Leukemia after COVID-19: is there a link?

More than 500 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the end of 2019. Most people who develop COVID-19 have mild illness, but there is compelling evidence that people with certain health conditions like leukemia are at high risk of serious illness or death.

A 2021 study presented at the 63rd annual meeting and exposition of the American Society of Hematology found that people with blood cancer have a significantly higher 17% chance of dying from COVID-19. than the general population.

It’s less clear whether COVID-19 increases your risk of developing leukemia or other blood cancers. Some researchers believe it is plausible that COVID-19, in combination with other factors, may contribute to the development of cancer. At present, the link remains theoretical.

Read on to learn more about how COVID-19 could, in theory, contribute to the development of leukemia.

Certain types of blood cancer have been linked to infections. It’s unclear whether COVID-19 contributes to the development of leukemia, but scientists have found theoretical links.

Link COVID-19 and cancer

The development of cancer is usually a consequence of multiple factors that lead to genetic mutations in cancer cells. It is plausible that COVID-19 could predispose your body to cancer or accelerate cancer progression.

Most people with COVID-19 recover by 2 to 6 weeks, but some people have symptoms that persist for months. The lingering effects are thought to result from chronic low-grade inflammation triggered by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage which contributes to the development of cancer. In a study published in April 2021, researchers hypothesized that persistent inflammation in people with COVID-19 may increase cancer risk.

The immune response in people with COVID-19 is orchestrated by pro-inflammatory molecules related to the development of tumours, including:

  • interleukin 1 (IL-1) family
  • interleukin 6 (IL-6)
  • interleukin 8 (IL-8)
  • tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α)

COVID-19 is also associated with other processes known to lead to cancer formation, such as:

  • the activation of the JAK-STAT channel
  • MAPK pathway activation
  • oxidative stress due to angiotensin-2 converting enzyme depletion

COVID-19 and leukemia

A few case studies have reported people admitted to hospital with leukemia shortly after developing COVID-19. However, it is unclear if COVID-19 played a role or what role it played. Leukemia may have developed by coincidence.

The authors of a 2022 study present a theoretical framework for how COVID-19 might influence the development of blood cancers. According to the researchers, an abnormal immune response to viral infections can indirectly trigger genetic mutations that promote leukemia.

The virus that causes COVID-19 may also interact significantly with the renin-angiotensin system, which is thought to play a role in the development of cancerous blood cells.

In a case study published in 2021, researchers present the case of a 61-year-old man who developed acute myeloid leukemia 40 days after developing COVID-19. The researchers concluded that more studies are needed to assess whether there is an association between COVID-19 and acute leukaemia.

In other case study from 2020, researchers presented a man who developed COVID-19 as the first sign of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). The researchers found that the person’s lymphocyte count had doubled within 4 weeks, suggesting that the viral infection is associated with the replication of B cells, the type of white blood cell in which CLL develops.

Other viruses and blood cancers

Certain other types of viral infections have been linked to the development of leukemia.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common childhood cancer, and its rates are increasing. More and more evidence strongly suggests that an abnormal immune response to infections in early life is responsible.

Having a human type 1 infection with the adult T-cell leukemia virus is linked to the development of T-cell leukemia. This virus is mainly transmitted through bodily fluids. the World Health Organization estimated that 5 to 10 million people have the viral infection.

Certain types of infections have been linked to the development of another type of blood cancer called lymphoma. They include:

The FDA approved the drug remdesivir for adults and some children with COVID-19.

As of this writing, there is no evidence that remdesivir can cause leukemia.

In a 2021 study, a 6-year-old child with newly diagnosed ALL and COVID-19 was treated with remdesivir and convalescent plasma therapy before starting leukemia treatment.

No adverse events were linked to the therapy, and the researchers concluded that this treatment could be considered in people with cancer to hasten the resolution of the viral infection and to start cancer treatment earlier.

Some researchers have raised concerns that the antiviral drug molnupiravir, which received emergency use authorization from the FDA on December 23, 2021, could potentially cause cancerous mutations or birth defects. Researchers continue to examine these potential adverse effects.

Does a COVID-19 infection put you at risk for other blood cancers?

The development of blood cancer is complex. Researchers continue to examine whether COVID-19 infection can contribute to the development of leukemia or any other blood cancer. Some researchers have posited a theoretical link, but more research is needed.

Can the COVID-19 vaccine cause leukemia?

None of the vaccines approved for use in the United States interact with your DNA or cause cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is a myth that mRNA vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) can cause changes in your DNA.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine effective for people with blood cancer?

About 25% of blood cancer patients do not produce detectable antibodies after vaccination, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS). However, the CDC continues to recommend that all people with cancer get vaccinated.

LLS experts say vaccination should be combined with other preventive precautions for better protection.

Are people with blood cancer more likely to develop a severe form of COVID-19?

People with cancer appear to be at higher risk for severe COVID-19. According to National Cancer Institutepeople with blood cancer may have a higher risk of prolonged infection and death than people with solid tumors.

Researchers continue to examine the link between leukemia and COVID-19. Strong evidence suggests that people with leukemia are at increased risk of developing a severe form of COVID-19.

Some researchers have speculated that COVID-19 may contribute to the formation of leukemia, but for now the link remains theoretical. Much more research is needed to understand the link.

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