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      Early changes in immune cell subsets with corticosteroids in patients with solid tumors: implications for COVID-19 management


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          The risk–benefit calculation for corticosteroid administration in the management of COVID-19 is complex and urgently requires data to inform the decision. The neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio (NLR) is a marker of systemic inflammation associated with poor prognosis in both COVID-19 and cancer. Investigating NLR as an inflammatory marker and lymphocyte levels as a critical component of antiviral immunity may inform the dilemma of reducing toxic hyperinflammation while still maintaining effective antiviral responses.


          We performed a retrospective analysis of NLR, absolute neutrophil counts (ANCs) and absolute lymphocyte counts (ALCs) in patients with cancer enrolled in immunotherapy trials who received moderate-dose to high-dose corticosteroids. We compared paired presteroid and available poststeroid initiation values daily during week 1 and again on day 14 using the Wilcoxon signed-rank test. Associated immune subsets by flow cytometry were included where available.


          Patients (n=48) with a variety of solid tumors received prednisone, methylprednisolone, or dexamethasone alone or in combination in doses ranging from 20 to 190 mg/24 hours (prednisone equivalent). The median NLR prior to steroid administration was elevated at 5.0 (range: 0.9–61.2). The corresponding median ANC was 5.1 K/µL (range: 2.03–22.31 K/µL) and ALC was 1.03 K/µL (0.15–2.57 K/µL). One day after steroid administration, there was a significant transient drop in median ALC to 0.54 K/µL (p=0.0243), driving an increase in NLR (median 10.8, p=0.0306). Relative lymphopenia persisted through day 14 but was no longer statistically significant. ANC increased steadily over time, becoming significant at day 4 (median: 7.31 K/µL, p=0.0171) and remaining significantly elevated through day 14. NLR was consistently elevated after steroid initiation, significantly at days 1, 7 (median: 8.2, p=0.0272), and 14 (median: 15.0, p=0.0018). Flow cytometry data from 11 patients showed significant decreases in activated CD4 cells and effector memory CD8 cells.


          The early drop in ALC with persistent lymphopenia as well as the prolonged ANC elevation seen in response to corticosteroid administration are similar to trends associated with increased mortality in several coronavirus studies to include the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The affected subsets are essential for effective antiviral immunity. This may have implications for glucocorticoid therapy for COVID-19.

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          Most cited references 37

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          Clinical Characteristics of 138 Hospitalized Patients With 2019 Novel Coronavirus–Infected Pneumonia in Wuhan, China

          In December 2019, novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)-infected pneumonia (NCIP) occurred in Wuhan, China. The number of cases has increased rapidly but information on the clinical characteristics of affected patients is limited.
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            COVID-19: consider cytokine storm syndromes and immunosuppression

            As of March 12, 2020, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has been confirmed in 125 048 people worldwide, carrying a mortality of approximately 3·7%, 1 compared with a mortality rate of less than 1% from influenza. There is an urgent need for effective treatment. Current focus has been on the development of novel therapeutics, including antivirals and vaccines. Accumulating evidence suggests that a subgroup of patients with severe COVID-19 might have a cytokine storm syndrome. We recommend identification and treatment of hyperinflammation using existing, approved therapies with proven safety profiles to address the immediate need to reduce the rising mortality. Current management of COVID-19 is supportive, and respiratory failure from acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) is the leading cause of mortality. 2 Secondary haemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (sHLH) is an under-recognised, hyperinflammatory syndrome characterised by a fulminant and fatal hypercytokinaemia with multiorgan failure. In adults, sHLH is most commonly triggered by viral infections 3 and occurs in 3·7–4·3% of sepsis cases. 4 Cardinal features of sHLH include unremitting fever, cytopenias, and hyperferritinaemia; pulmonary involvement (including ARDS) occurs in approximately 50% of patients. 5 A cytokine profile resembling sHLH is associated with COVID-19 disease severity, characterised by increased interleukin (IL)-2, IL-7, granulocyte-colony stimulating factor, interferon-γ inducible protein 10, monocyte chemoattractant protein 1, macrophage inflammatory protein 1-α, and tumour necrosis factor-α. 6 Predictors of fatality from a recent retrospective, multicentre study of 150 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Wuhan, China, included elevated ferritin (mean 1297·6 ng/ml in non-survivors vs 614·0 ng/ml in survivors; p 39·4°C 49 Organomegaly None 0 Hepatomegaly or splenomegaly 23 Hepatomegaly and splenomegaly 38 Number of cytopenias * One lineage 0 Two lineages 24 Three lineages 34 Triglycerides (mmol/L) 4·0 mmol/L 64 Fibrinogen (g/L) >2·5 g/L 0 ≤2·5 g/L 30 Ferritin ng/ml 6000 ng/ml 50 Serum aspartate aminotransferase <30 IU/L 0 ≥30 IU/L 19 Haemophagocytosis on bone marrow aspirate No 0 Yes 35 Known immunosuppression † No 0 Yes 18 The Hscore 11 generates a probability for the presence of secondary HLH. HScores greater than 169 are 93% sensitive and 86% specific for HLH. Note that bone marrow haemophagocytosis is not mandatory for a diagnosis of HLH. HScores can be calculated using an online HScore calculator. 11 HLH=haemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis. * Defined as either haemoglobin concentration of 9·2 g/dL or less (≤5·71 mmol/L), a white blood cell count of 5000 white blood cells per mm3 or less, or platelet count of 110 000 platelets per mm3 or less, or all of these criteria combined. † HIV positive or receiving longterm immunosuppressive therapy (ie, glucocorticoids, cyclosporine, azathioprine).
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              Dexamethasone in Hospitalized Patients with Covid-19 — Preliminary Report

              Abstract Background Coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) is associated with diffuse lung damage. Glucocorticoids may modulate inflammation-mediated lung injury and thereby reduce progression to respiratory failure and death. Methods In this controlled, open-label trial comparing a range of possible treatments in patients who were hospitalized with Covid-19, we randomly assigned patients to receive oral or intravenous dexamethasone (at a dose of 6 mg once daily) for up to 10 days or to receive usual care alone. The primary outcome was 28-day mortality. Here, we report the preliminary results of this comparison. Results A total of 2104 patients were assigned to receive dexamethasone and 4321 to receive usual care. Overall, 482 patients (22.9%) in the dexamethasone group and 1110 patients (25.7%) in the usual care group died within 28 days after randomization (age-adjusted rate ratio, 0.83; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.75 to 0.93; P<0.001). The proportional and absolute between-group differences in mortality varied considerably according to the level of respiratory support that the patients were receiving at the time of randomization. In the dexamethasone group, the incidence of death was lower than that in the usual care group among patients receiving invasive mechanical ventilation (29.3% vs. 41.4%; rate ratio, 0.64; 95% CI, 0.51 to 0.81) and among those receiving oxygen without invasive mechanical ventilation (23.3% vs. 26.2%; rate ratio, 0.82; 95% CI, 0.72 to 0.94) but not among those who were receiving no respiratory support at randomization (17.8% vs. 14.0%; rate ratio, 1.19; 95% CI, 0.91 to 1.55). Conclusions In patients hospitalized with Covid-19, the use of dexamethasone resulted in lower 28-day mortality among those who were receiving either invasive mechanical ventilation or oxygen alone at randomization but not among those receiving no respiratory support. (Funded by the Medical Research Council and National Institute for Health Research and others; RECOVERY ClinicalTrials.gov number, NCT04381936; ISRCTN number, 50189673.)

                Author and article information

                J Immunother Cancer
                J Immunother Cancer
                Journal for Immunotherapy of Cancer
                BMJ Publishing Group (BMA House, Tavistock Square, London, WC1H 9JR )
                20 November 2020
                : 8
                : 2
                [1 ]departmentGenitourinary Malignancies Branch , Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health , Bethesda, Maryland, USA
                [2 ]departmentLaboratory of Tumor Immunology and Biology , Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health , Bethesda, Maryland, USA
                Author notes
                [Correspondence to ] Dr James L Gulley; gulleyj@ 123456mail.nih.gov
                © Author(s) (or their employer(s)) 2020. Re-use permitted under CC BY. Published by BMJ.

                This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

                Funded by: Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health;
                Immunotherapy Biomarkers
                Original research
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