Breast cancer survivors could be vulnerable to common viral and bacterial infections

January 26, 2016
breast cancer
Mammograms showing a normal breast (left) and a breast with cancer (right). Credit: Public Domain

Breast cancer survivors treated with chemotherapy could be lacking sufficient antibodies to protect against common illnesses, as chemotherapy reduces the body's immune response, according to research published in the open access journal Breast Cancer Research. This work raises the possibility that these survivors could benefit from additional post-treatment monitoring. Further work is required to assess if revaccination would be beneficial.

Chemotherapy is used to treat 30% of patients. Although an effective treatment, delivering an increase in survivorship, post-treatment welfare may deserve additional attention. Many studies have investigated the effects of on our immune system during the therapy itself and up to a short period after the last treatment, but little is known about the long-term impact on immunity.

Measuring the levels of lymphocytes, a group of white blood involved in our 's immune response, and antibodies researchers from University of Leeds and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust found that chemotherapy reduced levels of some components of the immune system of for at least nine months after treatment. These changes may leave patients vulnerable to some infections, despite having had routine vaccinations for such infections years before.

The researchers investigated the immune system of 88 women with breast cancer. Levels of lymphocytes were measured before and at intervals between two weeks and nine months after chemotherapy. However, there was no pre-chemotherapy data for 26 of these participants.

Levels of all the major types of lymphocytes dropped significantly after chemotherapy. This included T and B cells and natural killer cells, which together defend the body against viral and bacterial infection. The impact of chemotherapy on most lymphocytes was found to be only short term, with recovery to pre-chemotherapy levels by nine months. However, chemotherapy had a long term effect on B cells (cells that ultimately produce antibodies) and helper T cells (cells that are responsible for helping antibody production), both of which only partially recovered to around 65% of initial levels in the first six months did not continue to recover after a further three months. Levels of antibodies against tetanus and pneumococcus (the bacterium that can lead to pneumonia) also were reduced and stayed low even after nine months.

Chemotherapy uses different chemical agents. The researchers compared an anthracycline only regime with anthracyclines followed by taxane cycles. The anthracyclines regime was more damaging to B cells and helper T cells initially, but a relatively full recovery was made afterwards. On the other hand, anthracyclines followed by taxanes was associated with sustained reductions in levels of immune cells with poor recovery.

Smoking also appeared to slow down the recovery of some immune cells with levels in smokers reaching only half pre-chemotherapy levels after nine months compared to 80% in non-smokers.

Researcher, Thomas Hughes, from the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds says: "We were surprised that the impact of chemotherapy is so long lived. We were also surprised that smoking and choice of chemotherapy agent influenced the dynamics of the recovery of the . We might need to take into account the future immune health of breast cancer patients when planning treatments, but more research is needed to determine whether this would improve patient outcomes."

This was an observational longitudinal study which means that although it can increase our understanding of the links between chemotherapy, smoking and immune defence, it cannot show cause and effect because other factors may play a role.

Explore further: Medication protects fertility and defense system during chemotherapy

More information: Rashmi Verma et al. Lymphocyte depletion and repopulation after chemotherapy for primary breast cancer, Breast Cancer Research (2016). DOI: 10.1186/s13058-015-0669-x

Related Stories

Medication protects fertility and defense system during chemotherapy

December 14, 2015
While targeted cancer treatments have reduced side effects and improved efficacy, chemotherapy remains the backbone of combination therapies for many forms of cancer. Unfortunately, cancer patients may suffer from several ...

Immune function marker does not predict benefit of trastuzumab in HER-2+ breast cancer

December 10, 2014
A marker of immune function that predicts for better outcomes in patients treated with chemotherapy for triple negative breast cancer is also linked to improved prognosis in patients treated with chemotherapy for HER2-positive ...

Up to 50 percent of women with advanced-stage ovarian cancer could be cured with 1 treatment model

January 20, 2016
Up to half of women with advanced-stage ovarian cancer might be cured, compared to the current 20 per cent survival rate, argues Dr. Steven Narod, senior scientist at Women's College Research Institute, who calls for a new ...

Combining chemotherapy with an immune-blocking drug could stop cancer growing back

August 12, 2015
Giving patients a drug that blocks part of the immune system from going into overdrive might help prevent cancer coming back in some people, according to research published today in Cancer Research.

Older breast cancer patients less likely to benefit from chemo

August 12, 2015
Chemotherapy prolongs life for older adults with most types of cancer, but for women over the age of 80 with breast cancer, the chances of survival due to chemotherapy are significantly lower, according to a study led by ...

High levels of immune cells in tumors may ID breast cancer pts most likely benefit from trastuzumab

December 11, 2013
Women with HER2-positive breast cancer who had the highest levels of immune cells in their tumors gained the most benefit from presurgery treatment with chemotherapy and trastuzumab, according to results presented here at ...

Recommended for you

Targeted antibiotic use may help cure chronic myeloid leukaemia

September 19, 2017
The antibiotic tigecycline, when used in combination with current treatment, may hold the key to eradicating chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) cells, according to new research.

Brain powered: Increased physical activity among breast cancer survivors boosts cognition

September 19, 2017
It is estimated that up to 75 percent of breast cancer survivors experience problems with cognitive difficulties following treatments, perhaps lasting years. Currently, few science-based options are available to help. In ...

Researchers compose guidelines for handling CAR T cell side effects

September 19, 2017
Immune-cell based therapies opening a new frontier for cancer treatment carry unique, potentially lethal side effects that provide a new challenge for oncologists, one addressed by a team led by clinicians at The University ...

Bone marrow protein a 'magnet' for passing prostate cancer cells

September 19, 2017
Scientists at the University of York have shown that a protein in the bone marrow acts like a 'magnetic docking station' for prostate cancer cells, helping them grow and spread outside of the prostate.

Brain cancer breakthrough could provide better treatment

September 19, 2017
A new discovery about the most common type of childhood brain cancer could transform treatment for young patients by enabling doctors to give the most effective therapies.

A new paradigm for treating transcription factor-driven cancers

September 18, 2017
In the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Nationwide Children's Hospital describe a new paradigm for treating transcription factor-driven cancers. The study focuses on Ewing ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dramallo7
1 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2016
Cellular Tea has been used successfully to eliminate cancer tumors. It helps to boost the immune system naturally. There are no contra indications when used along with chemo.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.