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URMC to study blood plasma as COVID-19 therapy

Jul 23, 2020

Credit CITY Newspaper/File photo

The University of Rochester Medical Center is joining two clinical trials exploring the treatment potential of plasma transfusions from people who have recovered from COVID-19 to patients currently battling the virus.

In the early months of the global pandemic, health researchers identified convalescent plasma transfusions as promising potential treatment for COVID-19.

The hope among researchers is that they can use the plasma, which contains antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, to prevent infection in healthy people and boost the immune response in patients with active, mild infections.

"If successful, this use of convalescent plasma will become part of the standar of care across the country, subject to the availability of plasma," said Martin Zand, URMC's senior associate dean for clinical research. Zand will lead URMC's research, which is part of national trials led by Johns Hopkins University.

There is currently a shortage of blood donations, including plasma, Zand said, which would make it more difficult for people to access this kind of treatment. He encouraged anyone eligible to donate.

“The Red Cross does test all blood for antibodies for COVID, and they will provide you with that test result,” he said.

If the trial is successful, it would provide medical workers with another tool for treating COVID-19. According to a Mayo Clinic page on convalescent plasma, some patients don’t respond well to other drugs or treatments. Those same patients often develop severe symptoms, including acute respiratory distress syndrome, which often requires the use of a respirator.

According to URMC officials, convalescent plasma therapy has been used since the late 1800’s to treat many infections. Previous uncontrolled trials suggested a benefit to using convalescent plasma transfusions to treat diseases caused by other coronavirus strains, including SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS. The approach does carry some risk, since blood transfusions can cause side effects from fevers or rashes to severe allergic reactions or lung injuries, the medical center cautioned.

URMC will enroll 28 local volunteers for the study. It’s seeking nine volunteers who are healthy but at high risk of infection, such as frontline healthcare workers; and 18 patients with mild COVID-19 infections. Half of the group will receive infusions of convalescent plasma while the rest will receive a placebo infusion.

Anyone interested in volunteering for the trial can call (585) 273-1926 or e-mail Susanne_Heininger@URMC.Rochester.edu.

Researchers will also need convalescent plasma for the study. People who have recently recovered from COVID-19 can sign up to donate plasma through the American Red Cross.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.

Noelle E. C. Evans, a reporter for CITY's media partner WXXI News, contributed to this story. She can be reached at nevans@wxxi.org.