BHS and Fed Uni examine how to identify and improve COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness

#OurBHS #WorldClassHealthCare #YourHealth Research
Tuesday 18 May 2021
(L to R) Jasmine, Donna and Lisa,  members of our clinical trials unit (L to R) Jasmine, Donna and Lisa, members of our clinical trials unit

A new research partnership between Ballarat Health Services and Federation University is examining how COVID-19 vaccines work within the body, and how the rate of effectiveness can be improved in those who do not develop antibodies to facilitate resistance to the disease.

Ballarat Health Services Clinical Director of Medical Oncology Stephen Brown says the study is an important investigation into how effective the COVID-19 vaccines are for patients who have a lower immunity. 

“Testing the immune response in individuals with cancer is extremely valuable because these individuals are often immune compromised, and it is important to determine how well they are protected by vaccination against COVID-19,” Dr Brown said. “This is an opportunity to contribute to the developing information about COVID-19 vaccines and their effectiveness in our cancer patient population.” 

Currently, there is no way to identify those in whom the vaccine may not be effective before administration - and the person may then become seriously unwell with COVID-19.   This research will focus on that 10-20 percent of the population, with the aim of identifying why they fail to develop resistance, and what measures can be taken to potentially improve the rate of effectiveness. 

The Federation University research group led by immunologist Prof Stuart Berzins is collaborating with Dr Stephen Brown, and Dr Wasek Faisal from BHS, in conjunction with their teams, to investigate the role of specialised immune cells called ‘MAIT cells’ in generating an effective response to the COVID-19 vaccine.  

Clinical Trial Coordinator Intern Lisa Bell and Clinical Trial Assistant Donna McIntyre are both part of the team working on the study at BHS. 

“Federation University conceptualised the study, the BHS teams oversee those who choose to participate in the project and coordinate the collection of the blood samples, and then Federation University process the samples and do the laboratory work,” they said. “We all have to work together to make it happen, and it’s all on a tight timeline.” 

Clinical Trials Project Officer Jasmine Mikovic added that each step of the study has to meet stringent regulatory requirements. 

 “Clinical research studies are highly regulated and we need to follow the necessary guidelines to ensure the patient is safe and the data that we collect has integrity, Jasmine said. “There’s a lot of tracking involved, and there’s a lot of communication within the team to ensure no one is missed. 

The study involves collecting three blood samples from each participant, one at baseline – before they receive the vaccine – and then one 7 to 14 days after each vaccine dose. 

Oncology patients are encouraged to speak to their treating doctor about the timing of the vaccine around their treatments. 

Anyone interested in participating in this study can contact Stuart Berzins, Professor of Immunology in the School of Science, Psychology and Sport, Federation University at  

Global studies have proven that AstraZeneca (the adenovirus vectored vaccine ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 (AZD1222)) is a highly effective vaccine, and protects against COVID-19.  

  • After the first dose of the vaccine, those vaccinated are over 90 per cent less likely to be hospitalised with COVID-19. 
  • With two doses of the vaccine, spaced 12 weeks apart, those vaccinated are 80 per cent less likely to get sick with COVID-19. 

Researchers from the Peter Doherty Institute of Medical Research at the University of Melbourne are supporting the study by providing state-of-the-art resources, allowing the team to test the effectiveness of the vaccination.  

Federation University Professor of Immunology, Stuart Berzins, in the School of Science, Psychology and Sport, is one of a handful of scientists worldwide with specific expertise in the field of Mucosal Associated Invariant T (or MAIT) cells. 

MAIT cell are capable of regulating the functions of other immune cells and can be important for the effectiveness of some vaccines. AstraZeneca is one such vaccine, and as it is being produced in Australia and will be used by the majority of Australian’s who choose to be vaccinated, it is the vaccine the research will focus upon. 

Interestingly, the frequency of MAIT cells varies considerably across the human population and there is speculation that this may be a factor in determining vaccine effectiveness.  

Blood samples will be taken from individuals participating in the study before and after vaccination to determine if the frequency and function of their MAIT cells correlates with the effectiveness of the vaccine.  

Participants in the study will include healthy donors and a subset of BHS patients with cancer, where immune deficiencies, including MAIT cell abnormalities, are known to be common.  

If a correlation is found, it may then be possible to identify and pre-emptively treat individuals who require additional protection from COVID-19. 

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