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Database to study cancer patients with Covid-19

Image: fernandozhiminaicela, via Pixabay

Italian effort goes global to tackle lack of information on coronavirus impact

An international online registry of cancer patients affected by coronavirus will soon provide clinical guidance for the protection and treatment of this vulnerable group of people.

The registry is being created through an international collaboration put together by a thoracic cancer researcher in Italy. Marina Garassino, who works at the medical oncology division of Milan’s National Cancer Institute, first shared the idea with colleagues to gain a better understanding of the situation in Italy.

“I wanted them to brace for the imminent impact, and I shared with them the recommendations published by scientific societies, based on the very few existing studies from China, that involved a total of around 30 Covid-19 patients with several different cancers,” she told Research Professional News.

In Italy, there are around 42,000 diagnoses of thoracic cancers every year, she said, 90 per cent of which affect the lungs. Since the pulmonary functioning of these patients may already be impaired they might be particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, which affects the lungs and breathing. Some of the available cancer treatments, which affect the human immune system, might worsen the risks of contracting viral diseases.

In Italy, official data collected by the Higher Institute of Health on patients who died with Covid-19 only mention whether or not there was a cancer diagnosis, with no further details.

To change this, Garassino has assembled an international working group, which has created a research protocol for the so-called Teravolt study (Thoracic cancers international Covid-19 collaboration). The protocol was submitted to the ethics committee of the Spallanzani Hospital, which oversees all coronavirus-related clinical research in Italy, and approved at the end of March.

A questionnaire to gather around 80 clinically relevant points of data on each patient was made available online by the Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The registry includes questions on experimental treatments administered to fight the viral infection.

“In the first week, we collected data on 65 patients, and thanks to the mobilisation of several scientific societies our group has rapidly grown to 150 collaborating centres from all over the world,” Garassino said. 

The study will need to collect information on at least 400 patients to provide statistically relevant results. Garassino said she hopes to raise awarenss of the effort during a speech she will give at the end of April to the American Association for Cancer Research. She will use the speech to present a preliminary picture based on the first results.

 “We managed to keep the costs of the research very low,” Garassino said, “also to remain totally independent from pharmaceutical companies, because we are convinced that public registries are more important than ever.”

She added that groups specialising on other types of cancer could easily adopt the same model, which would, in turn, increase the overall value of the data collected.