COVID-19 and Cancer: Helpful Resources for Lymphoma Patients

The Weill Cornell Medicine Lymphoma Program team remains committed to supporting and protecting the health and safety of our patient community during this challenging time. With COVID-19 dominating the news and impacting our everyday lives, many people may be left wondering which sources to trust and which recommendations to follow when it comes to understanding the coronavirus and staying safe during this unprecedented time.

We developed this article and compiled a handful of reliable resources designed to help lymphoma patients — at our center and beyond – best navigate this rapidly changing situation.

COVID-19 Basics and General Guidelines

Physicians and staff within the division of Hematology and Oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital are here to provide guidance and support to our cancer patients and their loved ones. We encourage you to review the information outlined in our COVID-19 and Cancer Guide, where we provide answers to our patient community’s most frequently asked questions. You are also welcome to call our COVID-19 hotline at (646) 697-4000 with questions at any time.

If you have COVID-19 symptoms or suspect that you have been in contact with someone with COVID-19, contact your oncologist for further instruction. If you need in-person medical attention, your doctor will advise you regarding the necessary steps and preparations to protect you and others at the facility before you arrive. Please do not visit your doctor’s office or the emergency department without first being in touch with your healthcare team.

COVID-19 and Lymphoma

In the Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF) webinar entitled “Coronavirus and What the Lymphoma Community Needs to Know,” our own Dr. John Leonard reviews the current medical understanding and response to COVID-19 (per March 19, 2020). Dr. Leonard explains why we all must work together to “flatten the curve,” and addresses frequently asked questions surrounding immune system suppression and the coronavirus, lymphoma treatment during the pandemic, the use of masks and transmission of the disease between different groups such as children, the elderly and pets.

The LRF also created a COVID-19 fact sheet complete with prevention tips and questions to ask your oncologist. Weill Cornell Lymphoma Program Chief Dr. Peter Martin and an infectious disease specialist contributed to and medically reviewed this information.

Appointments and Video Visits

Please know that we remain dedicated to the health and wellbeing of our lymphoma community and that continuing to provide world-class cancer care for our oncology patients is important to us. As part of our mission to provide care during this unprecedented time, the Hematology & Oncology division has been implementing extensive patient-centered precautions. These include efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within our facilities and the expansion of virtual video-based appointments.

The Weill Cornell Lymphoma Program continues to be able to offer new and current patients the cancer care they need. We also provide expert, multidisciplinary care for patients with lymphoma who need medical attention for COVID-19.

Video visits allow patients to receive high-quality lymphoma care from the comfort and convenience of their own homes, while adhering to safe social distancing parameters recommended to minimize exposure to other individuals. Our video visit capabilities also extend to patients who wish to schedule a virtual second opinion.

To schedule a video visit, please follow the instructions below. Our team will work with you to obtain any necessary medical records prior to your visit. We will inform you if we believe that you are better suited for an in-person visit.

New Patients
Please call (646) 962-2800.

Existing Patients
Please call (646) 962-2064.

Learn more about video visits. Once your video visit is scheduled, use this guide to connect with your doctor.

Video visits use the same insurance coverage as in-person appointments, and your copayment and deductible still apply.

Visitor Policy

While we recognize the value of family and friends’ support throughout lymphoma diagnosis and treatment, keeping patients and their loved ones safe requires temporary limits on the number of people allowed to accompany each patient to an appointment. Please note that our policies continue to evolve during these unprecedented times. Click here for our latest COVID-19 visitation guidelines.

Additional Resources

Patients are welcome to call the WCM/NYP COVID-19 hotline – (646) 697-4000 – with any questions. Please note that this hotline is available as a public service to provide information only, and not to diagnose, treat or render a medical opinion.

Patients may also consult the following resources.

Ways to Help

It can be easy to feel powerless in the midst of a global pandemic, but there are ways that you can help. In fact, the biggest impact that people – sick or healthy – can make in the fight against COVID-19 is simply to stay at home to curb the spread of disease and its potential to overwhelm the healthcare system.

Those willing and able to contribute to Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian’s response to COVID-19 can make a donation to support the purchasing of ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), and the physical and emotional wellbeing of healthcare workers on the frontlines of the outbreak.

A fundraiser was also created to provide nutritious, high-quality meals to the New York City doctors, nurses and ancillary staff leading the fight against COVID-19 as part of medical intensive care units.

Subcutaneous Rituximab: Coming Soon?

Paola Ghione, MD

Dr. Ghione is a visiting hematology fellow from Torino, Italy who is working with the Weill Cornell Lymphoma Program for six months.

Rituximab is a drug that is used to treat B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphomas. It is a type of immunotherapy called a monoclonal antibody, and it works by targeting CD20, a protein present on the surface of the B-cells.

insulin injectionIn the United States, rituximab is administered by intravenous (IV) infusion, often over several hours. In March 2014, a formulation of rituximab for subcutaneous injection (under the skin rather than directly into the vein) was approved by the European Medicines Agency, and Health Canada approved the subcutaneous formulation in September 2016. At my home institution – the University of Torino — we have been using subcutaneous rituximab routinely. Advantages for patients include the faster administration time, usually less than 10 minutes. Institutions may prefer subcutaneous rituximab because it is administered as a fixed dose, which can reduce the preparation time and waste.

The first study to compare the two formulations was conducted in Europe from 2009 to 2012 in 124 people receiving rituximab maintenance for follicular lymphoma. The purpose of this study was to identify a comparable dose and to compare safety. The second study, called “SABRINA” was conducted in Europe, Canada, and Thailand, with the participation of 127 people with previously untreated follicular lymphoma who were receiving chemotherapy plus rituximab. Patients responded equally to treatment with both formulations (intravenous versus subcutaneous), and no differences were found in terms of safety. In comparing the side effects, IV administration was linked to more gastrointestinal-based events (such as diarrhea and nausea), while skin reactions (usually redness at the injection site) were more common with subcutaneous rituximab.

In another large study, called “MABEASE,” 576 people with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma participated in a clinical trial in which they were randomized to receive CHOP chemotherapy with either subcutaneous or intravenous rituximab. Again, the efficacy of the two formulations was similar and the subcutaneous administration was associated with increased administration-related reactions (mainly rash).

Finally, a clinical trial called “PrefMab” enrolled more than 700 people with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and follicular lymphoma with the aim of evaluating patient satisfaction using both administration methods. One group of participants started with intravenous infusion and then switched to subcutaneous, and vice-versa for the second group. In general, patients preferred the subcutaneous formulation. Specifically, 80% of the patients preferred the subcutaneous formulation, 10% still preferred the intravenous one and 10% had no preference. This preference was largely due to the reduction of time spent in the hospital and the comfort of the administration.

In addition to efficacy, safety, and patient preference, the financial impact of the new formulation is worth considering. Two groups have conducted economic studies on this subject. The Roche study found that the subcutaneous formulation was associated with reduced costs due to less staff time (nurses, technicians and pharmacists), shorter time in the bed/chair in the infusion center, and a reduction in wasted drug and materials related to the infusion. The Italian study reported an overall saving of 6.057 euros ($6.464 USD) for each rituximab administration. The financial impact might differ in different healthcare systems.

Subcutaneous rituximab is not currently available in the United States, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) accepted a Biologics License Application in November 2016. This means that probably the formulation will be soon available in the U.S. market.

Monitoring Minimal Residual Disease in Lymphoma: The Italian Experience

Paola Ghione, MD
paola-ghione
Dr. Ghione is a visiting hematology fellow from Torino, Italy who is working with the Weill Cornell Lymphoma Program for six months.

Minimal residual disease (MRD) detection refers to a group of techniques used to find a very small amount of disease, normally undetectable with imaging or clinical exam. Usually, this detection is performed after treatment and, in many cases, is predictive of outcomes such as whether patients will relapse, and how quickly this might happen. Often, the reappearance of MRD can anticipate recurrence of lymphoma before it becomes clinically evident. In other hematologic disorders, such as acute leukemia and chronic myeloid leukemia, MRD is used in standard clinical practice to monitor disease status or to evaluate response to treatment. In the setting of lymphoma, measurement of MRD is still considered experimental, but a lot of research is taking place around the world to find the best way to perform it.

Our laboratory in Torino, Italy, run by Dr. Marco Ladetto and Dr. Simone Ferrero, leads many MRD projects for lymphoma and is part of the EuroMRD Network, an institution born in Europe to standardize MRD techniques. Currently, we look for tumor-specific DNA alterations in the blood before and after treatment using a technique called Allele-Specific Oligonucleotide (ASO)-PCR. Depending on how much tumor DNA is present in the blood, we can figure out the relative amount of tumor left in the body. Unfortunately, ASO-PCR requires an expert laboratory team, and the method is expensive and time-consuming, which makes it hard to use outside of specialized settings. In addition, it seems more reliable if performed directly on bone marrow aspirate (blood from the interior of the bone) than peripheral blood (coming from a normal vein), making it less attractive to clinicians and people with lymphoma.

New techniques that can speed the procedure and reduce the cost are being evaluated. For example, the droplet digital (dd)-PCR is interesting because it is faster and uses less material (i.e., requires less blood for the test). Another interesting method is Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), which allows the detection of several different DNA mutations at once. NGS analysis of cell-free circulating DNA(cfDNA) (the DNA present in circulating blood outside the cells) could give a lot information. Studying cfDNA from the blood could give us a more accurate picture of the lymphoma that in theory could be even better than studying DNA derived from an open biopsy at one site of disease. This is also sometimes referred to as a liquid biopsy. The reason it might be better is that the circulating cfDNA could show us mutations coming from all the sites where the tumor is actively growing, not only the one site from which the open biopsy is taken.

In Italy, although MRD is not yet available in routine clinical practice for treating lymphoma, it is being tested in some innovative clinical trials to guide treatment decisions. In some studies MRD negativity at the end of treatment is the primary goal, while in others reappearance of MRD prompts a preemptive approach. As an example, if MRD reappears when the person is off therapy, we can give a short re-treatment in order to avoid clinical relapse. In one of our clinical trials, evaluation of MRD has been used to rule out the presence of lymphoma in the cells collected prior to autologous stem cell transplantation.

Measurement of MRD has a lot of potential uses, and experience from other diseases proves that it can be practice changing. The challenges provided by more than 50 different lymphoma subtypes as well as the rapid evolution of new laboratory techniques have delayed the adoption of a universal test for MRD. In the near future, however, we expect to see MRD analysis in standard clinical practice everywhere.