Plasma may help COVID-19 patients, Austin doctors say as they join national study—it definitely boosts morale
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Dr. MaryAnn Tran, an infectious disease specialist and regional section chief for Baylor Scott & White, just enrolled some of her COVID-19 patients in a treatment study.
With her approval, they will receive convalescent plasma therapy—or plasma infusions from donors who have recovered from COVID-19—as part of a national study overseen by the Mayo Clinic and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"Hopefully we'll get some more promising data and so we'll get better at knowing who the patients are who could benefit the most from it," Dr. Tran said.
Convalescent plasma therapy uses donations from recovered patients—or those who have convalesced—in the hopes that their antibodies aid those in need of treatment. Since We Are Blood began collecting convalescent plasma donations in mid-March, 91 COVID-19 patients have received treatment.
The wait time for infusions has dropped to less than 24 hours as the local nonprofit has shifted to operating at a surplus. Initially, the organization only accepted plasma from eligible donors who had tested positive for COVID-19, but now it is allowing people who have received positive antibody test results to donate, too. One donation can be used to treat multiple patients.
"For me, I didn't start enrolling patients until I heard from We Are Blood that there was ample supply," Dr. Tran said.
The expanded use of convalescent plasma therapy has improved morale for physicians and patients alike.
"It gives us a potential weapon to offer to patients where we otherwise don't have a lot of good options, outside of excellent support and care they're going to get in the hospital," Dr. Jeff Yorio, a hematologist-oncologist at Ascension Seton and Texas Oncology's Austin Central location. "It kind of gives us a chance to feel like we're actively doing something."
Convalescent plasma therapy has been used for more than a century to treat diseases such as the Spanish flu, diphtheria and Ebola, with varying levels of success. Despite this precedent, questions remain.
"There have been some patients where I have felt that their response was more rapid than I might otherwise expect, and I wonder if that's due to the convalescent plasma," said Dr. Matthew Robinson, an infectious disease physician at St. David's South Austin Medical Center. "But we have no way of knowing for sure."
While scientists know that patients exposed to the coronavirus develop antibodies, it is still unclear what level of immunity those antibodies confer—or how long they may last.
As the national study continues, Dr. Robinson said he is excited to learn more about potential uses of convalescent plasma therapy, such as to treat patients with symptoms of COVID-19 who do not require hospitalization in an effort to prevent the disease from progressing, or as a prophylactic for health care workers to help them avoid contracting the disease altogether.
Convalescent plasma therapy also provides a chance for those who have recovered from COVID-19 to help others.
Dr. Tran, Dr. Yorio and Dr. Robinson each said their patients are not only interested in receiving the treatment—but also in becoming donors themselves when it is safe for them to do so.
"People can contribute and feel like, 'I'm doing my part,'" Dr. Robinson said. "It's just another aspect of this—patients helping patients."
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