New research shows patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) produced a strong antibody response to COVID-19 vaccination.

“At eight weeks, following completion of a two-dose mRNA vaccine series, 99% of patients had detectable antibodies from the vaccine irrespective of whether or not they were receiving immunocompromising therapies,” said Gil Melmed, MD, co-principal investigator of the study and director of Inflammatory Bowel Disease Clinical Research at Cedars-Sinai.

“This finding contrasts with the different immune-modifying medications taken by transplant recipients to prevent organ rejection, or cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, who have much lower rates of antibody response after COVID-19 mRNA vaccination and are at risk of not being protected as a result,” said Melmed, the lead author of the study.

An abnormal response to an infection or invading pathogen can sometimes cause the immune system to attack a person’s organs, producing harmful levels of inflammation. IBD refers to a class of disorders that result in chronic, and often destructive, inflammation of the digestive tract. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are the two forms of IBD.

Researchers also found that at a certain point after the second vaccine dose, the antibody response of the IBD patients in the study differed and was associated with the kind of immunosuppressive medications they were taking.

“After eight weeks, we noted lower antibody levels in patients receiving anti-TNF(tumor necrosis factor) therapies or corticosteroids compared to patients treated with the immune-response blocking drugs anti-tegrin,anti-IL12/23,” said Dermot McGovern, MD, PhD, co-principal investigator of the study and director of Translational Research in the Inflammatory Bowel and Immunobiology Research Institute at Cedars-Sinai.

“However, these findings should still reassure IBD patients─and the millions of people who use these types of immunosuppressive medications─that the immediate response to mRNA vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is good and on par with IBD patients who are not taking any drug therapies. Even so, patients receiving anti-TNF therapy or corticosteroids may be the ones most likely to benefit from a third dose of the vaccine,” said McGovern, the Joshua L. and Lisa Z. Greer Chair in Inflammatory Bowel Disease Genetics.

Researchers also noted the antibody response to vaccination in the IBD patients studied was similar to the response in non-immunosuppressed patients.

“They were well within the ‘positive’ range, meaning those patients on immunosuppressing medications also have a substantial amount of circulating antibody still present at the two-month mark. There is also data showing a correlation between that eight-week antibody level in vaccinated people and effective immunity in the community at large,” said study co-author Susan Cheng, MD, director of Public Health Research and the Erika J. Glazer Chair in Women’s Cardiovascular Health and Population Science at Cedars-Sinai. 

Study investigators are now looking into other aspects of vaccine response in IBD patients that more directly correlates with protection from infection, like T-cell functional and neutralizing antibody responses.

“The results of our first look at COVID-19 vaccination response should be reassuring to our immunosuppressed patients with IBD,” said Melmed.