Plasma: The cutting edge of COVID-19 research

Spectrum Health joined the effort to find a treatment when COVID-19 first came to Grand Rapids.
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Plasma, once donated, is used on COVID-19 patients to provide them with the antibodies they need to fight the virus. Photo by Bryan Esler

Editor’s Note: This is part three of a four-part series on individuals and organizations stepping up to make a difference in Grand Rapids. Read the introduction to the series here.

The COVID-19 pandemic is giving plasma a moment, with Spectrum Health serving as one of the leaders in plasma research. This fluid that carries blood components — white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets — throughout the body also carries a key ingredient for fighting a disease that has no vaccine: antibodies.

“This is probably the biggest use of plasma ever,” said Dr. Gordana Simeunovic, infectious disease specialist and head of the plasma donation program at Spectrum Health. She is leading all COVID-19-related research at Spectrum Health.

Without a vaccine for COVID-19, doctors began looking for other ways to fight the illness. Antibodies are created when a person has COVID-19 and are then present in plasma. That plasma, once donated, is used on COVID-19 patients to provide them with the antibodies they need to fight the virus.

“We have transfused enough patients to learn that plasma is actually working. There is a 57% reduction in mortality for those with COVID who are treated with plasma,” said Simeunovic, who added that Spectrum Health is part of a larger Mayo Clinic plasma study. “This is a very encouraging result.”

Plasma, a light yellow liquid, is donated just like blood is. Each plasma donation can help four people, and people can donate plasma more often than blood. Its history is long, used to help treat polio, mumps, Spanish flu, swine flu and even Ebola. Antibodies in plasma are used to help create vaccines, which help eliminate or curb many once-prevalent illnesses. Once a vaccine is developed, plasma as a treatment fades to the background until another unknown virus arises.

“We are currently using plasma only for COVID because we have other, better medications for many other diseases,” Simeunovic said. “When we have a vaccine for COVID, plasma will go back to the background.”

Facts About Plasma

• Plasma is the largest component of blood, about 55%, and also contains water, salt and enzymes.
• Plasma carries proteins, hormones and nutrients to different cells in
the body. It also helps keep your blood pressure in
a healthy range.
• Plasma can be used in burn, shock, cancer, transplant and hemophilia treatments.
• Plasma donations involve blood drawn and sent through a high-tech machine that collects the plasma; red blood cells, platelets and saline are returned to the donor.
• Routine plasma donation takes about an hour.
• Check out several plasma donation sites around Grand Rapids that pay for donations, including BioLife Plasma Services. These donations, however, aren’t guaranteed to be used locally.

It is currently undergoing rigorous testing around the country, with Spectrum’s interdisciplinary team in the Infectious Diseases department spearheading local efforts. In the beginning, the team had trouble getting enough plasma, but supplies have grown as more people donate.

Derek Vander Horst, a clinical pharmacy specialist in adult infectious diseases at Spectrum, sees plasma from both sides of the issue. He was the fourth documented case of COVID-19 in Kent County. He had what he calls “a benign course,” a cough and fever for several days and was quarantined for two weeks. He donates his antibody-laced plasma as well as researches its uses. So far he has donated 25 units, about four units per donation.

“When I walk in to donate, I’m treated like royalty,” he said. “If you’ve had COVID, donating plasma is really valuable. We use it to protect and save lives. It can go a long way to helping our local community.”

“Our demand for plasma today isn’t high, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be high in a week or two,” said Simeunovic. “We are expecting more need in the fall and winter. We are ready and hoping for the best, but we are ready for the worst. Spectrum is ready to handle whatever happens and is prepared for a surge.”

Vander Horst and Simeunovic urge former COVID-19 patients to donate plasma at Versiti Blood Center of Michigan, which has donation centers in Grand Rapids and Grandville as well as around the state (versiti.org). Donations through Versiti stay local, they said, dispersed to area hospitals as needed.

“We want people to know how helpful plasma is, and to trust it in terms of receiving and donating plasma,” Simeunovic said. “This can really change history.”

For Vander Horst, it’s all about community. “The work we do is so important to serve our community,” he said. “Plasma gives patients a passive immune system before they develop it themselves; it gives them the antibodies right away. We’re combatting a common enemy in COVID-19.”

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