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April 29, 2020

UMass Memorial to treat more coronavirus patients with plasma

Photo | Grant Welker UMass Memorial Medical Center's University Campus in Worcester

UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester has expanded the number of COVID-19 patients being treated with the blood plasma of someone who recovered from coronavirus.

The hospital has used so-called convalescent plasma to treat at least three patients, including one who was treated with the plasma from UMass Memorial's chief of colorectal surgery, Dr. Justin Maykel. Dr. Jonathan Gerber, the medical director of the UMass Memorial Cancer Center, is leading the program in partnership with the American Red Cross.

Plasma treatment has potential but also limitations, said Dr. Jonathan Abraham, a professor at Harvard Medical School's Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology.

Donors must first be screened for infections passed through blood, including HIV and hepatitis, Abraham said. Blood type must also match between donor and recipient. A recipient who recovers also isn't likely to be a candidate to then be a donor themselves, he said.

Widespread use of plasma treatment is limited by a labor-intensive process including testing that first must take place to see how active a potential donor's plasma is in fighting the virus, Abraham said. Comparing it to potential pharmaceutical treatments, he said, it isn't easily scalable to help broad numbers of people, though that should change as more people recover from the virus.

Still, plasma is being explored by hospitals across the country as a potential solution to help coronavirus patients, Abraham said.

He compared the donor process as similar to having blood drawn, though longer. Donors must have been found positive for the virus, and then symptom-free for at least 28 days.

"This is the kind of the approach that's always entertained the setting of outbreaks," including Ebola, he said. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has noted uses with other respiratory outbreaks, including SARS, MERS and H1N1.

Plasma in a recovered coronavirus patient contains antibodies that help the immune system to fight the virus, according to the FDA. The FDA considers plasma an investigational treatment for the virus.

UMass Memorial said April 20 it received FDA approval to use convalescent plasma on coronavirus patients. The FDA has otherwise not formally approved its use.

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