UPMC doctors have started treating covid-19 patients with blood plasma from survivors – a technique not proven for coronavirus but successfully used to fight off outbreaks of measles and influenza.
“The patients and their families of infected individuals who are in ICUs are really desperate for a therapy and that’s why we are focused on trying to see if there’s an impact,” said Dr. John McDyer, director of lung transplant research at UPMC.
If successful, the treatment could provide relief at a time when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no approved therapies to effectively treat covid-19. The illness has killed more than 1,200 people in Pennsylvania and sickened more than 33,000.
“We have to be ready here in Pittsburgh for anything. We really don’t know what turn this pandemic is going to take,” said McDyer, the project’s lead investigator.
The first patient was treated Monday and other patients could begin treatment this week, McDyer said. The treatment, called convalescent plasma, contains antibodies from a previously infected person that are transfused to sick patients.
Joel Le Gall of Forest Hills was the first person who recovered from covid-19 to donate plasma for the trial. Le Gall said he became sick after returning from a trip to southern France in early March.
“If my plasma can help someone get better, that’s good,” said Le Gall, 69, a landscape architect who completed his donation Saturday. “It’s definitely worth the try until we have a vaccine.”
Le Gall said his symptoms included headaches, lack of smell and a fever that reached 104 degrees. His cough became so bad, he went through three bottles of cough syrup. He contacted his UPMC doctor about getting tested for coronavirus.
“It really weakens you,” said Le Gall, who never had to be hospitalized. “I did a lot of sleeping for three weeks.”
His doctor later told him about the convalescent plasma trial. Le Gall said the donation process, which is more complicated than blood donation, took about two hours and was not painful.
But recruiting donors can be a tough and labor-intensive task for doctors at UPMC and Allegheny Health Network, the two largest health systems in Western Pennsylvania.
Both health systems are participating in a national trial to treat covid-19 patients in partnership with Vitalant, which manages more than 125 blood donation centers nationwide. McDyer said the UPMC trial is focused on hospitalized patients.
McDyer said the donor process is “extraordinarily intensive” because patients have to be thoroughly screened to make sure they are cleared of the infection for at least three weeks and have covid antibodies to fight the disease.
“It’s a more difficult therapy to employ than a drug that may be sitting in a pharmacy somewhere,” he said.
Researchers hope to learn whether giving convalescent plasma is more effective early on during the disease or if it can be used when patients are sicker. Results of an uncontrolled study in China published in the JAMA medical journal showed some severely ill patients on ventilators improved after receiving convalescent plasma. McDyer said the findings are promising but would have to be proven by traditional controlled studies. He said the therapy is well tolerated and has been used to treat diseases such as the H1N1 virus.
The biggest hurdle, McDyer said, is to build up plasma inventory.
Potential plasma donors can contact [email protected] or call 412-647-9779.
Luis Fábregas is editor of the Tribune-Review’s Alle-Kiski Valley content. Follow him on Twitter @LuisTrib.
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