ICMR has given a nod to Kerala to conduct clinical trials using plasma therapy
As the number of cases in India continues to rise, with the active cases having breached the 10,000-mark, and death toll staring at 500, doctors and scientists are fiercely looking for a cure – drugs, vaccines and other treatments that could help subside symptoms of COVID-19.
One such therapy is the Convalescent Plasma Therapy. Chances of treating coronavirus patients with plasma therapy are looking up, with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) hoping to begin clinical trials within the next two weeks.
Several states, including Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Delhi have sought permission from the Centre to conduct plasma therapy to treat coronavirus patients.
In fact, in Delhi, a 50-year-old man, who had developed severe symptoms for COVID-19, was administered this therapy.
His doctor in Max Healthcare, Dr Sandeep Budhiraja, told The Times of India that he has shown significant improvement in need for mechanical ventilation after the plasma therapy.
This might be the first case of clinical use of this therapy. But what is plasma therapy; let’s find out:
What is plasma therapy?
The human blood is primarily made up of four parts – red blood cells; white blood cells; platelets and plasma, which is the liquid part of the blood. Plasma helps the blood clot when needed and supports immunity.
When a person contracts an infection, COVID-19 in this case, their body produces antibodies to attack the virus. These antibodies are secreted by immune cells, called B lymphocytes, found in the plasma. If the infected person can produce sufficient antibodies, he can recover from the disease caused by the virus (or any other pathogen).
Once a person has recovered, the antibodies continue to stay in the blood, waiting to fight the virus should it return.
In plasma therapy, the plasma of a person, who has recovered from COVID-19, and thus has sufficient antibodies to fight the disease, is drawn and transferred to people who have freshly contracted the disease.
Is it a new treatment?
No, it is a fairly old treatment and dates back to 1890, when it was first discovered by German physiologist Emil von Behring. He was awarded the first ever Nobel Prize for medicine for this discovery.
More recently, plasma therapy has been used in the treatment of diseases like SARS in 2003, which was also caused by a coronavirus, as well as MERS in 2012.
How does it work?
Blood is drawn from a person who has recovered from COVID-19 infection, the serum is separated and tested for antibodies that will kill the virus.
If the plasma is rich in antibodies, it is administered to the COVID-19 patient showing severe symptoms.
Plasma donation is similar to blood donation; except in the former, a small device separates plasma and simultaneously returns the red blood cells to the donor. Hence, the donor does not have to wait for his/her body to replenish red blood cells, and donations can be made more frequently.
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How effective is plasma therapy?
Plasma therapy has proved beneficial in several coronavirus patients in China, though the sample size was small.
Recently, three Indian-American patients, who were critically ill, showed signs of recovery when they were transfused with the blood plasma of recovered patients.
Besides, ICMR and DGCI (Drug Controller General of India) are initiating clinical trials. In fact, ICMR has given a nod to Kerala to conduct clinical trials using plasma therapy.
Dr Budhiraja from Max Hospitals in Delhi is a part of that clinical trial. When he administered plasma therapy to his patient, he observed, “Before this therapy was administered, this patient was requiring full ventilator support. But now, the need has been reduced to half, and we hope to wean him off the machine in one to two days.”
The US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) also encouraged people who have fully recovered from COVID-19 to donate plasma, retracting from their earlier statement that the therapy is not entirely safe and should only be used for investigative work.
How many patients can be treated from the plasma of one donor?
The plasma drawn from one recovered person can help two people. According to scientists, a patient needs only one transfusion to get enough antibodies to fight the virus.
A COVID-19 patient will be eligible for donating plasma for this therapy at least two weeks after he/she has tested negative for the novel coronavirus. It is believed that by this time, the patient’s antibodies are the right amount.
Even though plasma therapy renders only temporary passive immunisation to the sick and isn’t as effective as a vaccine, which could provide lifelong immunity against a pathogen, it still is a beacon of hope in such grim times.