trials call upon our multidisciplinary expertise in areas such as systemic therapies, radiotherapy, circulating tumour DNA which is detectable in blood tests, surgery and holistic care.”

“Teams have been working at pace to establish studies that adhere to our usual rigorous protocol; each will have varying durations, with a focus on immediate impact through to longer term understanding of this novel virus. Importantly, with commercial, NHS and academic partners across the country, and thanks to fundraising from The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity and support from The NIHR Biomedical Research Centre we hope this research will have a national and international impact.”

Find out more about other COVID-19 research.

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