An experimental therapy to help patients recover from COVID-19 by transfusing plasma from virus survivors into critically ill patients is being investigated by physicians at UTHealth for use at Memorial Hermann. They are asking for anyone in the Greater Houston area who has recovered from COVID-19 and been symptom-free for at least two weeks to fill out an online form to determine if they qualify to donate plasma and potentially save lives.
Plasma, which is the component of blood that carries cells and proteins throughout the body, can be full of antibodies among those who have recovered from COVID-19 infection. The antibody-rich plasma can be transfused to sick persons to help them overcome the COVID-19 illness.
“To fight an infection, you need antibodies to track down and kill the virus,” said Henry Wang, MD, MS, professor and executive vice chair of research in the Department of Emergency Medicine with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “People who are critically ill from the COVID-19 virus often don’t have the antibodies needed to fight the virus. Using this strategy called ‘convalescent plasma,’ we transfuse the antibodies from surviving victims in hopes that it will attack the virus and boost recovery.”
While the therapy hasn’t been officially tested in randomized clinical trials, Wang says convalescent blood plasma has been successfully used in other infection outbreaks dating back to more than 100 years ago, including the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, measles, SARS, and Ebola.
UTHealth and Memorial Hermann have joined the Convalescent Plasma Expanded Access Program led by the Mayo Clinic. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration designated the program for academic medical centers across the country to allow access to the investigational therapy because there are no other viable treatment options for COVID-19.
Doctors are working to build up the supply of plasma from COVID-19 survivors, and need donations to bolster the pipeline.
“For the donor, the process of donating plasma is the same as donating blood. Different machines are used to extract the plasma, but the process is the same and we take about the same amount of blood – 200 mL, or about a cup,” said Wang, who is also an attending physician at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center.
Not everyone will qualify to donate and not all viable plasma will be a match for the patients who need it, so it’s important to receive donations from as many people as possible.
“The plasma goes through a meticulous process to make sure it contains the right antibodies and is safe to be transfused. We need the largest donor pool possible to ensure we can have a match for every patient who needs it. This is one way for the community to work together to combat COVID-19,” Wang said.
UTHealth and Memorial Hermann are partnering with Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center to screen and collect plasma. Anyone interested can fill out an online form, and if qualifications are met, they’ll be asked to come to the Texas Medical Center to provide a blood sample for testing.
“This is an incredible opportunity for survivors to give back to the community, help the Greater Houston area combat COVID-19, and save lives,” Wang said.
To qualify, you must:
- Be at least 18 years of age
- Be in overall good health, without any cold or flu symptoms
- Have had a positive COVID-19 diagnosis documented by a laboratory test
- Be fully recovered from COVID-19, with no symptoms for at least 14 days before the donation
Other faculty from McGovern Medical School at UTHealth who are part of the convalescent plasma program include Bela Patel, MD, vice dean of healthcare quality and division director for critical care medicine, who is the principal investigator of the UTHealth program site, and Luis Ostrosky, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology and vice chair of healthcare quality. At Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, Ostrosky is the medical director for epidemiology and Patel is the executive medical director of critical care.