First in Iowa: UI Health Care officially starts new convalescent plasma clinical trial

Staff at the DeGowin Blood Center collect plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19
Staff at the DeGowin Blood Center collect plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19

Plasma from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 is used in treatments for those who may benefit from its antibodies

University of Iowa Health Care researchers have started a new clinical trial to determine if plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients can help treat patients currently hospitalized with the disease.

The key to this “convalescent plasma” approach are the antibodies produced in people when they fight off COVID-19. These so-called neutralizing antibodies can be collected in plasma donations from the recovered patients and transfused into hospitalized patients with the goal of helping those patients fight the disease more effectively.

The study has started taking plasma donations and, so far, 11 recovered patients have donated plasma and five patients have received the plasma transfusions as part of their care for COVID-19. 

“Convalescent plasma has previously been used to mitigate or prevent infection in other viral diseases,” say Brooks Jackson, MD, MBA, University of Iowa vice president for medical affairs and the Tyrone D. Artz Dean at the UI Carver College of Medicine, and an expert in transfusion medicine. “Our goal is to provide a treatment option, beyond the standard supportive care, for every one of our hospitalized patients with COVID-19.”

The new UI study is enrolling plasma donors who have recovered from COVID-19 and are willing to donate their plasma for transfusion of patients with severe COVID-19. These patients are hospitalized patients with a positive diagnosis of COVID-19 who provide consent to receive a plasma infusion and to allow the study teams to follow their clinical progress.

The donors are people who have recovered from a positive diagnosis of COVID-19 and who have been symptom-free for two weeks and have tested negative for the virus. People who have been asymptomatic for 28 days would also be eligible without needing a negative test. In addition, these donors go through the same screening process that is used for all donors of blood, platelets, or plasma.

Once enrolled, participants donate their plasma at the DeGowin Blood Center at UI Hospitals & Clinics. The process involves a plasmapheresis machine that takes blood from the donor, separates the plasma, which contains the antibodies, and returns the red blood cells back into the donor. The donation process takes about 90 minutes.  Individuals interested in more information about donation should contact PathologyCP@healthcare.uiowa.edu, or call 1-319-678-7922

“Many of our patients who have recovered are already emailing us and asking how they can donate,” Jackson says. “We will also offer antibody testing for people who think they had COVID-19 based on their symptoms, but who didn’t receive a COVID-19 test, to see if they would be eligible to donate plasma.”

Jackson notes that they are hoping to enroll as many donors as they can, because if the team collects more plasma than is needed for patients at UI Hospitals & Clinics, it might be possible to provide it to other hospitals to use with their patients.

The UI study is one of a growing number of clinical trials for convalescent plasma therapy for COVID-19 that are underway at leading medical institutions.

Jackson credits Michael Knudson, MD, PhD, the co-director of the DeGowin Blood Center, and a professor of pathology, and Patricia Winokur, MD, executive dean of the UI Carver College of Medicine and a professor of internal medicine – infectious diseases, for leading the two parts of the UI trial and getting the effort up and running so quickly.

“We are fortunate to have a world-class team of clinical researchers, transfusion specialists, pulmonologists, intensive care experts, and hospitalists,” he adds. “Their expertise and ability to work together is what allows us to bring these new treatment options to our patients.”

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