Intravesical BCG in bladder cancer induces innate immune responses against SARS-CoV-2

Front Immunol. 2023 Jul 13:14:1202157. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2023.1202157. eCollection 2023.


BCG is the most efficient adjuvant therapy for high-risk, non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer (NMIBC). Both innate and adaptive immune responses have been implicated in BCG-mediated effects. BCG vaccination can boost innate immune responses via trained immunity (TI), resulting in an increased resistance to respiratory viral infections. Here we evaluated for the first time whether intravesical application of BCG triggers increased immunity against SARS-CoV-2 in patients with high-risk NMIBC. Serum and peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) from heparinized whole blood samples of 11 unvaccinated SARS-CoV-2-naïve high-risk NMIBC patients were collected at baseline and during BCG treatment in a pre-COVID-19 era. To examine B-cell or T cell-dependent adaptive immunity against SARS-CoV-2, sera were tested for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing antibodies. Using a SARS-CoV-2 peptide pool, virus-specific T cells were quantified via IFNγ ELISpot assays. To analyze innate immune responses, mRNA and protein expression levels of pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines were measured after a 24-hour stimulation of PBMCs with either BCG or SARS-CoV-2 wildtype. ATAC- sequencing was performed to identify a potential epigenetic reprogramming in immune cells. We neither identified SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing antibodies nor SARS-CoV-2- reactive T cells, indicating that intravesical BCG did not induce adaptive immunity against SARS-CoV-2. However, a significant increase in mRNA as well as protein expression of IL-1β, IL-6 and TNFα, which are key cytokines of trained immunity, could be observed after at least four intravesical BCG instillations. Genomic regions in the proximity of TI genes (TLR2, IGF1R, AKT1, MTOR, MAPK14, HSP90AA1) were more accessible during BCG compared to baseline. Although intravesical BCG did not induce adaptive immune responses, repetitive intravesical instillations of BCG induced circulating innate immune cells that produce TI cytokines also in response to SARS-CoV-2.

Keywords: BCG; COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; bladder cancer; trained immunity; viral infections.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • BCG Vaccine
  • COVID-19*
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Urinary Bladder Neoplasms*


  • BCG Vaccine
  • Cytokines

Grants and funding

This work was supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF; P34070-B13 to WP). JK receives DOC Fellowship from the Austrian Academy of Sciences.